Photo by Mark Edward Harris.
With the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, just around the corner, KoreAm presents an ethnocentric list of five contenders to follow.
by STEVE HAN
1. Kim Yuna, The Comeback Queen
After conquering the Vancouver Games in a landslide four years ago, Kim Yuna of South Korea is on a quest to win her second straight Olympic gold medal in Sochi, Russia, in February. But the prospects for the figure skater, considered a national hero in her homeland, don’t feel quite as assured this time around.
The 23-year-old is coming off of a metatarsal injury she suffered last September. The injury took her out of the earlier part of the season ahead of the Sochi Games, and only returned to the ice at the 2013 Golden Spin of Zagreb in Croatia last month. She won gold in her comeback, but showed some signs of rustiness in both her short program and free skate.
Kim’s total score of 204.49 in Zagreb was enough to win the second-tier competition, but it was underwhelming for her usual standards. She scored a record-setting 228.56 in Vancouver to give Korea its first-ever Olympic gold medal in figure skating. Meanwhile, Kim’s rival, Mao Asada of Japan, is putting together her best season in recent years. Asada has already won three straight competitions to start the season, scoring an average of 205.44. The Sochi Games will likely be her last chance for redemption after settling for a silver medal in Vancouver.
Though Kim has admitted publicly to the difficulty of competing after winning Olympic gold in 2010, and has gone through some unsettling coaching changes, her stunning performance at the 2013 World Championships silenced many doubters. She won that competition handily, as the only competitor to earn perfect 10’s, and showed the world this athlete may just have another gold left in her.
2. Olympian-Turned-Coach Toby Dawson
After taking home a bronze medal in the 2006 Winter Olympics for the United States, Toby Dawson is preparing for another Olympic appearance, only this time, the Korean American won’t be the one skiing. The 35-year-old took up a coaching position with the South Korean national ski team and is preparing its competitors for the Sochi Games. Born in Busan, South Korea, and adopted by a family in Vail, Colo., he grew up with parents who were both ski instructors. While Dawson has curbed his expectations for the inexperienced South Korean ski team, Seo Jung-hwa and Choi Jae-woo have shown signs of potential.
Seo, who studied at the University of Southern California as an East Asian Studies major, is competing in mogul skiing, an unfamiliar sport for Korea. She is just the second Korean competing in moguls and already has Olympic experience from the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Choi is also treading uncharted waters, but at the 2012 FIS Freestyle Junior World Championships, he won Korea’s first-ever medal in any international ski competition. He also took home the Rookie of the Year honor at the 2012-13 FIS World Cup Series.
While Dawson is hoping his team will be able to bring home a medal from Sochi, he emphasizes that his ultimate goal is to look beyond this year’s Olympics and help South Korea produce some big results at the 2018 Winter Games, to be held in Pyeongchang.
3. Pioneers in Women’s Curling (Yes, Curling)
People on the subway in Seoul thought Shin Mi-sung was a window cleaner when she walked into the commuter train with her broomstick. Little did they know, Shin was clasping a broom that could possibly give their country its first ever Olympic medal in a non-skating event.
Shin, along with her teammates Kim Ji-sun, Lee Seul-bee, Gim Un-chi and Um Min-ji, earned Korea’s first Olympic berth in curling with a top-four finish at the World Women’s Curling Championships in Canada last year. Then the momentum also took them to Korea’s first-ever win at the international tournament held in a foreign country at the Pacific-Asia Curling Championships in Shanghai, China, last November.
Curling is still an obscure game to most Koreans. It was formally introduced to Korea in 1994, when the Korean Curling Association was founded, almost three decades after the establishment of the World Curling Federation.
South Korea has won 45 medals at the Winter Games since it first began competing in 1948, more than any other Asian country. But Korea and Holland are the only two countries in the top 15 all-time medal table that won all of their medals in three skating events. Women’s curling may just be able to buck that trend in Sochi.
4. Korean ‘Cool Runnings’
A couple of pairs of South Korean bobsledders are hoping to be the triumphant underdogs at the Winter Games in Sochi.
Kim Dong-hyun, a hearing impaired athlete who represented Korea at the Vancouver Games as the team’s pusher, has since turned into a pilot. Failure to find a domestic team nearly forced him into retirement, but he and Jeon Jung-rin overcame all odds at last month’s America Cup to win the gold medal in the two-man event. But perhaps a Korean pair that’s more likely to do well in Sochi is the team represented by pilot Won Yun-jong and brakeman Seo Young-woo. In March, the duo won Korea’s first-ever gold medal at the America Cup. Won and Seo then edged out France by .09 seconds at this season’s America Cup last November to win another gold after clocking in at 1:37:41.
The bobsledders’ qualifying process for the Olympics was ongoing at the time of this report, but Korea’s goal of sending two two-man teams to Sochi were still within grasp. The Korean media has dubbed their story “Korean Cool Runnings,” referencing the title of an American film loosely based on a longshot Jamaican team who train for the Winter Olympics.
5. Lee Sang-Hwa Goes Long
Aside from Kim Yuna, no other South Korean Olympian in Sochi is expected to win a gold medal as much as long track speed skater Lee Sang-hwa.
The three-time world champion and the reigning Olympic gold medalist is an overwhelming favorite to stand atop the medal podium for the women’s 500-meter race. Kim is a sprint distance specialist, a rare breed in Korea, who set the world record in the women’s 500 (36.36 seconds) at the 2013–14 Speed Skating World Cup in Salt Lake, Utah, last November.
With her performance in Salt Lake, the 24-year-old became only the fourth woman in history to break the world record at least four times. Before Lee, only Catriona Le May Doan (Canada), Bonnie Blair (U.S.) and Christa Luding-Rothenburger (Germany) achieved the feat. Lee will be under immense pressure to get her second straight gold in 500 meters, as she isn’t nearly as dominant with longer distances. Her best outing on a 1,000-meter track was back in 2010, and even then, she was only good for a fifth-place finish.