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Choi breaks stereotypes as short-track sprinter

Koreans skaters have been known for their endurance, not speed
Dec 21,2016
이미지뷰
Choi Min-jeong, second from right, overtakes the Chinese Fan Kexin, second from right, at Gangneung Ice Arena in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, Dec. 18. Choi won the 500-meter short-track race in the fourth round of the Short Track World Cup on Sunday. With her excellence in acceleration and direction switching, Choi is training for a medal at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. [YONHAP]
Marked on the helmet of the Korean short-track speed skater Choi Min-jeong is the number 1, symbolizing her No. 1 ranking in the world.

Choi came in first at the International Skating Union (ISU) World Cup Short Track Speed Skating held on Sunday, finishing with a record of 42.46 seconds. With her victory in the women’s 500-meter final at Gangneung Ice Arena in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, Choi took hold of her first gold medal in the 500-meter event.

The race caught the attention of many as a preview to the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, since it is one of the test events for the Games.

Choi swiftly passed the finish line both in the quarter and semi finals of the women’s 500-meter events first in the heat, not to mention the finals, where her agility placed her ahead of Fan Kexin of China and Arianna Fontana of Italy, who are second and fourth in the world rankings.

In the 3,000-meter relay that followed, Choi and her teammates of Kim Ji-yoom, Shim Suk-hee and Noh Do-hee, came in first at 4 minutes 7.62 seconds, more than a second faster than the second team. In each of the four World Cup races of this season, Choi secured two medals. Shim, 19, also became a two-time medalist, having won the 1,500-meter event on Saturday.

“I’m pleased I won in the 500-meter, which isn’t my specialty,” said Choi. “I played hard because I was disappointed for having to settle with silver at the 1,000-meter games the day before, and I think that’s what got me the good results.”

A 500-meter short-track speed skating race is similar to running 100 meters on land, as it takes less energy to travel on ice. Choi won the 500-meter event 13 months after winning gold in the women’s 500 meters in the 2015 Toronto World Cup.

Choi herself had only won two silvers in the women’s 500-meter short-track speed skating race, in the second and third World Cup this season, and it has been 13 years since Choi Eun-kyung won gold in 2003. No Korean female has won gold in the Olympics in this event.

Chun Lee-kyung in the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics and Park Seung-hi in 2014 Sochi Olympics are the only female Korean speed skaters with medals, both of them bronze. Park came close to finishing first in the most recent Winter Olympics, but was pushed from behind by Britain’s Elise Christie, and took bronze.

Short-track speed skating is typically considered Korean territory, but not the 500-meter race. The current champion in the 500-meter short-track speed skating, Elise Christie, has said, “Westerners have genetically different muscles from Easterners. Westerners are born with muscles for quick runs, and Easterners are born with muscles for stamina.”

So it was no surprise when Korean short-track athletes focused on long distance races such as 1,000 meters or 1,500 meters, while the 500-meter event was somewhat neglected.

But the young prodigy has gotten Koreans excited for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. Choi, 1.65 meters (5 foot 5 inches) tall and weighing 52 kilograms (115 pounds), is 10 centimeters shorter than Shim, the winner of the 1,500-meter event this season.

“Choi Min-jeong has the most apt body for short distances on the team,” said Kim Eon-ho, a researcher at the Korea Institute of Sport Science. “If she strengthens the muscle power in her legs, then she has a high chance of winning.”

Choi is famous for her acceleration and direction switching, both of which are considered crucial for a 500-meter race. “It’ll be me and Choi Min-jeong competing over the 500-meter gold medal in the PyeongChang Olympics,” said Christie. Christie had only participated in the 1,000-meter race in the recent World Cup games.

“Choi Min-jeong’s victory in the 500-meters has beaten the stereotype that Korea is weak in short distance,” said Cho Jae-beom, coach of the national skating team. “If we get over our slow start, which is a weak point for Korean athletes, we could even look forward to sweeping all the games in the PyeongChang Olympics.”

BY PARK SO-YOUNG [yoon.soyeon@joongang.co.kr]