- - Thursday, January 25, 2018

Olympic speedskater Thomas Hong wants to correct this for the record. He wasn’t literally born on the ice.

The truth may have gotten stretched as the story was retold. But in reality, Hong’s pregnant mother was at a skating rink in South Korea, watching her daughter Stephanie on the ice, when she “felt that he was coming.” He was delivered in a hospital in Seoul.

Either way, the 20-year-old skater is at home on the ice — and in the country of his birth, where the Laurel, Maryland, resident will compete in two events for the U.S. speedskating team next month in the Winter Games in Pyeongchang.

“Having the Olympics be in South Korea, somewhere that I’m so familiar with, somewhere that my family can all be comfortable, it just means a lot,” Hong said. “It’s just very special to return to a place that I know so well. I feel so lucky and I honestly wouldn’t have it at any other place.”

Many of Hong’s relatives still live in South Korea, including his father, who works there.

Since his family immigrated to the U.S. in 2001, Hong has spent most summers in South Korea training and visiting relatives in Seoul — about 2.5 hours away from Pyeongchang and nearby Gangneung, the city hosting all Olympic ice events.

Family inevitably will be a big part of the Games for Hong — but he said that while in Pyeongchang, he plans to focus on the task at hand.

“The Olympic Games is where, as athletes, we really have to be 100 percent ready,” Hong said. “I’m gonna try to conserve my body, conserve my energy and make sure that I’m ready for my race days.”

In December, Hong finished fourth overall among men at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Utah, which secured his spot on the team. He will compete in the men’s 500-meter race and 5,000-meter relay.

The 500 meters is the shortest distance contested at the Games, akin to a sprint, and it’s an event in which Hong won silver at the 2016-17 World Junior Championships in Innsbruck, Austria.

Anthony Barthell, the U.S. men’s short track national team coach, believes that experience will help Hong’s mental preparation for the Olympics.

“At Junior Worlds he ended up racing a few guys on the World Cup circuit,” Barthell said. “It gave him a good baseline to compare himself to where he needs to be.”

One of his main competitors will be Hungary’s Shaoang Liu, who beat Hong for the gold in Innsbruck.

Simon Cho, a Rockville, Maryland, resident who frequently skated with Hong, thinks he’s up for the challenge.

“I’ve seen him skate the 500 over the course of his career and he just has an explosive start,” said Cho, now the head coach at Potomac Speedskating Club. “He’s not afraid of going fast, and the 500 meters — because it’s a sprint race, it requires a lot of quick thinking and (smarts). I think he has a combination of all of those things.”

In the relay, a four-man, 45-lap race, Hong is likely to serve as the starter.

Barthell said Hong got his feet wet on the World Cup circuit last year as the team’s No. 3 or 4 racer.

“He gained quite a bit of experience last year so he’s now far more comfortable at the No. 1,” Barthell said. “He conserves when he needs to and still has enough at the end of the race to still go back and give it his all.”

Hong started to learn to skate just before turning five, and it was the only sport he kept up competitively as he grew. The “Olympic goal” (which he prefers to say rather than “Olympic dream”) came later on, he said.

“When I was younger I just enjoyed the sport and enjoyed just going fast,” Hong said. “The goal of making the Olympics was something I realized when I was around 13 or 14 years old when I went to my first international competition. Experiencing competing at a different level, competing with skaters that I had never met before. That excitement is what made me realize I wanted to potentially make it to the Games.”

A few years ago, he started his college career at the University of Maryland, but left the school, and the state, in September 2016 to train full-time at the national team’s facility in Utah.

Hong may decide to shoot for one more Olympic cycle after Pyeongchang. He still plans to return to his academic goal, studying finance at Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

“For years that it isn’t an Olympic year, there’s just not that much exposure to our sport,” Hong said. “It’s a combination of many things that makes it difficult to really pursue it. I think I have one more cycle that I’d be really happy with and we’ll see where I go from there.”

The men’s 5,000-meter final takes place Feb. 11, and the 500-meter final on Feb. 19. Provided Hong and his relay team advance to the finals those days, he’ll be going for the gold in his family’s home country while representing the country where he was raised.

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