South Korea

Matt Dalton
AP

South Korea’s Olympic ringers sing their way onto the team

Leave a comment

To earn a place on South Korea’s team for next year’s Olympics, you may need to brush up on your singing.

A rendition of the national anthem in front of immigration officials is a daunting but necessary hurdle faced by the many foreign-born athletes seeking to represent the home team at the Pyeongchang Games.

Alexander Gamelin, an ice dancer from Boston, has the anthem memorized and is reading up on Korean culture and history ahead of his immigration interview. The aim is to become a naturalized citizen, then a South Korean Olympian.

“He’s smart. He catches on pretty quick,” said Gamelin’s dance partner, California-born South Korean citizen Yura Min. “Honestly, I think Alex does know more than I do at this point.”

Without much of a winter sports tradition besides speedskating and women’s figure skating, South Korea is eager to use foreign talent to flesh out its Olympic roster.

That means Canadian veterans on the hockey team, a German in luge and Russians in biathlon. Since 2011, 20 athletes have been naturalized, according to the Justice Ministry. Not all will compete at the Olympics and few have hopes of a medal, but they’ll give South Korean fans someone to cheer for in unfamiliar sports.

And when Koreans cheer their own, they really cheer, as Gamelin found when competing in February on the Olympic ice.

“Yura and I were mobbed by all these Korean fans who wanted to take pictures and get autographs,” he said. “It was all a little overwhelming.”

Although Gamelin and Min live and train in the United States, he’s learning Korean at college and hopes to move to the Asian country as a coach in the future.

The last Winter Olympic host country, Russia, also recruited many foreigners ahead of the 2014 Sochi Games. Then the focus was firmly on winning.

Naturalized foreigners had a role in seven of the 13 gold medals which took Russia to the top of the medals table, including team events. One of them, South Korean speedskater Viktor Ahn — formerly Ahn Hyun-Soo — left with three golds.

Biathlete Timofei Lapshin said he’s now known as “the Russian Viktor Ahn” after making the switch in reverse.

Lapshin is a talented athlete, with a smattering of podium finishes on the World Cup circuit, but struggled to make the highly-competitive Russian team. After a super-fast naturalization process — he said the first enquiries were made only in September — he now holds a South Korean passport.

“I only know a few words (of Korean) here and there, but I’ll try to learn it and hope soon I’ll be able to speak,” said Lapshin, who has spent only about two months in his new country because of training and competitions elsewhere.

With Russia mired in doping scandals, including allegations of tampering with Olympic drug tests, there are calls for the country to be banned from next year’s Pyeongchang Games. Lapshin portrays the scandal as politically motivated against Russia.

“I hope that everything will be fine and no one will be suspended,” he said. “Politics shouldn’t be mixed with sport.”

The South Korean Olympic committee said biathlon officials in the country looked into its four new Russian-born biathletes by checking International Biathlon Union records, which showed that none of the four had ever tested positive. However, all four competed at elite level during a time when investigations have found drug use in Russia was rife.

For Lapshin or former world junior luge champion Aileen Frisch, South Korea offers a second chance for stalled careers. For journeyman hockey player Matt Dalton, it’s been an even wilder ride.

Dalton was in Russia during the last Olympics — not in Sochi, but playing for a club in the industrial city of Nizhnekamsk. He was a backup goaltender for the Boston Bruins, but never played a minute in the NHL, so Olympic glory wasn’t even on his radar.

Now, after three seasons in the South Korean league, he’s set to be a starting goaltender at the Olympics. Home fans will know him by the nickname Halla Sung — “protector of the castle.”

“I would have never thought it was possible in a million years,” Dalton said. “(In Russia) I got to see how the country rallies around the Olympics … To be able to be a part of something like that now is pretty special.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: South Korea hockey team leans on naturalized Canadian goalie

Takeaways from World Short Track Speed Skating Championships

AP
Leave a comment

Three thoughts off the weekend’s World Short Track Speed Skating Championships …

1. Elise Christie is one of the great athlete stories for PyeongChang

The Briton won the 1000m and 1500m and finished third in the 3000m last weekend to become the first European woman to bag the world overall title. It marked the peak of a decade-long ascent for the two-time Olympian who was a figure skater until age 15.

Christie had a nightmare Sochi Olympics. She was disqualified from the 500m final (colliding with another skater), disqualified from the 1000m semifinals (colliding with another skater) and disqualified from the 1500m opening round (finishing too far inside).

Christie was cyberbullied as well, reportedly by South Korean accounts upset that her collision in the 500m final wiped out Park Seung-Hi‘s shot at gold. Christie’s Twitter account was temporarily deactivated.

“It took me about two years to get over what happened in Sochi, not just the outcome but also the repercussions after what people had said,” Christie said on the BBC on Tuesday. “I lost a lot of self-confidence as a person, outside of sport, but obviously I’ve learned to live with who I am now.”

She rebounded at the world championships, winning one medal in March 2014, then two in 2015 and three in 2016, plus the overall bronze.

Christie won multiple races at World Cup stops in Shanghai and the 2018 Olympic venue of Gangneung, South Korea, in December (saying she was received warmly by South Koreans in Gangneung). But she suffered a concussion in January, knocking her out of February’s World Cups.

Christie said she lost vision in her left eye with numbness all down the left side of her face. She experienced headaches and wasn’t able to sleep properly.

Yet in Rotterdam, Christie was superb. In the 1000m in particular, passing two South Koreans with two laps left in her semifinal and then making passes on three of the last four laps to win the final.

“World champion overall has always been my dream goal,” Christie told the BBC. “The Olympic goal is obviously a dream, but this is more because you have to be consistent. You have to get everything right again and again and again.”

An Olympic gold in PyeongChang “would make everything from Sochi just disappear,” she said.

2. South Korean men rise up, women suffer misfortune

Of South Korea’s 53 Winter Olympic medals, 42 have come in short track speed skating. South Koreans have won twice as many Olympic short track golds than any other country.

So the world championships, one year before South Korea hosts its first Winter Olympics, were huge.

The South Korean men came through, unlike the Sochi Winter Games, where they went medal-less for the first time in Olympic history.

Seo Yi-Ra won South Korea’s first overall world title in four years, ending its longest stretch between men’s overall titles since the Koreans came to prominence 25 years ago. Sin Da-Woon, part of that desultory effort in Sochi, added the 1500m gold. South Korea earned at least one medal in all four individual men’s races in Rotterdam.

The South Korean women were not successful. Stunning considering Shim Suk-Hee and Choi Min-Jeong combined to win the last three overall world titles. Shim, a triple 2014 Olympic medalist who changed the last four digits of her phone number to 2018, salvaged the team’s effort by winning the final individual race, the 3000m, in Rotterdam.

Choi, 18, was bidding for her third straight overall title but came home with no medals. It was largely as a result of bad luck. She crashed in the 1500m final and the 500m semis, with other skaters at least partially to blame. In the 1000m, Choi was passed for the lead by Christie on the final lap and appeared to have silver wrapped up, but was disqualified.

The South Koreans can take solace in the fact that Russian Viktor Ahn, the former South Korean Ahn Hyun-Soo, struggled in Rotterdam. Ahn, who was .077 away from sweeping the Sochi Olympic golds, earned just one medal over the weekend, a bronze in the 3000m. Ahn was not a factor in the 1500m and 500m finals and was eliminated in the 1000m quarterfinals after taking last season off.

3. U.S. struggles

Only one U.S. skater qualified for a final — three-time Olympic medalist J.R. Celski, who was eighth in the 1500m. The U.S. went medal-less at a third straight worlds, its longest drought in at least 20 years. This comes after the U.S. earned no individual medals at the Olympics for the second time in the sport’s short Olympic history (since 1992).

The U.S. program has descended since Apolo Ohno‘s last Olympics in 2010. Its headlines since have centered on skate-tampering and coaching-abuse scandals.

But there is a bit of a silver lining heading into the Olympic season.

Celski, the biggest U.S. star, could still be finding his form after significant knee and hip injuries. Katherine Reutter, a 2010 Olympic medalist and 2011 World champion, showed promising signs making World Cup finals this season after a three-year retirement. But Reutter missed worlds after a concussion earlier in the winter.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: One year out: PyeongChang Olympic storylines

Lindsey Vonn set to race at PyeongChang Olympic venue, live in primetime

AP
Leave a comment

Lindsey Vonn says this weekend’s World Cup races at the 2018 Olympic venue in South Korea aren’t so much about winning as they are about gaining confidence.

“My goal is just to try and get as much experience on the track as possible, to get a good feeling on it and really analyze it, remember it for next year,” Vonn said Thursday. “The pressure will come next year, not so much this year.”

Nevertheless, Vonn posted the fastest time in training in Jeongseon on Thursday, .17 ahead of the top downhiller this season, Ilka Stuhec of Slovenia.

The women’s field is set for one more training run before a World Cup downhill race on Friday at 9 p.m. ET (live on NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

They will race again in a super-G on Saturday (also 9 p.m. ET, live on NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

The World Cup stop doubles as a 2018 Olympic test event.

It’s a rare chance to watch Vonn live in primetime in the U.S. Most World Cup races are held in Europe in the late morning or early afternoon, making for early wake-ups for American viewers.

South Korea is 14 hours ahead of New York.

Vonn arrived in South Korea on Tuesday and said at the airport that she was 70 percent fit and getting better, according to Yonhap News Agency.

Vonn, who won 2010 Olympic downhill gold but missed the 2014 Olympics due to crash-related injuries, is once again fighting neck whiplash from a race crash last Saturday. And food poisoning from earlier that week.

She returned to racing in January after suffering three knee fractures in a Feb. 27, 2016, race crash and breaking her right upper arm in a Nov. 10 training crash.

Vonn is also fighting age. She turns 33 in October. The oldest female Olympic Alpine skiing medalist ever was 32 years old.

“Most females retire before 33, so, yeah, I’m pretty sure PyeongChang will be my last Olympics,” Vonn said.

Vonn has three goals left in her career. The biggest is to break the record for World Cup wins of 86 held by retired Swede Ingemar Stenmark. She is at 77 wins.

A year ago, it looked as if Vonn could break Stenmark’s record before the 2018 Olympics. But those crashes and injuries limited her to one victory since Feb. 6, 2016 after averaging 8.5 wins per season the last two years.

“I’m not sure how many World Cups I’ll have won before the Olympics, but hopefully more than 77,” Vonn joked Thursday.

As for the Olympics, Vonn said in previous interviews that she wanted to reclaim the Olympic downhill title in PyeongChang. She was more modest on Thursday.

“I hope to win a medal, hopefully one or two, one would be great,” said Vonn, whose third goal is to race against men at some point after the 2018 Olympics. “My main focus before PyeongChang is to stay healthy.”

In 2008, Vonn finished second in the downhill at the 2010 Olympic test event in Whistler, B.C., missing the victory by one-hundredth of a second.

No matter, Vonn broke out that season by bagging six wins, her first of four World Cup overall titles and the status as biggest American star going into Vancouver Winter Games.

Two years later, Vonn won the Olympic downhill by more than a half-second over Julia Mancuso, who is also in Jeongseon this week and may race for the first time since March 2015.

Vonn has company in this Olympic cycle in the form of Sochi slalom gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin, who is poised to win this season’s World Cup overall title as world’s best all-around skier. She would be the first American to claim the crown since Vonn.

Though Shiffrin has victories this season in slalom, giant slalom and super combined, she is not expected to race in the downhill and super-G on Friday and Saturday. Shiffrin planned to fly back to the U.S. early to prep for next weekend’s World Cup giant slalom and slalom in Squaw Valley, Calif.

So the focus is again on Vonn, who on Thursday was once again the fastest on an Olympic track, albeit in training.

“It wasn’t perfect, but it was a good first training run,” she said. “It’s not necessarily whether I win these test events or not, so much as how confident I am on the track.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Shiffrin breaks through with first combined win