PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The final test came in September in Germany, where Alex Gamelin and Yura Min had to qualify both their country and themselves for the Olympics in ice dancing. But the critical exam was the first one in July in South Korea. If Gamelin couldn’t sing the national anthem to the satisfaction of his examiners, he might not have been granted the citizenship necessary for him to compete in the Winter Games.
“When I got to the interview, they asked me only to sing the first verse,” said the 24-year-old Gamelin, who was born in Boston and lived in Medford, Mass., until his family moved to Long Island. “I was almost a little disappointed because I had spent so much time memorizing it. I was like, ‘Can I just sing the whole thing?’ ”
Unlike most countries that have hosted the Winter Games, the Land of the Morning Calm has a limited pool of athletes who can compete at the global level on snow and ice. With the exception of short-track speedskating, which has produced 42 of the country’s 53 all-time Olympic medals and 21 of 26 golds, long-track, and figure skating queen Yuna Kim (and this time, men’s skeleton), the Koreans have been winter outliers.
That’s why they offered “special naturalization” to a record 19 foreigners who could give them a respectable presence in these Games. Eleven of them are hockey players, including former Bruins farmhand Matt Dalton and Harvard alumna Randi Griffin. There also are Russian biathletes, a German luger, and a Norwegian cross-country skier.
For Gamelin and the 22-year-old Min, who take the ice Sunday in the team event, going native was their best chance to get to Olympus. Min figured that out a few years ago when she teamed up with US dancer Tim Koleto, who has represented three countries in international competition. By 2015 their relationship had soured.
“We had personal issues,” she said. “We just didn’t get along very well. Skating wasn’t as enjoyable because we were arguing a lot on the ice. That was ultimately the reason why we split up.”
Gamelin had skated with twin sister Danielle for a decade, placing seventh at the US nationals in 2015. But he knew that the likelihood of them ever getting to the Games was a long shot. “That was the dream but because we were competing in the United States the depth of the field here is just unbelievable,” Gamelin said. “Realistically we would not have made it.”
When Danielle hung up her skates after that season her brother figured that his career also had come to an end. “When she retired I also retired because I’d been skating with her for so long I thought that because we were done together that we were done, period,” he said. “So for a couple of months I was retired, and then Yura suggested that we skate together.”
In their second season they won the South Korean title and placed 20th at last year’s world championships. Competing in the Olympics, though, meant that each partner had to be a citizen. Min, a Californian whose parents are native Koreans, already had that box checked. “The process for me was a lot easier,” she said. “I didn’t have to go through any testing.”
Her partner, who began studying Korean as soon as he and Min joined forces, had to get his Hangul up to the mark. “I study linguistics so for me it was a fun challenge,” said Gamelin, who was familiar with Romance languages and had taken Japanese for a year.
“It took me right up until I took the test,” he said. “For English speakers, languages like Japanese and Korean are among the hardest. The syntax and grammar are so different and the honorifics are so foreign.”
Gamelin’s tutor lived in Seoul and he would Skype with her a couple of times a week. “I didn’t learn by watching TV or listening to K-pop,” he said. “I don’t know who started that but that’s not how I learned.”
Gamelin learned more than enough to pass muster, although he still needs occasional tutorials from Min. “We’ll be driving in a taxi or walking along the street in Korea and I’ll ask Yura, ‘What’s that, what’s that? What does this mean, what does that mean? How do you use this word?’ ” he said. “I think sometimes I get a little annoying.”
The next hurdle was to qualify for the Games by placing among the top six couples at the Nebelhorn Trophy. “There was a little added stress because we also had to qualify the team,” said Gamelin. “You have to qualify in three of the four disciplines and the pair had not qualified. The men and women already had, so it was up to us. I think we handle competitive stress pretty well. We just had to do it — and so we did it.”
Gamelin and Min ended up fourth. “It was a pretty unbelievable experience,” he said. “Go on YouTube and watch us in the kiss-and-cry. I got on the phone and called my parents, my sister, one of my friends. I was on the phone for half an hour, sitting there in a corner of the rink as the event was finishing up. I thought, ‘Oh my God, we made it. After all the work we put in, it’s finally coming true.’ ”
Their ambitions at Olympus are understandably modest. The Korean team won’t be anywhere close to a medal. In ice dance, Gamelin and Min will be happy with cracking the top 20 again. “Just getting to skate the free dance would be amazing,” she said.
The big squeeze will be on the short-trackers, who were knocked off the top of the table by their Chinese archrivals in Sochi and had to watch former countryman Viktor Ahn win three gold medals as a Russian transplant.
For the figure skaters, simply showing up and standing up will be sufficient. “We’re not going for a medal or anything, so there’s not that much pressure on us,” said Min. “We just want to have fun.”John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.