KEARNS, Utah -- When Thomas Hong earned his spot at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Sunday afternoon, he didn’t have to be concerned about what competing in a foreign land might bring or how the unknown crowd would receive him at his first Olympics.
Hong already has a built-in cheering section in South Korea and is likely more familiar with the country than any other member of the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team.
Competing in PyeongChang will be a homecoming for Hong – literally.
The 20-year-old short track speedskater was actually born in Seoul, which is roughly two and a half hours from PyeongChang. He was also born in an ice rink – almost. Hong’s mother, Hang Jung Hong, went into labor while watching her then-6-year-old daughter Stephanie learn to skate in Seoul.
Thomas Hong and his family moved to the U.S. when he was 5, but he secured his return to Korea this weekend with strong performances at the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Short Track Speedskating.
Hong started Olympic trials with seventh- and third-place finishes in the two 1,500-meter finals Friday night, followed by fourth- and third-place finishes in Saturday’s 500-meter finals.
On the final day, he finished seventh in the first 1,000 round, missing an A final for the first time at these trials.Then he finished fourth in the second A final.
Hong finished fourth in the overall classification when the skaters’ points from all six rounds of racing were added together, clinching his spot on the five-member men’s Olympic team.
"I’m super happy to finally qualify for the Olympic team," Hong said. "This is a dream years in the making and I’m just glad to be here."
The dream first became a legitimate possibility in his mind four years ago when Hong competed at the Olympic trials as a 16-year-old. He was the youngest competitor and finished 11th overall.
"I thought, ‘Oh wow, I can really make this the next go-around,'" he said.
And now that Hong has, he cannot wait to return to the country where was first raised, where he later returned for summer training and where at least a dozen of his relatives still live, including his father. And yes, his family in Korea was following the results of Olympic trials throughout the weekend.
"I’m tremendously excited," Hong said of competing at the Games in South Korea. "I’m very familiar with Korean culture. I’ve lived there for parts of my life and I’m excited to go back."
Ryan Pivirotto also confirmed his spot on the team Sunday, as the fifth-highest ranked skater overall.
A native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Pivirotto will also be making his Olympic debut.
"It felt amazing. My dreams, my goals ever since I started skating came true," Pivirotto said. "I’m so proud to be part of Team USA and to compete in PyeongChang for the Olympics."
The 22-year-old Pivirotto has been on the U.S. world cup team for both the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons. His best results include reaching a 1,500-meter B final at last season’s Salt Lake City World Cup and advancing to a 1,000-meter quarterfinal that season as well.
Like Hong, Pivirotto was competing at his second Olympic trials this week. He started on a low note, finishing 13th in the first 1,500 final before rising to second in the second final for that distance. In Saturday’s 500-meter finals, Pivirotto was second and then 11th.
Hong and Pivirotto join J.R. Celski, John-Henry Krueger and Aaron Tran as the five U.S. men’s short track speedskaters competing at the Olympics in February.
Krueger will race all three distances in PyeongChang, while Celski will join him in both the 1,000- and 1,500-meter, and Tran will be in the 500 and 1,500. Hong will compete in the 500.
In addition to aiming for individual medals, the five men will seek Team USA’s fourth straight medal in the 5,000-meter relay, and the odds are in their favor.
Celski, Krueger and Hong were part of the world-record-setting relay team last month at a world cup in Shanghai. The following week, they earned bronze in Seoul.
And they have been racing together on relay teams for years. All of them but Celski were actually Team USA's four men's athletes at the 2014 world junior championships.
"We skated together for many years now and I think we all have each other’s backs," Hong said. "It’s a good team going into Korea."