For Thomas Hong, going home took on an entirely new meaning this week.
Hong, a short track speedskater who was born in South Korea and moved to the U.S. as a child, was part of the U.S. effort that set a new world record in the 5,000-meter relay on Sunday.
On Monday, he joined his U.S. teammates in flying to Seoul to prepare for this weekend’s final world cup of the season.
And on their first day there, during a training session with the Goyang Penguin Skate Club, the Americans lost every exhibition race they staged, smiling the entire time.
Team USA was meeting the Goyang Penguin Skate Club as part of the United States Olympic Committee’s goodwill campaign, “Thank You, PyeongChang,” to interact with the locals and showcase Team USA’s support and gratitude for the staging and legacy that will be created by the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
The purpose of the session wasn’t to win races, but to win hearts.
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Team USA joined the Goyang Penguin Skate Club for a meet-and-greet along with speedskating training and a demonstration. More than a dozen skaters from the club participated, ranging in age from age 7 to their mid-30s. The South Koreans were all dealing with intellectual impairments, and three participated in the 2017 Special Olympics.
“They were a lot more advanced as skaters than I was expecting,” said the 20-year-old Hong, who had spent a summer training at the Goyang-si Rink as a youngster. “They were real skaters, but they hadn’t seen top speedskaters before.”
The races Team USA lost were all in the spirit of unifying the world through sport.
“I enjoyed being able to step out of my race mode atmosphere and be able to go work with kids that are training for the Special Olympics,” said Jessica Kooreman, a 2014 Olympian. “I take pride in knowing that kids are looking up to us. They share the same passion that we have for the sport and I think we mutually shared the excitement of being able to work and train together.”
The skaters and the U.S. Embassy in Seoul teamed up to meet the South Korean skaters. Once introductions were made — Hong was right at home, as he speaks fluent Korean — the teams showed off various dryland training exercises before pairing up for one-on-one on-ice instruction.
And then came the racing, and the Goyang Penguin Skate Club reigned supreme.
Despite not picking up a single win against the Korean skaters, Hong and the rest of the Team USA short trackers came away with uplifted spirits and happy hearts.
“We all thought it was a great team activity to just help out,” Hong said. “I was really proud to have touched the lives of these people. We’re all different people with different needs and abilities, and to see how a sport like short track speedskating helps brings people together was very wholesome and heartwarming.”
The love and friendship was felt by everyone.
“It was an amazing experience and I think it was pure joy for everyone on the ice,” added U.S. national team coach Anthony Barthell. “I had a couple of parents come up to us afterwards and said how much they appreciated us being there, but I don’t think they realized how much we appreciated them letting us come and skate with them.”
Gary R. Blockus is a journalist from Allentown, Pennsylvania who has covered multiple Olympic Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.