Speedskater Finds Career Where He Least Expected
Saturday, March 7, 2009
After playing a reluctant role in one of the most controversial races in Olympic history seven years ago in Salt Lake City, South Korean speedskating star Kim Dong-Sung vowed never to return to the United States.
Kim was in the middle of celebrating what he assumed was his gold medal victory in the 1,500 meters when he learned he had been disqualified for interfering with U.S. star Apolo Anton Ohno, who ended up receiving the first-place medal. Kim was so upset he needed oxygen in his hotel room that night. The South Korean delegation challenged the result, then threatened to boycott the Closing Ceremonies. Some 16,000 angry e-mails from South Korea crashed the U.S. Olympic Committee's computer system.
But there he was this week at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, wearing baggy jeans, a navy coat and gold-bladed skates, chasing speedsuit-wearing American children around the ice during an evening practice session. "Push, push, push!" he exhorted.
Kim's life since the 2002 Winter Games has unfolded with all of the unexpected twists of a typical final in short-track speedskating. Agonized at hearing the U.S. national anthem seven years ago, Kim now wants to ensure it is played. He aspires to create a U.S. Olympic champion in the Washington suburbs.
Ten of Kim's students will compete next weekend at the sport's national age-group championships in Midland, Mich., a competition that will help Kim evaluate his students' progress and his own proficiency in a profession he didn't consider pursuing until just more than two years ago. That's when a Maryland speedskating parent who heard he was in the country called him up and invited him to coach.
"I came here not as a player, but as a person looking for a future career," Kim, 28, said partly through an interpreter before the start of Tuesday's training session. "I didn't even bring my skates."
Now he doesn't plan to leave.
"My goals have changed," he said. "I want to make a national team member out of one of my young kids."
At home in South Korea following the 2002 Olympics, Kim's status as a national hero grew. He already had won a gold and silver medal at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano. He would win a record five world titles three months later. He got mobbed at restaurants and appeared on the covers of magazines. He pitched soda, ice cream and was sponsored by a brokerage company.
"I got so many honorary medals from companies, sponsors and cities," he said. "But the one I desired was the real one from the Olympics. . . . I thought the sport was so corrupted. I was in my best form; I could have gotten so much more, but the referees in this sport make the outcome."
Kim's persistent anguish made him determined to fix the problem in the best way he could: by becoming an international referee. The South Korea speedskating association supported his quest, he said, and figured he would also be a perfect fit to represent the nation as a member of the International Olympic Committee. But for both endeavors, he would need to learn English.
That's when his retirement took its first odd turn. The speedskating association offered to pay to send Kim, his wife, Yoo Jin, and daughter Na Young, now nearly 4, to San Francisco for a year where Kim could attend language school.