Hwang Dae Heon (KOR) won the men's 1000m race © International Skating Union
Nothing could stop the all-powerful Korean squad from utterly dominating the first day of men’s finals at the ISU World Cup in Dresden, Germany on Saturday.
In a mesmerising display, the Korean men claimed four of the six medals on offer, including gold in both the 1500m and 1000m. According to one of their stars, Hwang Dae Heon, the fierce competition within the team is fuelling their exceptional form.
“It’s very difficult to be part of this team,” said Hwang, winner of the 1000m. “You have to train so hard just to be picked.”
These high standards were evident in the 1000m final. Hungary’s Shaolin Sandor Liu had breezed through the morning’s quarter and semifinals in typically relaxed style. The man who won three gold medals at last month’s European Championships also looked like the skater to beat for much of the final but, with two laps to go, a blur of white and black spandex flew past him.
“It is really hard to fight three Koreans,” Liu said. “But it was a pretty good race. Maybe I should have been more aggressive. I need to learn from this.”
Liu faded to finish last but Canadian Charle Cournoyer ensured the Koreans did not have it all their own way. The two-time Olympic medallist recovered from a bad mistake early on to split the three Koreans, grabbing silver and pushing Hong Kyung Hwan into bronze.
Kim Gun Woo claimed gold for Korea in a dramatic men's 1500m © International Skating Union
“I was expecting them to work as a team and they did it pretty well,” Cournoyer said. “We were five in the race and I beat three - not too bad.”
That left Park Ji Won, currently second in the season-long 1000m World Cup standings, out of the medals. The man ahead of him in those rankings, Shaoang Liu (HUN), did not make the finals after crashing during heats on Friday and breaking three bones in his left hand. It was an absence his brother felt hard.
“I think from 2013 we haven’t gone to a World Cup without each other,” the elder Liu said. “It’s a bit hard but I have to learn from this one as well. I was racing for him today but it didn’t go how I planned it. Hopefully (it will) tomorrow.”
Shaoang Liu hopes to recover in time for the 2019 World Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria in March. Meanwhile, his brother will have to find a way past the Korean juggernaut if he is to bring a gold back home from Dresden.
In what was undoubtedly the race of the day, Kim Gun Woo (KOR) came flying through the field on the final bend to take gold in the 1500m and showed why he tops the long-distance World Cup rankings.
But the 20-year-old had to fight for it. Veteran Canadian Charles Hamelin, who won the first two of his three Olympic gold medals back in 2010, and teammate Steven Dubois took the race to Kim and his compatriot Lim Hyo Jun from the gun. The four skaters hit the tape just over two minutes and 15 seconds later with barely the width of a skate separating them.
Canada's Charles Hamelin picked up silver in a 1500m photo-finish © International Skating Union
“I was pushing to get the gold but they were really quick at the end and I didn’t want to get caught in a bump on the last corner,” Hamelin said. “So I just tried to hold on and stretch for the line.”
The photo-finish placed the 34-year-old second with Lim in third and the unlucky Dubois in fourth. Just 0.098 seconds separated the top four, delighting the raucous crowd inside the Energieverbund Arena and providing the evergreen Hamelin with plenty of reasons to carry on skating.
“I can’t describe how great I feel right now, I am doing this because I love it,” Hamelin said. “I am here to inspire kids on the national team with me and back in Canada. If I can still do that then it’s job done for me. These races just make me want to continue.”
With Kim Boutin claiming silver in the women’s 1500m, it was an impressive day for team Canada but the last word went to the all-conquering Koreans.
“My teammates are very good and that makes me better,” said Kim Gun Woo. “I felt really strong and quick during the race. I have a lot of confidence.”
Racing continues on Sunday with the second men’s 1000m, the 500m, the popular mixed 2000m relay and the men’s 5000m.