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Simon Cho's Olympic speedskating opportunity rewards his family's investment

Simon Cho skated extensively while his family lived in Laurel. Now he will compete as a member of the U.S. short-track team.
Simon Cho skated extensively while his family lived in Laurel. Now he will compete as a member of the U.S. short-track team. (Douglas C. Pizac For The Washington Post)
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By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Born in Seoul, Simon Cho sneaked into the United States illegally with his mother and sister 14 years ago, slipping through a border crossing near Vancouver, B.C. His search for the American dream began with the sort of furtive move that he now relies on in the mayhem-filled sport of short-track speedskating, which he mastered during years of training at the Arlington-based Potomac Speedskating Club.

Cho, 18, now a U.S. citizen, will make a triumphant return to Vancouver in February as a member of the U.S. Olympic team that will compete in the Winter Games. But his journey has been anything but smooth.

Until recently considered an up-and-comer on the cusp of moving into the country's super elite, Cho has struggled to qualify for coveted Olympic grants that would help offset annual speedskating costs of nearly $40,000. To meet his sport's heavy training demands, Cho dropped out of high school after his sophomore year.

Last year, his parents sold their small, take-out restaurant, Kasey's Seafood in Upper Marlboro, merely to pay the bills.

"It doesn't matter for the rich people, but I am not rich," said Cho's father, Jay, who moved his wife and daughter into a rental apartment with their son in Salt Lake City, where Jay Cho took a part-time job. "If you don't have money, it's very tough to have the American dream."

Simon Cho, meantime, said public schools in Maryland and Utah -- private school was out of the question -- would not accommodate his full-time commitment to the sport.

Despite the myriad sacrifices, Cho did not expect to qualify for the five-person U.S. men's short-track Olympic team during the September trials in Marquette, Mich.

Still 17, Cho was considerably younger than most of the top athletes in the sport, a wild discipline requiring supreme quickness, speed, strategy -- and experience. Five-time Olympic medal winner Apolo Ohno, considered one of the best in the world, is 27.

"When I say nobody thought I would make the team, literally nobody thought I would make it," Cho said during a phone interview from Salt Lake City. "Not even me."

'He was super good'

After arriving in the United States to work in 1993, Jay Cho did not intend to bring his family from South Korea without the proper paperwork, but the wait for green cards was seven years, and he missed his family. In 1996, he met his wife, daughter Anna, then 2, and Simon, then 4, in Vancouver. They stayed for a week in a motel, then made their way without incident across the border.

Helped by more relaxed immigration regulations at that time, the family obtained green cards by 2001, and all became U.S. citizens by 2004. After several years in Chicago and Harrisburg, Pa., where Cho worked as a software programmer, the family moved to Laurel, seeking better training for Simon. Since taking up the sport at age 3 in his home country, he had shown promise.

"He didn't know whether he liked it or not, but in every competition, he got first place," his father said.

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