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

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2010; A01

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.

Cho joined the now-defunct Wheaton Speedskating Club, which was succeeded by the Potomac Speedskating Club. Jimmy Jang, now an assistant coach for the U.S. national team in Salt Lake City, and Cho began working together in 2001, and Jang said he immediately knew he had a special talent on his hands.

"He was a great athlete," Jang said. "He was the next generation. . . . He was super good."

Cho advanced rapidly under Jang, winning a handful of age-group titles. "After one season under Jimmy, I knew I could be really good at this," Cho said.

By 2005, while at Murray Hill Middle School, Cho had won the juvenile division of the North American championships. In 2006, he qualified for the national team program in Marquette, Mich., where he attended public school -- Marquette Senior High -- for the last time, completing his freshman year. That January, he became the youngest to qualify for the U.S. junior world championship team that went to the Czech Republic. Then 15, he finished eighth in the 500-meter race.

After the year in Michigan, Cho moved back to Laurel, but found he could not meet public school attendance requirements. He used online classes to complete his sophomore year, he said, but went no further as he learned that the Maryland State Department of Education does not grant high school diplomas for online course work. "I've kind of put my education on hold temporarily," Cho said. "I'm putting all my focus on the Olympic Games."

Said Jay Cho: "That's the very, very difficult thing. When he finished middle school, he was good at school. . . . But the school system in Maryland is very strict. No exceptions for athletes. . . . After the Olympics, he's going to focus on studying and enroll in high school."

Simon Cho was actually ready to rejoin his old friends in Maryland's public school system last fall after taking a hiatus from the sport. After a subpar year in 2008, Cho failed to qualify for performance grants from the U.S. Olympic Committee and U.S. Speedskating, the sport's national governing body. Disappointed and upset, Cho left Salt Lake City, where he had been training with Jang, and returned home.

"I just lost the desire to skate," Cho said. "In the past, I had done so well, but then my results were mediocre. My self-esteem was low at that point."

Cho said putting away his skates for a few months was therapeutic. Jang, meantime, wasn't about to let his longtime star pupil simply disappear with the Olympic Games on the horizon.

"In 2009, April, I call his father," Jang said. "I say, 'I know Simon Cho has the talent and he can be ready for the Olympic Games.' . . . His father say to me, 'I don't have that kind of money to send him to Salt Lake City to teach speedskating.' "

With the economy in a recession, Jang couldn't drum up a sponsorship for Cho on a moment's notice, but he also couldn't stomach the idea of Cho giving up on his Olympic dream. Jang persuaded a fellow coach to take on Cho as a student for free. Cho would have to pay only for room, board and travel-related costs, as well as skating club fees.

By then, Cho wanted to get back on the ice. With his father's blessing, he flew to Salt Lake City, moved in with friends and got to work, training hard at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns in the four months leading up the trials.

Halfway there

Cho's family joined him shortly before the trials, which took place over four days in mid-September. On day two, Cho surprisingly emerged. After finishing fifth in the 1,500 meters, he faced a brutal field in the 500. Cho lined up with Ohno, world-medalist J.R. Celski and Jeff Simon, winner of six World Cup medals, all of whom were considered favorites.

On the fourth lap of the short race, Celski and Ohno got entangled, and Celski, who ended up on the ice, was disqualified. Simon fell after running into Ohno, and Cho cruised across the finish line with a stunning victory.

"I thought I had no chance of making it until once the ball got rolling," Cho said. "As the skating progressed, I got better and better with each passing race."

By the end of the weekend, Cho's place on the U.S. Olympic team in Vancouver was secure.

Jang said last week that Cho has since pushed himself into Olympic medal contention. In November, he finished fourth in the 500 at a World Cup event in Seoul, then placed sixth at a World Cup in Montreal. He will compete in the individual 500 and the 5,000 relay in Vancouver.

"That's why I brought him to the United States: to give him a lot of chances," Jay Cho said. "I had, actually, confidence. As long as Simon has [a] strong mentality -- because he has talent -- as long as he try, I thought [the Olympics] could be possible."

Perhaps of greatest relief to the family: Cho has been receiving USOC funds since making the Olympic team. Jay Cho said he hopes his son will land a sponsor or two through his performance at the Olympic Games.

In any case, Jay Cho said, his family would remain in Salt Lake City after the Games, continuing to support a career that has been both hard and sweet.

"We're halfway to the American dream," Jay Cho said. "If Simon made the final in the Olympic Games, or if Simon gets some medals, it means we make the American dream."

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