How an Ottawa man helped reconnect the Korean women's curling team

Ottawa health-care worker Melvin Lee never thought cheering loudly for the Korean team at the 2003 World Men’s Curling Championship would lead, years later, to him playing a role in rebuilding the sport in his home country.

How Melvin Lee went from Korean-Canadian superfan to helping reconnect, rebuild team

'Wait a second, that's me!'

12 months ago
Duration 3:24
Meet the Korean-Canadian curling enthusiast and healthcare worker who over the years has had an unexpected impact on growing the quintessentially Canadian sport in his home country.

During the 2018 Olympics in Pyeonchang, South Korea, Melvin Lee's 12-year-old daughter became enthralled by the Korean women's curling team. 

The "Garlic Girls" as they were affectionately known, were representing their country for just the second time at an Olympics, and would go on to win silver — a major coup for a country relatively new to the sport.

For Emma Ah-Reum Lee, who is Korean-Canadian, it was empowering to see Korean women playing a sport so associated with Canada.

Little did she realize her dad, an Ottawa health-care worker and curling booster, had already met the team 15 years earlier — and had helped the sport get off the ground in his home country.

Melvin Lee, middle in blue, brought his family to the 2018 World Women’s Curling Championship in North Bay, Ont., because his daughter became interested in the sport. The Lee family got to meet the Korean women's team, also pictured here. (Submitted by Melvin Lee)

Back in 2003, Lee lived in Winnipeg and decided to gather a group of young Koreans to cheer their national team at the men's world championship being played in the same city.

Afterwards, the coaches approached Lee to thank him for the support, and to express surprise there were Korean curling fans in that city. A connection was made, which Lee says led to him to put the Korean rink in touch with the owners of the recently built Fort Garry Curling Club. That club then shared blueprints to help build a new curling club in Korea. 

"After that first meeting, that was it, I didn't hear anything about it," Lee recalled. 

Melvin Lee, left, is seen at the 2003 World Men's Curling Championship with a group of young Koreans he gathered to cheer on the team in Winnipeg. (Submitted by Melvin Lee)

Fast forward to the present, and his daughter asked if they could meet the team. 

The Lee family, now living in Ottawa, headed to North Bay, Ont., to see the Korean women's foursome at the 2018 Worlds. 

Afterward, as they waited in line to meet Team Kim, Lee overheard a conversation between the Korean ambassador to Canada and the team's curling coach at the time, about that very meeting in 2003.

"I was floored," said Lee. "And so I tapped him on the shoulder and I said, 'Mr. Kim, I'm sorry, I'm listening to your story, and I can't help but think that you're talking about me.'

"I barely put these words out of my mouth and he recognized me and he hugged me."

The Korean women's team were dubbed the 'Garlic Girls' because they're from a remote province of the country famous for its garlic. Despite being new to the sport, they won silver at the 2018 Winter Olympics. (Aaron Favila/The Associated Press)

Abuse allegations hit Korean curling

Despite the 2018 success, the players came forward later that same year with allegations of abuse and excessive control at the hands of the Korean Curling Federation vice-president and their coaches, which included the withholding of prize money and their cell phones. 

The coaches and executive left the sport shortly afterwards, leaving the team with no mentorship. The foursome stepped away from the sport for a time. 

A few months later, Lee received a message on Kakaotalk, a messaging app in Korea, from the team's skip Kim Eun-jung. Because the team's former coach controlled their communications, she needed help reconnecting and rebuilding relationships.

The foursome also needed a new coach, so Lee sprung into action, reaching out to the coach that helped them get to the podium, but had since fallen out of touch.

Fluent in both Korean and English, Lee acted as the liaison between the team and PEI's Peter Gallant, a longtime fixture on the Canadian curling scene.

Melvin Lee acted as a liaison between PEI curling coach Peter Gallant, third from left, and the Korean women's team from left to right: Kim Cho-hi, Kim Kyeong-ae, Kim Seon-yeong, Kim Eun-jung and Kim Yeong-mi. (Submitted by Peter Gallant)

"There was a language barrier. ... I was a person that they could trust," said Lee, adding the players were struggling after their experiences of verbal abuse.

Despite being retired, Gallant says he jumped at the chance to go back to Korea.

"There was always kind of a hope that we could get back together again, with the team on better terms with better management," said Gallant. 

At the 2021 Korean Curling Championships, the foursome showed they were still on top. 

"When they won the national championship, and I saw how hard they're working again, it made me so proud," said Gallant.

An Ottawa resident’s love for curling turned into being the link between the team and their new coach.

Olympics begin against Canada

He's now at the Olympics in Beijing coaching the team alongside their Korean coach Myung Sup Lim, and the team's first match is set for Thursday against Team Canada. Coincidentally, the team features Gallant's son's fiancée, Jocelyn Peterman, while Gallant's son Brett will also compete for Canada's men's team in Beijing. 

Disappointingly, COVID-19 restrictions mean Lee won't be in the crowd in Beijing but he says he plans to cheer as loudly as possible from Ottawa.

"The team Kim curlers are an inspiration ... to me ... to the Korean people. I want to see them win gold," said Lee.

He also said he hopes the team shows Canadians "how curling is going international," and that this country's curling community embraces "more BIPOC Canadians" so curling provides a more accurate representation of the "greater population of Canada — multi-ethnic and diverse." 

The Ottawa-Korea curling connection actually goes back to the mid-1990s when old curling stones were sold to Korea because a curling club at Lansdowne Park had to close, according to RCMP Curling Club ice technician Ian MacAulay. (City of Ottawa Archives)