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

“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.

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

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.

They were going to practice another hour on the short track.

Zoe Kim contributed reporting from Seoul.

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