Originally published in The Washington Post – December 13, 2017
Luca Lim was just 10 years old when he found himself glued to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, enraptured by the speed and grace of short-track speedskating. He had dabbled in hockey before, but glowing on his television were elite athletes whirring around the ice at up to 40 mph atop tiny blades of metal.
“It was extremely exciting,” he said.
Fortunately for Lim, he happened to live in the Washington area, a burgeoning hotbed for the sport, featuring active speedskating clubs, world-class coaching and more and more promising young Olympic hopefuls.
Lim, now 17, is one of the 32 short-track speedskaters competing at the U.S. Olympic trials, which begin Friday in Kearns, Utah. Of that group, eight are from the Washington area, having honed their skills at local clubs and eager to punch their tickets to the PyeongChang Olympics.
That group includes Laurel’s Thomas Hong, who was part of a relay team that broke a world record last month in Shanghai; Reston’s Maame Biney, a 17-year-old who took bronze at this year’s junior world championships; Fairfax’s Brandon Kim, 16, who won the U.S. men’s junior title last year and North Potomac’s Gabriella Hachem, 19, who won the ladies’ title.
This surge of talent from the Washington area is no accident. Nathaniel Mills, three-time Olympian and a founder of the DC-ICE urban speedskating program, explained that more than a decade ago, the local clubs bulked up their offerings and created a pipeline for Korean coaches.
“It’s been a nonstop parade of expertise and motivated individuals since then,” he said. “It’s been a bit of a revolving door, but the commonality has been this commitment to excellence.”
The area coaches now include Potomac Speedskating Club’s Simon Cho, a bronze medal winner at the 2010 Olympics, Dominion Speedskating’s Kim Yun-Mi, who won gold medals at the 1994 and 1998 Winter Games, and United Capital Blades’ Hyun Jung Lee, a former member of the Korean national team. And the end result has been a culture of both well-honed talent and heightened expectations. Athletes from the D.C. area take up the sport at a young age and aren’t content to skate a couple of laps on weekends or target regional competitions.
Lim was hooked right away, and within a couple weeks of setting foot on ice, he was skating six times a week. Eight years later, his whole life is built around the sport. Since January, he has been living and training in South Korea. He is a senior taking online courses through George Washington University Online High School, which allows him to spend eight hours a day training and tend to his classwork in evenings or between workouts.
To compete at a high level, many speedskaters make similar sacrifices. At 20, Hong is the youngest member of the U.S. men’s team that has been competing in World Cup events. He was born in South Korea, moved to the United States when he was 5 and gravitated toward the sport shortly thereafter.
“At the time, it was just another way to be a part of the community,” he said, “especially for a new family in the States.”
The sport is much more popular in South Korea. Hong visited family there most summers, spending as much time on the ice as possible and training year-round. He grew quickly in the sport and at 16 was the youngest competitor at the 2014 Olympic trials, where he finished 11th and missed out on the squad that went to the Sochi Games.
Hong completed his freshman year at the University of Maryland before putting college on hold and relocating to Salt Lake City to train full-time with U.S. Speedskating, his heart set on competing at the PyeongChang Games.
“Growing up in Howard County where education is a big focus for families and where it’s really hard to sacrifice education for the sake of sport, it didn’t always seem logical,” Hong said. “But at the same time, me and my family, we knew that I’d have to make a sacrifice to pursue this passion.”
A year later, he has a good chance of qualifying for the Olympics and representing the United States in the country of his birth. Of the 32 skaters, just eight will qualify for PyeongChang — five men and three women. Hong has been a part of the men’s 5,000-meter relay team that twice found the podium on the World Cup circuit this year: the first-place, world-record race in Shanghai, which marked the first U.S. win in the race since 2013, and then a bronze medal performance a week later in Seoul. Hong’s top individual race this year was a 10th-place finish in a 500-meter race, his favorite distance.
“I think it’s a test of true skill — a perfect balance of reckless speed while also maintaining control,” he said. “I’ve always gravitated toward sprinting. I think that’s just the way my body has been. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate the finesse of it as well.”
Skaters such as Hong, Lim, Kim and Biney are young enough to be contenders for the 2022 Olympics as well. But they already represent a generation of skaters who have taken advantage of the resources that flocked to the region more than a decade ago and turned Washington into a breeding ground for short-track speedskating in the United States.
“The skaters have high expectations of themselves,” Mills said. “They push themselves in practice to an unbelievable extent. That’s kind of what it takes. Their goal isn’t to necessarily be the best in the area or even the U.S. Their goal is: How can I compete with the world’s best?”