Caroline Park, Latest VP&S Olympian

Caroline Park at the 2018 Olympics

Columbia medical student Caroline Park recently enjoyed the journey of a lifetime to the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, where she played on the historic unified Korean women’s ice hockey team. 

Ms. Park’s hometown is Brampton, Canada, but her parents were born in South Korea. In 2013 she received an unexpected email from the Korea Ice Hockey Association while she was working as a clinical research assistant at the Hospital for Special Surgery. The email invited her to try out for the Korean women’s ice hockey team in recognition of her many years as a player. Her love of the sport started in childhood, when she played hockey with her older brother. She played for the Mississauga Junior Chiefs, Canada’s junior league team, and was recruited to Princeton University to play for its team. After Princeton, she joined a mixed hockey club and kept playing while doing research at HSS.

A few weeks after Ms. Park received the email, she boarded a plane to Seoul. The pull of her parents’ birth city was strong. She grew up close to her Korean grandmother, who lived with the family in Canada. Korean was spoken at home. That trip was the first of many trips to South Korea over the next five years. She entered VP&S in 2015 and took a leave of absence to train for the Olympics but returned in 2017 to resume her major clinical year with four back-to-back rotations at NewYork-Presbyterian. Upon completing her rotations, she rejoined the team in South Korea for more training.

“The culture of hockey transcends a country’s culture,” says Ms. Park, whose teammates include a few other recruits from North America who have joined the native Koreans. On the ice, Ms. Park plays forward and is known by her Korean name, Park Eun-jung. She approaches athletic competition as she does everything else. “I want to be a great hockey player and become a great doctor. Whatever I’m doing in the moment, I do it 100 percent.”

After competing in the Olympics in February, she shared her favorite moments, how she played through an injury, and her future plans. 

“There were so many amazing moments,” says Ms. Park. “Some highlights include playing our first game on Olympic ice as a unified team and being on the ice when we made history by scoring the first goal ever for Korea at the Olympics. The underlying feelings during all of these moments were pure excitement, happiness, and pride. It was an indescribable feeling to hear the roar of the crowd as we entered the stadium to walk in the opening ceremony as the host country. Being able to play on home ice in front of family, friends, and Korean fans was such an honor. The fans were incredible, including the North Korean cheerleaders. They were so supportive and cheered for us until the last buzzer in every game, regardless of the score. The roar of the crowd when we scored the first goal was so loud, I couldn’t hear my teammates on the ice. Hearing the fans’ chants and cheers filled me up with so much joy and pride every game.” 

Because of an injury suffered shortly before the Olympics began, Ms. Park did not play much during the first two games of the Olympics but she was able to play more during the final three games. 

Jenny Thompson, second from right, and the team that won gold in the 4x100m freestyle relays at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia

She says she was surprised by how quickly the South Korean team bonded with the North Korean players. “They were so friendly and warm. They were no different than any of us, and we became close. I think the unified team reminded everyone of how sports can transcend cultures and barriers. It was a privilege to be a part of something bigger than just a hockey game. Time will tell if it will have any lasting impact, but being a part of this team afforded me the opportunity to get to know remarkable women who very few people would ever get to meet.”

Though her Olympics career is probably over, Ms. Park says she would like to be involved with the team or the Olympics organization in a medical capacity after she finishes medical school and training. “I would love to combine my interest in hockey and sports with my medical career, and that’s why I have always had a strong interest in orthopedics. I’ve had to deal with my fair share of injuries playing sports, so it would be great to use my experiences to relate to and help others.”

She has now resumed her studies at VP&S. “I completed some rotations before taking my leave of absence, but I still have a large majority of major clinical year left to complete.” 

Ms. Park is not the first Columbia medical student or graduate to compete on the world stage as an Olympian, but she is thought to be the first to compete in any Winter Olympics.

Three alumni—Benjamin Spock’29, Stephen Rerych’75, and Valeria Silva Merea’12—were already Olympians when they started medical school. Dr. Spock won a gold medal at the 1924 Olympics in Paris as a member of the crew team for Yale, his undergraduate alma mater. Dr. Rerych won two gold medals for swimming at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Dr. Silva Merea swam for her native Peru in the 2004 Olympics in Greece, and in 2008, just five days before arriving at VP&S, she competed in the Beijing Olympics.

Jennifer Thompson’06 was a member of the USA women’s swim team before and during her years at VP&S. One of the most decorated Olympians in history, she won 12 medals, including eight gold medals, in 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 Summer Olympics.

Another athlete, John Lattimer’38, was a track star at Columbia College who won eight metropolitan area Amateur Athletic Union hurdling championships and set a record as a decathlon champion. He won the 50-yard dash at the Millrose Games, an indoor track and field meet held in New York City each year since 1914. During his military service he won the 200-meter hurdles for the 7th U.S. Army at the GI Olympics in Germany. After his death, Dr. Lattimer’s daughter found a letter inviting him to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, an invitation he apparently turned down to continue his studies at VP&S.

Rose Spaziani