GANGNEUNG, South Korea — From their seats at the front of Section 212, Albert and Eliza Lee watched intently Monday night in the Kwandong Hockey Centre as a referee skated to center ice. There was their daughter, a foot away, rocking back and forth on skates, waiting for the faceoff in the Olympics.
Their daughter. On skates. In the Olympics.
A dozen years ago, those words were not in the realm of possibility. Never mind that Grace Lee — a high school student from Colorado who turned 18 last month — was handling that faceoff for the Korean hockey team. “She’s as American of a girl as they come,” said Gordon Stafford, her high school coach. But we’ll get to that later, because that might be the least shocking part for the Lees.
Before Grace Lee was born, doctors told her parents that she would have clubfoot, a congenital birth defect that twists the feet out of position. She underwent surgeries and treatments. She wore heavy casts on her legs and special shoes that were attached by a metal bar, intended to reposition her feet.
“Her feet pointed inward, and the doctors said it was just too severe,” Eliza Lee said.
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Because of the treatment, she was slow to crawl and slow to walk. After a final surgery, when Lee was around 6, the doctor said the family’s best bet was to focus on strengthening her legs and ankles; her legs had barely 60 percent of normal muscle mass, and walking was awkward and uncomfortable.
So the Lees turned to sports — skiing first, then figure skating.
“She just hated it,” Eliza Lee said. “She would get on the ice and grab her ankles, saying it hurts, and start to cry. So we tried ice hockey skates, and she just took off. That was it. She was hooked.”
Lee felt comfortable — her feet, ankles and legs supported — and, best of all, she could glide around. On the ice, she felt like everyone else. The family lives in Superior, Colo., a small town outside of Boulder, and they signed her up for the local hockey leagues.
“As a sport, hockey gave her strength in her legs, but at the same time, it gives her more confidence,” Albert Lee said. “She’s out there skating and scoring, working with the team. It’s helped her in many ways.”
Lee played against boys because that was the only option and, as she got better, her ambitions grew. The family began exploring options and discovered a small private school in Minnesota called Shattuck-St. Mary’s that has blossomed into a hockey factory.
One graduate is Sarah Murray, who was tapped by South Korea as coach of its national women’s team after it was awarded the 2018 Winter Olympics. Murray started making annual pilgrimages to the United States with her team, holding a month-long training camp at her alma mater in Faribault, Minn., each January, often practicing and scrimmaging with the high school team.
On one of those trips, she took notice of Lee, whose potential was obvious. She’s fast and has a sixth sense for the net. Despite her condition, she skates as well as most others on the ice. “She’s a more natural skater than she is a walker,” Stafford said. “It’s kind of amazing.”
Lee’s father, a computer engineer, was born in Colorado but raised in South Korea, and her mother, a pharmacist, was born in South Korea but raised in Colorado. Murray offered Lee a spot on the South Korean national team. “Grace was so excited,” Albert Lee said. “She felt this was an opportunity she couldn’t miss.”
Only a junior, Lee had already accepted an offer to play for Yale but made arrangements to postpone. Shattuck allowed her to essentially take a sabbatical and push back graduation. After finishing her junior year in June, she left for Seoul, where she lived and trained full time for the PyeongChang Games.
While she grew up with her parents speaking Korean around their home, Lee understands the language better than she speaks it. By moving to Seoul at 17, she suddenly found herself immersed in Korean culture.
She’s enjoying herself, but now that Olympic competition has started, there are frustrations, too.
Officially, she is listed on the roster as Jingyu Lee — her middle name. She’s one of at least three Americans and three Canadians on the Korean team, which has received international attention because it also features players from North Korea.
In Monday night’s game, Sweden, a medal contender, scored four goals in the first period and won, 8-0. Korea dropped its tournament opener by the same score two days earlier to Switzerland.
After the game, Lee was in tears as she came off the ice. The average age of the Korean team is only 22, and Lee is among the youngest players. The crowds have been raucous and supportive, which makes the results all the tougher to swallow.
“She’s one of our best. But the maturity piece is a big piece for her, as it is with some of our other players,” Murray said. “It’s mentally and emotionally draining for them because they’ve never been in such a high-pressure situation.”
When the Games are over, Lee will return to the United States and resume her life as a high school student bound for an Ivy League school. She could try to remain tied to the South Korean team or, if she’s willing to sit out international competition for three years, International Olympic Committee rules would allow her to go back in the pool for USA Hockey. She could someday play for a second country in the Winter Olympics.
At this point, as far as she has come already, nothing would surprise the Lees.
“Everything is kind of new to us,” Albert Lee said. “But she’s enjoying it, and so are we. So we’ll just see where it goes from here.”