In Speedskating, South Korea Sees a Fast Track to Olympic Glory

It was an off night for short-track speedskating at the Winter Olympics, but everywhere else around South Korea, the skating never ends. There are champions to build and rosters to fill for 2022, 2026 and beyond.

Two teenage boys, each expecting to be part of the South Korean team at the 2022 Beijing Games, zoomed around the old Gwacheon Ice Rink, heads down, moving as one. As they leaned hard and pumped their legs around one tight corner, a coach held a 9-year-old girl, standing on her skates, by the arms. With perfect timing, he flung her onto the ice, like a fisherman casting a net into the sea.

The rocket boost propelled her to speed and landed her in line with the boys, as if they all wore magnets. Three became one. Around they went. Like the dozens of others who call the rink home, they practice six days a week, two or three hours each day.

“I have trained abroad,” said Lee Seung-Hwan, the kid-flinging coach and a member of South Korea’s long-track speedskating team at the 2002 Salt Lake Games. “I have never seen another country train its children as hard as we do here, from the time they are very young.”

It is where the figure skater Yuna Kim, the gold medalist in the 2010 Vancouver Games, trained, along with several top speedskaters of the past 30 years, including members of this year’s Olympic team. In the hallways where boys and girls as young as 5 do their warm-up exercises, not far from the snack stand, glass cases display uniforms, skates and autographed photographs of past champions. There are bronzed hand prints of six of them. A big sign on the wall says, “World Star Zone.”

One of the display cases is empty, except for a placard.

“Are you next?” it reads.

In South Korea, figure skating captures the imagination, but speedskating captures the medals. Most Winter Olympics success comes in the short-track version of racing, that whirling dervish of a sport where power and grace can be upended instantly by minor collisions and mass wipeouts.

Before the Pyeongchang Games, South Korea had won 53 medals in its Winter Olympics history, and 42 were in short-track speedskating. (It was not until these Olympics that South Korea, part of the Winter Olympics since 1948, won a medal in a sport that did not include a skate. That was a gold in men’s skeleton, and Yun Sung-bin is now a national hero.)

It is wildly popular on television, the must-see event of the Olympics, and the names of its champions are carved deep in the collective memory.

I’m a little afraid that I will fall,” said Park Ji-yoon, 11, who wants to be either a teacher or an Olympic speedskater when she grows up. “I just follow the person in front of me without thinking.”

The next day, Lee, the coach, drove three of his top boys to the national oval, a 45-minute drive across Seoul. They make the trip two or three times a week, practicing on the big oval with 200 or more other young skaters, under the tutelage of about 30 coaches, all hoping that they will be in the Olympics next time, or the time after that.

Tight strings of skaters wove circles around the vast sheet, the ones behind mimicking the one in front, so they all swirled as one, like schools of fish or flocks of birds.

Lee Jin-woo, the 15-year-old, led the two others from his home rink — Jeon Min-jae, 14, and An Sung-jun, 13. Lee, the coach, tracked them through the crowds of other skaters, the strings moving at different speeds. He held a stopwatch and barked orders at them as they glided past. Stay synchronized, he shouted near the end of the workout, as their collective rhythm disintegrated.

He knows he is hard on them. He knows that they talk about him when he is out of earshot. He was one of them once, too, before he became an Olympian.

“There’s a lot of potential in these kids,” he said. “They’ve already broken the records of the Olympians when they were this age.”

The boys came off the ice silently, then into a dressing room to remove their skates and catch their breath. Within minutes, they were back in Lee’s car, headed across Seoul, back to Gwacheon Ice Rink, closer to home.

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