She’s a 29-year-old evolutionary anthropology graduate student at Duke. She’s also an Olympic athlete working to bring glory to not one, but two nations, neither of which she calls home.

For years, Randi Griffin had figure skated and watched the boys play ice hockey after her lessons, begging her parents to allow her to play. To her dismay, she was told “hockey was not for girls.” Her skating coach would chastise her for pretending to race down the ice with a puck while she was supposed to be practicing her routine. But when she was 10 years old, everything changed for the future Olympian who will take the ice for the Korean unified team this weekend at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Her hockey journey would be intricately linked to that of women’s hockey as a whole, for as the sport made its Olympic debut at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, so too did her own career begin to blossom. Seeing that their daughter had her heart set on taking to the ice, her parents finally decided to sign her up to play in Cary, N.C. and bought Griffin her first set of hockey gear.

Griffin’s hockey career, as well as her intellectual pursuits, began to take off, and she eventually decided to attend Harvard, where she scored 21 goals with 18 assists in 125 career games. She graduated in 2010 and started coaching youth hockey, both boys and girls ranging from 12U to 19U, as a way to stay involved with the sport. 

“What I liked about coaching was that it was the same game I had been playing my whole life, but I was a beginner again and had to figure out how to fill this new role,” Griffin said. “It’s hard for me to play if I’m not getting better, and coaching was the perfect way for me to stay in the game and still be getting better every day. Plus, it feels great to share the game with kids and be able to pass on everything I’ve learned from coaches over the years.”

Griffin’s athletic achievements are inspiring, but her hockey career only tells half her story—her prowess on the ice is matched by her appetite for learning. Following her time at Harvard, Griffin returned to her home state of North Carolina to work toward a PhD in evolutionary anthropology at Duke. She is currently working on her dissertation, which concerns the evolution of the primate skull. 

“I’m using multivariate statistics to model changes in the shape of the primate skull as a function of different predictors such as diet or body size,” Griffin said. “But I have pretty diverse interests and my main skills are in data analysis, so I’ve worked on a lot of different topics: mosquitoes, tapeworms, flowers, social networks—I’m definitely a generalist.”

Her  studies were temporarily interrupted in 2014 when she received an email from the Korean Ice Hockey Association asking her if she was interested in representing South Korea in the 2018 Winter Olympics. They explained that they were looking for players of Korean heritage abroad to fill out their roster and elevate their talent level. They had combed through college hockey rosters looking for players with Korean names, so they had initially overlooked Griffin, who is only half-Korean.

Fortunately, a Korean-Canadian player named Caroline Park, who played against Griffin while attending Princeton, had suggested they contact Griffin. At first, Griffin actually believed the email to be a scam, but after repeated attempts to contact her, she realized the offer was genuine.

“They asked me to come skate with them in their summer league to see if it might work out. I was pretty skeptical at first—I thought it might be some sort of joke, and even if it wasn’t, I thought they must not realize how long it had been since I’d played at a high level,” Griffin said. “But eventually, I decided to give it a try in the summer of 2015, and I ended up having a lot of fun and realizing that if I could get back into shape, I could really help the team.”

Griffin went back to Korea the following summer, and returned again last January to begin a full year of training with the team while working on her dissertation from afar. Although her grasp of the Korean language is “at the level of a 2-year-old,” the language barrier has been less of an obstacle than Griffin expected. Three-fourths of the team members are fluent in English, and the others know at least a little.

“Whenever we are together, there’s a lot of translation going on in both directions and a lot of ‘Konglish,’ mixed Korean and English,” she said. “On top of that, hockey is really its own language—most of the hockey words are the same in English and Korean, like pass, skate, defense, power play, and line change.”

Three weeks ago,  Griffin and her teammates were in for a surprise when they learned that the South and North Korean governments had decided to field a combined hockey team without consulting them. The move has generated controversy in a time of political uncertainty surrounding the region. Its critics, most of whom are millennials who have less reason to feel a connection to their northern neighbors than do their parents’ generation, have called the decision to field a combined team an empty political gesture. 

In addition, many see it as taking away precious time on the ice from their South Korean compatriots. But sports are indeed the great unifier. When their team takes to the ice on the international stage, all Koreans, North or South, will have something to cheer for.

Eight countries will participate in the ice hockey tournament at this month’s Winter Olympics. The United States, Canada, Finland, Russia and Sweden received berths as the top five teams in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s World Ranking. Switzerland and Japan qualified through a play-in tournament, while Korea qualified automatically as the host nation. 

The Koreans’ path to Olympic glory is a difficult one. They currently hold the No. 22 spot in the IIHF World Ranking, and each of the other teams in the competition is in the top 10. But don’t count Korea out yet—Griffin believes that this team could give its opponents a run for their money.

“I think we are going to surprise some people,” she said. “We are very strong defensively and we have a world-class goaltender, so even if we spend a lot of time in our D-zone, we can keep the scores close.”

Korea will begin group stage play Feb. 10 against No. 6 Switzerland. It will also face off against No. 5 Sweden and rival nation No. 9 Japan. After the round-robin matchups, the top two teams in the group will advance to the quarterfinal stage.

“The Swedes and the Swiss will be extremely tough—I think every player on those two teams is physically larger than every player on our team, and they are very skilled passing teams,” Griffin said. “Japan’s style is more similar to ours: they are small, fast, and gritty. There is no question that they are a great team, but they are our best chance for a win, and I think we can take them. It’s especially exciting because the rivalry with Japan has a lot of significance for Korean people. Winning that game would feel like a gold medal for us, and I believe we can do it.”

Figure skating and speed skating are very popular in South Korea, and the country’s sledge hockey team is world-class. However, ice hockey has struggled to gain a following there. Griffin hopes that the experience of cheering on their team will instill a love of the game in Korean youth.

“There is a lot of potential for Korea to become a hockey country,” she said. “We want to use the Olympics as a chance to showcase our sport and inspire a generation of budding Korean skaters to play hockey.”

No matter the result when the Koreans take to the ice this month, Griffin can return home to complete her PhD knowing that she made the United States, her adopted home of Korea and Blue Devil nation proud. Korea's first game against Switzerland is Saturday morning at 7:10 on USA Network.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated when Griffin knew she would be playing on a unified North and South Korean team. The South Korean players did not know they would be playing with North Koreans until three weeks before the Olympics.