ISU World Cup Short Track (KAZ) 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
The globe’s finest Short Track Speed Skaters head to Torino, Italy this weekend (8-10 February) on a dual mission. They’ll be tussling for ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating 2018/19 points and medals, of course – but in the season’s last meeting before the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2019 in Sofia, they’ll also be looking to sharpen up, and assess their opponents’ tactics prior to the calendar’s biggest event.
The season so far has been highly enjoyable for neutral fans: you’ve never quite known where the next surprise winner is going to come from, and the skating has been of the very highest quality.
Shaoang Liu (HUN) at the ISU European Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
The Men’s Short Track field has included two really consistent skaters this term: Hungary’s Shaoang Liu – who has dominated the overall competition – and China’s Wu Dajing, who has proven the man to beat over 500m.
Wu Dajing (CHN) at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (USA) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
But Dajing missed last weekend’s ISU World Cup event in Dresden, while Liu crashed during the heats, breaking three bones in his hand. Dajing won’t skate in Torino either, and although he’s on the start list, it’s uncertain whether Liu will be able to operate at full-tilt this weekend.
Given the additional absence of Dutch dynamo Sjinkie Knegt after a series of unfortunate off-ice injuries, the door was suddenly left open for other racers to step up and stake a claim in Dresden.
Hwang Dae Heon (KOR) at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (KAZ) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
It was the Koreans who rose to the challenge. On Saturday, Hwang Dae Heon seized gold in the first 1000m, while Kim Gun Woo cut through the field on the final bend to take victory in the 1500m. The next day, Lim Hyo Jun grabbed 500m gold, while Park Ji Won completed a whitewash of Republic of Korea wins in the second 1000m.
Lee June Seo (KOR) at ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (GER) 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
The unity between their racers is a vital part of it. As Kim Gun Woo said in Dresden: “My teammates are very good, and that makes me better.”
Charles Hamelin (CAN) ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (GER) 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
They’ll be desperate to take that form into Torino and on to the World Championships, but Hungary’s Shaolin Sandor Liu, Canada’s Charles Hamelin and Russia’s Semen Elistratov should all play a part in proceedings, too. In short – it’s wide open.
Suzanne Schulting (NED) at the ISU European Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
The Ladies’ races this season have been thrilling for a different reason: an epic, ongoing two-way battle between the Netherlands’ Suzanne Schulting and the Republic of Korea’s Choi Min Jeong to prevail as the season’s top racer.
Choi Min Jeong (KOR) at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (KAZ) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
Schulting has ruled over 1000m, while Choi has looked superior over 1500m, but the duo know that they can beat each other over any distance on the day, and will both go into Torino and the World Championships feeling bullish about their medal hopes.
Sofia Prosvirnova (RUS) at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (GER) 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
Sofia Prosvirnova is the main threat to their duopoly: the young Russian is racing with more craft and skill than ever before, and looks full of confidence coming into Torino.
Elise Christie (GBR) at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (KAZ) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
The gradual renaissance of Great Britain’s Elise Christie is also a fascinating subplot to the season. The 2017 overall World Champion seems to be back in love with Short Track, and her fierce ambition might lead to her peaking at just the right time this season.
Also likely to contend are Lara van Ruijven (NED), Kim Boutin (CAN) and Kim Ji Yoo (KOR). As for the local crowd – they’ll be pinning this weekend’s medal hopes on sprint specialist Martina Valcepina, who was on great form in Dresden.
All in all, it’ll be a fascinating conclusion to a fine World Cup season – and an exciting aperitif for Sofia.