Thomas Hong hopes to compete in front of his hometown at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
Legend has it that U.S. short track speedskater Thomas Hong was born in an ice rink.
Hong, who helped Team USA set a world record in the men’s 5,000-meter relay at a world cup event last month in Shanghai, was born in a South Korean hospital, but his mom’s water did break when she was at a speedskating rink in Seoul while watching his then-6-year-old sister Stephanie learn the sport.
The Hong family, originally from South Korea, moved to the Baltimore area when Thomas was 4, and a year later, he set blade to ice. The rest of the story continues to be written in success.
Now 20, Hong hopes to return to South Korea for his most important races ever: as a member of Team USA for the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 in February.
“First and foremost, I think it would be a huge honor to represent the United States at the highest level of sport, the Olympic Games,” Hong said from South Korea while preparing for the final world cup of the season, where he helped the U.S. earn a bronze in the relay.
“The fact that these Games will be in South Korea, where I was born, it’s a whole extra thing to be proud of, to be in the country where I was born and have my family be able to watch me; not just my immediate family, but my extended family. It would be a huge honor.”
Hong grew up in Maryland with his sister, mom Hang Jung Hong and grandmother Okja Moon. His father, DooPyeo Hong, returned to South Korea for better employment opportunities while the rest of the family remained in the United States.
“We were fortunate enough to travel back and forth to Korea, so it wasn’t weird,” Thomas said.
Hong’s ties to his birth country have remained strong over the years. He returned to South Korea in the summers and trained there, as well as at home in Maryland with the Potomac Speedskating Club at the Wheaton Ice Arena.
During one of those summers he trained at the Goyang-si Rink, where he and U.S. his teammates showed up prior to the Seoul World Cup to share the sport with intellectually impaired South Koreans as part of the United States Olympic Committee’s “Thank You, PyeongChang,” goodwill campaign.
And last year, he took part in a world cup that served as a test event at the Gangneung Ice Arena, where the Olympic Winter Games will be staged.
“It was very thrilling,” Hong remembered. “Individually I did all right, but it was actually my first world cup medal with the men’s 5,000 relay. We got bronze, and it was a thrilling experience. The South Korean people knew it was the Olympic facility, and it was a great place to skate off the energy the crowd gave out.”
Hong drew attention as a short track speedskater almost from the get-go. He represented Team USA at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Innsbruck 2012, and one year later competed at the 2012-13 world junior championships.
“The Youth Olympic Games was my first international competition,” Hong said. “When we are at world cups, we are amongst the same people from our sport all the time, but at the Youth Olympic Games, there are so many athletes from different sports. It was really interesting to meet new people from different sports. Although we didn’t compete in the same discipline, we had a ton of mutual respect for each other.”
In 2014, he was the youngest competitor at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, while in 2016-17 he won a silver medal in the 500-meter and a bronze medal in the 3,000-meter relay at the world junior championships, in addition to helping the senior men’s 5,000-meter relay to that world cup bronze medal at the Olympic test event. This season he has already helped set the relay world record in Shanghai, and then he wrapped up the world cup season with another 5K relay bronze medal in South Korea.
Hong is now on target for the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, which take place Dec. 15-17 at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns, Utah. The men’s 5,000-meter relay team has already qualified an Olympic spot.
Should Hong skate on it in PyeongChang 2018, there will be plenty of eyes on him.
“My dad is there,” Hong said. “I have three sets of aunt and uncles there, and four cousins. A lot of my cousins were educated abroad, so I would see them every other year.”
He is hopeful for the chance to represent the country where he grew up, in the country where he was born, on the biggest athletic stage in the world.
And he’ll definitely be a crowd favorite.