PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — A South Korean hockey forward named Kang Tae-san will skate out onto the ice at the PyeongChang Olympics, wearing the same uniform as his teammates and emanating the same steely focus. But he will stand out from most of the others because Kang is a 6-foot-3, blue-eyed Colorado native more commonly known as Mike Testwuide.
Testwuide, 31, took South Korean citizenship three years ago as part of this country’s efforts to boost its prospects for these Games. There are a bunch of Canadians also on the team, and the coach, Jim Paek, is a Korean Canadian.
But Testwuide — who was given his Korean name, which means “strong big mountain,” by a fan — is facing a conundrum. He overcame some qualms about taking on South Korean citizenship, even though he got to keep his U.S. citizenship and remains a proud American, and is fully committed to his new team.
“When I’m on the ice and with those guys, I am 100 percent Korean,” Testwuide said in an interview in the lead-up to the PyeongChang Games. “Those guys have my back, and when I’m playing with them, I am with them.”
The problem, however, comes from the fact that his adopted country is now making nice with his home country’s avowed enemy.
As part of an effort to bridge the divide between North and South, the two Koreas will walk into PyeongChang Olympic Stadium at Friday’s Opening Ceremonies bearing a blue and white flag showing a unified Korean Peninsula, as they did at the Sydney and Athens Summer Games.
Testwuide must decide whether to participate as part of the unified Korean team, which will include 22 North Korean athletes, or to separate from his teammates and sit out his first Olympic ceremony.
He wants to be a full part of the South Korean team, and his family thinks he should walk into the stadium with his teammates. But he is concerned about being thrust into a political maelstrom.
Fortunately for Testwuide, he doesn’t have to worry about playing with North Koreans.
The South Korean government decided to field a unified Korean hockey team, but it was the women’s team that was merged. Its Canadian coach was not happy, and many South Koreans are up in arms that their players, who have trained so hard for the Games, will have to sacrifice time on the ice for the North Korean players.
A winger, Testwuide played four years for Colorado College and three seasons of minor league hockey in the United States but never reached the NHL.
Looking for a new opportunity and inspired by his friend, Korean American Toby Dawson, Testwuide found himself boarding a plane to South Korea in 2013. He joined Anyang Halla, a hockey team based in a somewhat grim satellite city just south of Seoul, and quickly achieved a kind of stardom that had eluded him in the United States.
Two years earlier, South Korea had been awarded the Winter Olympics on its third try. Desperate to shine at its hard-won Games, it started making exceptions to its strict immigration rules.
So in 2015, with the backing of the Korean Olympic Committee, Testwuide took a history test, sat through an oral exam and sang the South Korean national anthem — all in the Korean language — and became a citizen. He was the first of the foreign players to become South Korean.
“It’s really cool that a country would ask me to be a citizen and think that I am worthy enough to become a citizen of that country,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s a bit weird to be Korean not having any Korean blood.”
Anyang Halla won the 2015-16 championship, and Testwuide was named the MVP.
Local media have celebrated his love of spicy Korean food, noting that his favorite is grilled calamari in red pepper sauce, and of K-pop.
Testwuide describes his Korean language skills as “survival,” but on the ice that’s not an issue. Paek coaches in English, and most of the players speak English. “Hockey language is universal, and there’s lots of Konglish, so it’s easy,” Testwuide said, using the local word for hybrid language.
Things could, however, get a little strange if the South Korean team plays the United States, which is possible in the fourth game. “When I hear ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ it might be a bit weird,” he said.
But in many ways, he will have the best of both worlds. His parents, brother and wife, along with 15 friends from his home town of Vail, will be there to cheer him on regardless of what team he’s playing for. There also will be lots of Olympians from Vail competing for the United States, so he will be able to cheer for them, too.
His overwhelming emotion at participating in the Olympics? “I’m excited.”