KEARNS, Utah — Lap after lap and year after year, the thrill is in going fast, and the goal is always to go faster. Thomas Hong loves the sensation as much as anyone else on the ice, but it’s the process that can keep him up at night, that has him studying the past greats and obsessing over his technique.
Short-track speedskaters can reach speeds topping 30 mph, just a thin blade separating athlete from ice, but it never feels fast enough.
“Just to understand the intricacies of how to get to the speeds that we’re going, it’s so challenging,” Hong said. “If anyone observes, we’re really not doing too much on the ice. We’re doing, like, five movements. We’re doing them over and over again, and little by little we improve. I think the challenge of getting better at speedskating is what makes it fun for me.”
Hong’s fascination with the mechanics of the sport are hardly surprising. After all, he was born into speedskating, almost literally. According to family lore, his mother began going into labor at a rink in the family’s native South Korea while watching his older sister practice speedskating. She made it to the hospital in time, and 20 years later, Hong is preparing for his first Olympics, a member of the U.S. short-track team.
Hong’s Olympic journey has brought him full circle. Maybe it’s serendipity, but these PyeongChang Games are taking him back to the country of his birth, back to the place he spent summers learning the ins and outs of the sport from Korean coaches, back to his second home where his father and extended family still live.
Hong was just 4 years old when he moved to Maryland with his mother, sister and grandmother. He spoke no English when they settled in Laurel.
“I can remember as a kid, I was really confused,” he said, “really didn’t have a good time because I couldn’t communicate with people.”
He adjusted quickly to the American life, and when his sister found a speedskating coach in nearby Columbia, Hong started taking lessons, too. A weekend activity became an after-school activity and then a year-round activity. He visited Seoul each summer to stay with his father, Doopyeo, who worked in broadcasting, and found himself increasingly immersed in the sport, trying to master the little movements that can shave tenths of seconds off his time.
Speedskating is much more popular in South Korea, with coaching and training that’s more demanding than young speedskaters typically encounter in the United States.
“Even kids that are 5 or 6 years old train all day in order to become the next Olympic prospect,” Hong said.
His time skating in Seoul instilled a strong work ethic, an appreciation for the details and also heightened aspirations. When he was 16 years old, he was the youngest male short-track speedskater at the U.S. Olympic trials, and though he finished 11th overall and didn’t qualify for Sochi, his 2018 goal came into focus.
“I kind of realized, maybe next time I can make this team,” he said.
That required both work and sacrifice. Following Hong’s freshman year at the University of Maryland, he decided to put his studies temporarily on hold, to focus full-time on his sport. That meant relocating to Utah, training with the U.S. national team and beginning an earnest quest to shave time.
“Thomas studies video more than probably anyone I can think of,” said Anthony Barthell, the U.S. short-track coach. “If he can sit down and look at videos 24-7, he would be in front of a TV or laptop just watching videos.”
Barthell said he actually has had to steer Hong away from video at times, concerned the young skater is overthinking the process.
But that’s really all Hong knows. At a recent practice, Hong and his fellow PyeongChang-bound teammates raced laps around the rink at the Utah Olympic Oval, the team’s training facility. Immediately after, Hong skated over to a flat-screen television stationed on the perimeter of the rink, where he and teammates could review video of the laps.
After each practice, coaches upload that video into a Dropbox folder, which allows Hong to access it from home at night. “The deep analysis definitely comes when I get home,” he said.
The extra study has paid dividends. At 5-feet-8, Hong is not the biggest skater on the ice but is often one of the most explosive. He has honed his technique and can accelerate quickly.
In PyeongChang, he will compete in the 500 meters, but his best shot at a medal will come in the men’s 5,000-meter relay, where the Americans will be one of eight teams vying for gold. At a November World Cup event in Shanghai, Hong and the U.S. squad, which also included J.R. Celski, John-Henry Krueger and Keith Carroll Jr., set a world record in the relay with a time of 6:29.052, more than a full second faster than the previous mark.
“Words can’t express how I felt at that point in time,” Barthell said, “because these guys have put their heart and soul in this. That was a great moment.”
Hong is so explosive that Barthell now has him lead off the relay, hoping the young skater can put the American team out front early.
“To be as little as he is, he has a lot of fast-twitch [muscles], very explosive and technically, he’s really dialed in,” the coach said.
The Olympic relay heats are scheduled to take place Feb. 13 with the finals scheduled for Feb. 22. The prospects of racing in the country of his birth on the sport’s biggest stage has been a motivator for Hong, but he said he feels no internal conflict. He still speaks Korean to both of his parents, but in most ways, he is a typical American college student. He feels like he is a part of both countries, and that both countries are a part of him.
“Culturally, I definitely think I try to marry the two cultures, American and Korean,” he said.
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