There is bad news for Choi Min Jeong’s opponents next season. “I am feeling great at the moment,” says the quietly-spoken Republic of Korea skater from her training base in Seoul. “I’m currently doing a lot of core training and running. I’m really looking forward to the next season.”
Choi Min Jeong (KOR) at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
These may not be dramatic sentiments, but the fact remains that a full-powered Choi is something to fear. Last season, she was a shadow of her former self due to injury and post-Olympic exhaustion, and yet at the 2019 World Short Track Speed Skating Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria, she still managed to become gold medalist in the 1500m and the 3000m Relay, and take silver in the 1000m, 3000m Super Final and overall standings.
Kim Boutin (CAN), Choi Min Jeong (KOR) and Sofia Prosvirnova (RUS) at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
It is only when measured by her own ridiculously high standards – an Olympic 1500m gold medal at PyeongChang 2018, and three overall ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championship wins in four years between 2015 and 2018 – that her inability to become overall ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Champion for the fourth time can be seen as a “failure”.
Choi Min Jeong (KOR) at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
“I was exhausted, both physically and mentally, after the Olympics,” admits Choi. “I ended up thinking about taking a season off from international competition. But I decided to try again. I don’t have any regrets about my decision because skating is always fun. But I got some injuries during the season and that made me feel tired.
CHoi Min Jeong (KOR) and Sukhee Shim (KOR) at the Winter Olympic Games 2018©Getty Images
“I was so upset and stressed when I gave up the 1000m at the World Cup in Dresden, because of the injury that I got in the Kazakhstan World Cup. So just two weeks out from the World Championships, my recovery was being delayed. I considered giving up, and not going to Bulgaria. I thought I could prepare for the Korea representative tournament in April instead.
Choi Min Jeong (KOR) at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (KAZ) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
“But I’d decided to do my best and go to the Worlds. I had a better result than I thought I would but I was unsatisfied with my tactics. This is the part I will improve next season. But I felt a huge happiness when I was in the stadium where the World Championships were held. It helped me to grow, mentally.”
Sofia Prosvirnova (RUS) and Choi Min Jeong (KOR) at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
It’s understandable that Choi suffered something of a post-PyeongChang 2018 hangover. In the four-year Olympic cycle prior to the Games, she dominated totally, winning endless ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating races, and becoming overall champion three times, with only Elise Christie in 2017 able to break her dominance. Everything was designed to make sure Choi peaked on home ice, during Korea’s biggest-ever Winter Olympic moment. And she timed it perfectly.
Jinyu Li (CHN) Choi Min Jeong (KOR) and Kim Boutin (CAN) at the Winter Olympic Games 2018©Getty Images
“I could not believe that I was the World Champion in 2015, since I did not expect the result at all,” she says. “That result really made me grow up. And then in 2018, it was the happiest moment of my life when I won the gold medal in the 1500m. It is my motivation to continue my competitive career as a skater.
Choi Min Jeong (KOR) at the Winter Olympic Games 2018©Getty Images
“All the races on the way to me winning 1500m were intense, especially the semifinal and the final. But a lot of training helped me go through, and then win. Racing in front of the Korean audiences was always exciting, and a real honor. Their support made me stronger, and makes me stronger now.”
Choi is a superstar back home but maintains a grounded presence when asked about the mania which unfolded following her Olympic win. “Currently, I’m getting a lot of attention,” she admits. “But I’m so grateful to the people’s support. I want to return the favor with good performances. I was really surprised after I got the gold medal because I received many letters and gifts from my fans after the competition. I’m thankful to them, and am trying to be humble at all times.”
She celebrated in that low-key and humble manner by doing the one thing she’s been doing – for seven to eight hours a day – since the age of eight: training. “I went to training camp, alone, for a month, after the Olympics,” she says. “Sometimes it was lonely and hard. But I met good people, learned great training schedules and made good experience. I love skating. I spend almost every moment on training. I really like the feeling of cool wind and fast speed.”
Choi Min Jeong (KOR) and Kim Ji Yoo (KOR) at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (ITA) 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
Choi became an athlete after her elementary school teacher saw her potential. “She saw me running fast, and suggested I could be good,” and attributes her success thus far to “a distinct sense of purpose, and enjoying every moment of skating. It was tough, starting so young, but I wanted to be a good skater, and I’ve always tried the best I can do.”
Still just 20, it seems entirely possible that Choi can break Yang Yang’s record of six overall ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships (which the Chinese legend won consecutively between 1997 and 2002). “I will try,” she says with a smile. “Winning at the World Championships is the goal of every athlete. Breaking Yang Yang’s record will be very intense because she was a great athlete, but if I keep going, maybe I can do it.”
Yang Yang (CHN) at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2015©Getty Images
2019 revealed a new rival to the throne, however: Dutch speedster Suzanne Schulting, who out-muscled Choi in Bulgaria. “She has the power and fast start, she is a great athlete,” says Choi. “The Olympics had a good influence on her, in the same way that the Olympics has given a great impact on me. But I cannot predict who will be my rival next year. I will just focus on how much I am developing. I will leave it to fate.”
Choi Min Jeong (KOR) and Suzanne Schulting (NED) at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships (2019)©International Skating Union (ISU)
Korea’s team are gradually helping her back to 100%, she says. “All the female skaters who are on the Korea national team for the 2019/20 season will be ones to look out for. I’m a proud member of the team, and we learn a number of things from each other. We support each other.”
Team Korea at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
Back at her best, her attempt to reclaim the No.1 spot next season will be fascinating.