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(LEAD) (Olympics) Hockey players from two Koreas burst into tears after final match

16:54 February 20, 2018

(ATTN: ADDS more comments in paras 15-18, photo)
By Kang Yoon-seung

GANGNEUNG, South Korea, Feb. 20 (Yonhap) -- The joint women's ice hockey team of the two Koreas completed its matches at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics by losing against Sweden in the seventh-place classification event on Tuesday, with players bursting into tears as their farewell approached closer.

South Korea and North Korea established a joint team for women's hockey at the 2018 Winter Games, with Pyongyang sending 12 players to join the South's 23-member team. It marked the first time the two had forged a joint team at any Olympics.

Despite political controversies over the joint team of the two Koreas -- the two halves of a peninsula that has been divided since 1945 -- the players nevertheless played as one throughout the Winter Games. Korea lost all five games, but the team still became a symbol of peace between the two Koreas and paved the way for potential reconciliation.

Members of the joint women's ice hockey team of the two Koreas congratulate each other in their match with Sweden at Kwandong Hockey Centre, located in Gangneung, around 240 kilometers east of Seoul, on Feb. 20, 2018. (Yonhap)

Spectators at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung also cheered for the joint team on Tuesday by shouting "We are one!" and waving unification flags depicting the Korean Peninsula. North Korean officials were also seen at the arena as they joined the crowd waving during the match.

Shortly after the game ended, members of the joint team hugged and congratulated each other for making it through the Winter Games together.

Hwang Chung-gum of North Korea ran towards the South's Choi Ji-yeon for a big hug. The team members then formed a circle at the middle of the arena and shouted, "Team Korea," announcing the dismissal of the joint women's hockey team.

South Korean athletes said they were going to miss their North Korean teammates, since it may take a long time before they meet each other again.

"We lost, but we did our best," Lee Yeon-jeong told reporters tearfully at the mixed zone. "It is too bad that the Olympics already ended. But since this is not the end -- we will continue to make efforts.

"I took photos of, and printed them for some North Korean teammates," Lee added, saying she wished to share her photos with all of them.

"I remember having conversations with North Korean teammates in the locker room," Han Soo-jin said and added there weren't many opportunities to hang out beyond the ice. "We felt very awkward and tense with each other, but now there are no such things."

Kim Hyang-mi of North Korea also said she had "good" teamwork with her South Korean teammates.

Members of the joint women's hockey team of two Koreas form a circle after their match with Sweden at Kwandong Hockey Centre, located in Gangneung, around 240 kilometers east of Seoul, on Feb. 20, 2018.

The athletes said forging a joint team was considered burdensome at first, but they were also able to gain good experience through the project.

"Probably one of the most difficult things about having the unified team didn't have anything to do with actual players or with training, but had a lot to do with the fact that it just put a lot of attention on us, not just from South Korea, but from the world," Randi Heesoo Griffin said.

"Especially having a young team, none of us were at Olympics before, half of our players were 16, 17, or 18 years old, and to have that feeling of having the entire world watching you play ... The nerves were just crazy," she added.

Griffin said it may be difficult to stay in touch with the North Korean players because "none of them have Facebooks," but the friendships they made will last a long time.

"If we end up playing each other again, South Korea versus North Korea, there will definitely be some smiles," she said. "There were definitely some bonds that were formed."

Marissa Brandt, a Korean-born adoptee from the United States, said she had mixed emotions about the game -- unhappy with the loss, but delighted that the team "made history in our own way."

"I hope we presented ourselves well and made our country proud," she said. "It was bigger than hockey."

Head coach Sarah Murray, who also shed tears, lauded the unified team for its performances during the Winter Games.

"I couldn't have ever imagined the team being this competitive in the Olympics. I was just so proud of them, just watching them skate around and salute the fans," Murray said. "They're an amazing group."

Players of the joint Korean women's hockey team console each other after a 6-1 loss to Sweden in the seventh-place match in the women's hockey tournament at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 20, 2018. (Yonhap)

colin@yna.co.kr
(END)

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