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First Missional Ministries Graduate Coaches Unified Korean Olympic Hockey Team

Rebecca Ruegsegger Baker ’14 transferred to Bethel after a career-ending ice hockey injury. She thought she’d never skate again—but last winter, she found herself back on the ice at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

By Jenny Hudalla ’15, content specialist

June 26, 2018 | 4 p.m.

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Bethel’s first missional ministries alumna channeled the skills she gained in college during one of the most unique, politically charged events of the year: the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

Pain radiated through her muscles, but Rebecca Ruegsegger Baker ’14 hardly felt it. All she could feel was searing disappointment as she put one foot in front of the other at UW-Madison’s rehabilitation center, just a few miles away from the arena where she had led the Badgers to an NCAA championship title as starting goalie. With bilateral torn labrums and adductors in her hips and groin, tears in her pelvic floor, and six more surgeries lined up, she feared her Olympic dreams were over.

Seven years later, Baker found herself standing among elite competitors from 92 nations in PyeongChang, South Korea, at the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games—not as an athlete, but as a coach. As tens of thousands of onlookers cheered for the much-anticipated and decidedly historic unified Korean women’s hockey team, Baker thought, Lord, I want this all to be for You.  

Despite her humble attitude, Baker didn’t receive an invitation to the world stage by accident. She started coaching hockey when she was 16 years old and has built an impressive resume since, landing jobs with St. Cloud State University, Union College, and the New York Riveters, a professional women’s team. Her extensive experience and network got her a full-time assistant coaching gig with the Korean Olympic team in 2017, when a former high school classmate from Shattuck-St. Mary’s offered her the position.

According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, South Korea has 259 registered female ice hockey players compared with the United States’ 73,076, which added an extra layer of purpose to Baker’s job. “For me, it’s a mission field,” Baker says. “I love getting to know my players and developing them as people, as well as giving women the opportunity to excel in hockey.”

Having attended one of the most prestigious hockey preparatory schools in the country, Baker’s odds of earning a spot on Team USA were good—which made her career-ending injuries all the more devastating. In what would have been her last year at UW-Madison, Baker transferred to Bethel University—a move she says helped shape her view of athletics and approach to coaching.

She declared a missional ministries major and threw herself into the aspects of college life she had missed as a Division I athlete. On a mission trip to Honduras, one of Baker’s faculty leaders shared a piece of wisdom that transformed the way she thought about herself and hockey. “He said, ‘God doesn’t need your ability. He needs your availability,’” Baker remembers. “Everything was different after that. I coach to serve Christ and help young women grow as athletes—and to walk that path with peace and understanding is so freeing.”

Baker also studied in Israel and Palestine, where she met people who had inherited one of the most complex and controversial conflicts in modern history. She didn’t know it then, but the insight she gained in the Middle East would eventually lay the foundation for her work with the unified Team Korea. “Bethel was so instrumental in preparing me for this experience and life in general,” she says. “My missional ministries classes taught me to apply theology in a practical way, and my leadership courses helped me continue to be a servant leader with strength and discipline.”

Baker's Korean Olympic hockey team

Baker (left) led the first all-female goaltending camp in Seoul, South Korea, last summer. The seaside nation has just 259 registered female hockey players, compared with the United States' 73,076.

When the news broke that 12 North Korean players would join the team just two weeks before the Games began, Baker drew upon her prior experience to help quell the nerves of her South Korean athletes. After reminding them that their northern counterparts were likely just as nervous as they were, Baker and her fellow coaches hung a sign in the locker room with common hockey terms in both Korean dialects, which have become increasingly divergent as the North’s isolation continues to stand at odds with the South’s tendency to adopt many English words—like ‘goalie,’ ‘pass,’ and ‘forecheck’—as its own.

As the only American on staff, Baker didn’t know what to expect. Although the abruptly united team had an uncertain first meeting, she says the atmosphere began to thaw as athletes shared meals and even joked around with one another. “It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” Baker says. “Two very different groups of people were able to realize their similarities.”

Team Korea didn’t record a single win on the ice, but both the athletes and coaches knew that despite being on the world’s largest athletic stage, sport wasn’t the most important reason for their unification. Baker recalls sharing a bench with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Yo-jong—the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un—who became the first member of the ruling family to visit the South.

The team enjoyed a final lunch together—organized by the Unification Committee—and the North Korean players arrived in what Baker called “breathtaking formal attire.” Within 10 minutes, Baker says, the South Korean players were trying on their teammates’ large fur hats and telling one another how beautiful they looked. “Everything melted,” Baker says. “They were one team.”

When it came time for the two groups to part, many of the team’s players and coaches were in tears. “It was such a wonderful experience, but hard in the same way,” Baker says. “You get to know these girls and after a month you’re not allowed to have any contact with them. No matter who you’re talking to or where they come from, it’s so important to show love and respect. No act of kindness is ever wasted.”

Having touched down on five continents and more than 20 countries, Baker has made friends and memories across the globe. But, for the first time in a long time, she’s ready to be home. She and her husband—who have seen each other four times in the last nine months, once for just 30 minutes in a South Korean coffee shop—plan to settle down, build a family, and continue to operate their goaltending company together. Beyond that, Baker isn’t sure what comes next. “I’ve always loved sign language, so maybe I’ll pursue something with that,” she says. “We’ll see what happens.”

Though Baker speaks with a cavalier tone and a humble shrug of the shoulders, it’s hard to imagine she’ll wait long before embarking on her next adventure. There is, as it happens, a national hockey team for deaf athletes. 

Baker in the News

As the world watched the politically-charged Pyeongchang Olympics, NBC's Natalie Morales introduced the world to the Royal helping make history on the ice. As Baker told Morales in the interview, she viewed her North Korean and South Korean athletes the same, telling them, "No matter where you're from, I want to show you love and respect and coach you the best way I can."

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