Salt Lake City, USA

#WCShortTrack          #OneHandDown

Thomas Insuk Hong (USA) was always meant to be a skater. Across the sporting world, it’s common for athletes to speak of a sense of destiny that led them inextricably towards their chosen sport. But Hong’s connection to skating goes deeper than most: he was almost born on the ice.

Seoul-born Hong is the leading light among Team USA’s next generation of skaters, and their main medal hope at this weekend’s ISU Short Track World Cup in Salt Lake City.

Thomas Insuk Hong USA 2015©International Skating Union(ISU) 496900914

Thomas Insuk Hong (USA) 2015©International Skating Union(ISU)

“My sister actually started in Short Track before I was even born,” Hong said, after a training session at the Utah Olympic Oval, where this weekend’s action takes place. “My mum was heavily pregnant with me, and watching my sister practice, when she went into labor and got rushed to hospital. So, yeah, I was nearly born on the rink.”

Hong took up skating shortly after his family emigrated from the Republic of Korea to Maryland, USA, when he was just four. The intricate movements of the sport always came easily to him. But while many skaters are initially captivated by speed, the sheer thrill of feeling their body flowing rhythmically across the ice, Hong was also hooked from a young age by the endless quest for the perfect race.

Thomas Insuk Hong USA Ruslan ZakharovRUS Zachary BiggsNZE Clement FloraFRA WCSTSS CHN 2016©International Skating Union(ISU) 629002590

Thomas Insuk Hong (USA) Ruslan Zakharov (RUS) Zachary Biggs (NZL) Clement Flora (FRA) ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (CHN)2016©International Skating Union (ISU)

“Perfection is very elusive in our sport,” Hong said. “The margins are so narrow, and the risks that we take are so extreme. We’re skating out there with knives basically strapped to our feet, reaching speeds of more than 40km/h, yet there’s such a fine balance that we’re trying to achieve. And there are many ways that you can approach our rather simple sport and see small improvements. Feeling like you’re making those improvements and getting closer to that perfection is a very addictive thing for me.”

As an athlete who knows two cultures, there is something reminiscent of the Korean school of skating about Hong’s dedication to perfection. The powerhouse of Short Track, Rep. Korea spawns champion skaters in the same manner that Brazil generates soccer stars, and while Hong has always regarded himself as an American, his Korean heritage has played a crucial role in his skating development.

Thomas Insuk Hong USA WJSTSSC AUT 2017©International Skating Union(ISU) 632967248

Thomas Insuk Hong(USA) ISU World Junior Short Track Speed Skating Championships (AUT) 2017©International Skating Union(ISU)

As Hong explains, this began with his grandmother, the woman he describes as “the backbone of my skating career”, who would wake him up and drive him to early-morning training sessions, urging him to make the most of his aptitude for the sport.

“It used to be common in Korean culture for the grandmother to be very present in the lives of the grandchildren,” Hong said. “So my grandma used to take my sister to skating practice, then me. As I began improving she would be encouraging and slightly coaching me. She had no prior history in the sport but she had an eye for it. Even today, she watches most of my practices back in Maryland and if I have a bad day, I’ll ask her how I did. She’ll always say things I need to hear. From my technique, to how explosive or how weak I look, she’ll mention it all.”

Thomas Insuk Hong USA WJSTSSC AUT 2017©International Skating Union(ISU) 632918226

Thomas Insuk Hong(USA) ISU World Junior Short Track Speed Skating Championships (AUT) 2017©International Skating Union(ISU)

Every summer, Hong would return to Seoul to stay with his father – who’d moved back to Korea for work – and train with local skaters. While astonished by the commitment of his Korean peers, many of whom were already devoting their whole lives to the sport by the age of nine, the vacations gave him a robust technical base to go with his talent.

“That helped him, for sure,” said Wilma Boomstra, the head coach of the US Short Track national training program. “If you get a skater at 21, and they’ve never built a technical base when they were younger, it’s hard to create that. But he also has a natural feel for the ice, and an understanding of how the body works. I’ve seen many Americans and Europeans who have gone to train in Korea but they don’t come back the same way because they don’t have the natural ability that he has.”

Thomas Insuk Hong USA WCSTSS NED2018©International Skating Union(ISU) 858666520

Thomas Insuk Hong(USA) ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (NED) 2018©International Skating Union(ISU)

But while skating came easily to Hong, there were many external challenges. Ice time at his local rink in Maryland was always limited due to costs, and, at the age of 13, he almost quit the sport due to chronic knee pain during a growth spurt.

“It was a very weird and frustrating time for me,” Hong said. “When you’re that age, you’re constantly growing, so you’re used to always getting faster and better at the sport. And then it just came to a dead halt, even though I was training more and more. I’m sure I was being a baby about it but it just hurt being down in our skating position. I just wasn’t comfortable. And if you’re not comfortable, you can’t put the power down into the ice.”

Thomas Insuk Hong USA WJSTSSC AUT 2017©International Skating Union(ISU) 632917838

Thomas Insuk Hong (USA), Shaong Liu (HUN) and Kazuki Yoshinaga (JPN) ISU World Junior Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2017 (AUT)©International Skating Union(ISU)

After five months away from the ice, Hong’s body had healed and he couldn’t resist returning to skating and getting #OneHandDown, where his career continued to progress rapidly. By 18, he’d already been selected for the US national team to compete in his first World Cup events and, earlier this year, he made his Olympic debut in PyeongChang, in the country of his birth.


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Hong’s progress to the elite level has been rapid but some have been frustrated that the 21-year-old is yet to achieve the international success that his talent warrants. With

John Celski, the dominant American Short Track skater of the past decade, officially retiring earlier this week, there is a gulf to be filled.

Boomstra believes that Hong has been guilty of lacking a competitive edge at times on the ice. “I’ve known him for a long time and I always got mad at him because he was so much better than most skaters but he never really won,” she said. “I didn’t like his mentality that much. The least he has to worry about is his technique, but he hasn’t always had the grit I’ve wanted. When there’s a little opportunity, you’ve got to take it. You can’t just be too nice, and back off. That’s what I want from him going forward, and he knows it.”

John Henry Krueger Thomas Insuk Hong(USA) Gert Jan Goeminne Jens Almey(BEL) Keita Watanabe Satoshi Sakashita(JPN) Semen Elistratov Alexander Shulginov(RUS)2017©International Skati 875706148

John-Henry Krueger, Thomas Insuk Hong(USA) Gert-Jan Goeminne, Jens Almey (BEL) Keita Watanabe, Satoshi Sakashita (JPN) Semen Elistratov, Alexander Shulginov (RUS) 2017©International Skating Union (ISU)

The early signs this season, however, are promising: last weekend in Calgary, Hong made his first A final on the World Cup circuit, going head to head with Olympic Champion Wu Dajing (CHN), finishing fifth in the 500m (1). Afterwards, Hong said he felt he was getting better at reacting instinctively amidst the heat of competition.

“I’m definitely working on trying to be more dominant,” he said. “I think the key is just having no hesitation whatsoever. You don’t want to be penalized, because that’s your race over, but at the same time you don’t want to be so passive that you don’t seize the opportunity. In the past I haven’t always felt confident in my preparation, and that manifested itself on the ice, but in Calgary I felt speed was coming easily for me.”

Thomas Insuk Hong USA WJSTSSC AUT 2017©International Skating Union(ISU) 632918336

Thomas Insuk Hong(USA) ISU World Junior Short Track Speed Skating Championships (AUT) 2017©International Skating Union(ISU)

In some ways, the breakthrough is ironic, as Hong is currently training less than at any point in his career. Like many skaters, he’s long faced the dilemma of trying to juggle school with the relentless demands of training and competition. Following the Olympics, he decided to devote more attention to his university studies in finance and mathematics before returning to full-time skating.

“I’m kind of exceeding my expectations at the moment because right now I’m only on the ice three-to-four times a week,” he said. “This year, skating’s taking a bit of a back seat because I have to focus on my studies. But that will change further on, as the goal is to medal at World Cups, the World Championships and the Olympics.”

But Boomstra wouldn’t be surprised if he already fulfills one of those goals in Salt Lake City this weekend.

“He can medal, for sure,” she said. “Right now he doesn’t necessarily have the legs for the longer distances, with the lack of training, but he will always be a sprinter. He’s so technically sound that being a sprinter, and being that fast, he can still pull it off. I’m expecting a lot from him this weekend because he knows how he measures up now against the rest of the competition.”