Sang-Hwa Lee (KOR) at the Winter Olympic Games 2018©Getty Images
Two-time Olympic Champion Sang-Hwa Lee (KOR) has announced her retirement from Speed Skating at an emotional press conference in Seoul on May 16, 2019. The 30-year-old Korean sprinter suffered from a persistent chronic knee injury, which has been hampering her for years already. With 36.36 seconds Lee is the current world record holder in the ladies' 500m.
Jenna Wolf (GER) Lee Sang-Hwa (KOR) Beixing Wang (CHN) at the Winter Olympic Games 2010©AFP
At the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver Lee became the first Korean female Olympic Speed Skating champion, when she took gold in the 500m, beating Germany's Jenny Wolf, the world-record holder at the time. Four years later Lee retained her 500m title at the Sochi 2014 Games in Russia.
Olga Fatkulina (RUS) Sang-Hwa Lee (KOR) and Margot Boer (NED) at the Winter Olympic Games 2014©AFP
Lee's path to Olympic glory had not been easy. She followed the footsteps of her older brother Lee Sang-Jun when she took up Speed Skating as a kid. Her parents could not afford facilitating both their children's Speed Skating activities, however at age 13 Sang-Jun gave up skating so Sang-Hwa could continue.
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어렸을때부터 편견없이 남자들처럼 똑같이 운동하고 싶었어 물론 힘들었으며 참을수없는 고통이 따랐었고 포기하고도 싶었고 그만 두고도 싶었어, 그치만 여자로서의 멋진모습을 보여주고싶어서 지금 이 자리까지 오게 되었고, 내가 하고 싶은 운동에서 목표를 이루고 싶었어! 내 자신을 위해 내 미래를 위해 전진하자! 그렇다면 어느 순간 세계를 제패하고 있을테니까 Let's make #likeagirl mean amazing things!???????? #여자답게 #멈추지마 #위스퍼 #코스모 #likeagirl #giftfromwhisper #cosmopolitan https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVMPtmnhuvE
The young Sang-Hwa quickly showed signs of talent and at age 14 Lee skated her first international races in Canada in 2003 and a year later she made her debut at the ISU World Junior Speed Skating Championships in Roseville, Minnesota, in the United States. Although Lee was the youngest participant, she managed to take third place in the 500m.
Lee quickly left the junior ranks to challenge the world's best sprinters in the senior ranks. With two fourth place finishes in the 500m at the 2005 ISU World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships in Inzell, the Korean took bronze in the shortest distance.
Sang-Hwa Lee (KOR) at the Winter Olympic Games 2006©Getty Images
At the Torino 2006 Winter Olympic Games, Lee was 16-years-old and finished fifth in the 500m. Her Olympic title four years later initiated her most prolific years as a Speed Skater. Lee took the World Sprint title in 2010 in Obihiro, Japan, and she won the 500m title at the ISU World Single Distances Championships in 2012, 2013 and 2016.
Sang-Hwa Lee (KOR) at the ISU World Cup Speed Skating (CAN) 2013©Getty Images
After having won all major international titles in her favorite 500m, Lee affirmed her status as fastest lady on ice by breaking the 500m world record, not less than three times. In 2012 China's Jing Yu had skated 36.94 seconds to become the first lady to skate the 500m under 37 seconds. Almost two years later Lee achieved a time of 36.74 at an ISU World Cup Speed Skating race in Calgary in November 2013. Less than a week later she improved the record even further to 36.57 seconds in Salt Lake City, and the next day she managed to beat her own record again with a time of 36.36 seconds, a world record that remains unbeaten to date.
Sang-Hwa Lee (KOR) at the ISU World Cup Speed Skating (USA) 2013©Getty Images
Despite already struggling with knee problems, Lee went on to retain her Olympic 500m title at the Sochi 2014 Olympics. She had planned to undergo surgery after Sochi, but decided to postpone the operation until after PyeongChang 2018 because her condition improved ahead of the 2015/16 season.
Sang-Hwa Lee (KOR) at the ISU World Cup Speed Skating (USA) 2017©International Skating Union (ISU)
With Lee constantly battling knee troubles, Japan's Nao Kodaira took over the women's 500m crown at the ISU World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships in 2017 at the Gangneung Olympic Oval, the venue that the Korean would see her crowned 500m Olympic Champion for the third consecutive time.
Sang-Hwa Lee (KOR), Nao Kodaira (JPN) and Karolina Erbanovab (CZE) at the Winter Olympic Games 2018©AFP
However, this proved to be a bridge too far. As one of the PyeongChang 2018 ambassadors, Lee had to settle for silver on home soil as Kodaira took home the 500m title and Lee was in tears after her race was over. Lee and Kodaira skated a lap of honor together. The expression of their friendship, sharing joy and grief while holding up the Korean and the Japanese flags, became one of the most iconic moments of those Games.
Although Lee did not officially quit after PyeongChang 2018, the knee injury kept her off the ice last season. With another three years to come before the Beijing 2022, Lee decided to call it a day.