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The Misfits: A young speedskater's training marathon involves the whole family

Aaron Heo, a 10-year-old speedskating prodigy, at the Wheaton Ice Arena.
Aaron Heo, a 10-year-old speedskating prodigy, at the Wheaton Ice Arena. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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By Lenny Bernstein
Thursday, February 18, 2010

How's your exercise routine going? Are you hitting the gym consistently, putting in your 30 minutes a day, maybe even 60? Are you doing your reps, pounding out the miles, sticking with the program -- even in the face of work and family obligations and the hassles posed by the weather? Feeling pretty good about that?

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Meet Aaron Heo.

His typical workout lasts 3 1/2 hours. An hour, sometimes 90 minutes, is cardio work, a relentless regimen of 1,000-meter sprints at breakneck speed. The rest of the time is devoted to a lengthy warm-up, followed by stamina, strength and flexibility work. That can mean 1,000 to 2,000 squats per session, along with stretching, jogging and plyometrics. Then he strains against a canvas belt held by a bigger, stronger friend or coach: back and forth, over and over again.

He does this, on average, four days a week. Another two days a week, he trains on his own.

Aaron is 10 years old.

He and his family live in Warrington, Pa., north of Philadelphia, but Aaron trains here in Wheaton, Laurel and Arlington. On Thursdays, his mother begins the five-hour round-trip drive with Aaron and his 8-year-old brother, Andrew (another promising local short-track champion) after school. They arrive home after midnight, and she trundles the youngsters off to bed and gets them up for school the next morning. They come back on Friday afternoons and stay through Sunday, living in an apartment they have rented in Laurel. Aaron's father joins them by train on Saturdays.

Aaron, a fifth-grader, is one of the best short-track speedskaters in the United States for his age, and this is the life he and his family have chosen so he can train with Dong-Sung Kim, the 1998 Olympic gold medalist, at the Arlington-based Potomac Speedskating Club.

If all goes as planned, Aaron will be standing on the podium at the conclusion of age-group championships during the first week of March, a few weeks after the Olympic speedskating competition ends in Vancouver, B.C.

It is a life of endless sacrifice for both Aaron and his parents, of rigid discipline to make it all work. He has a few friends from school, where, by the way, he also excels academically. But mostly, his friends are other speedskaters and the siblings and parents of speedskaters, all of whom have formed a close-knit extended family centered on Kim and the Washington area rinks where they spend so many evenings and early mornings.

The sport attracts Asian Americans, particularly Korean Americans such as Aaron and Andrew, whose compact body type is suited to its demands. In South Korea, speedskating is something of a national sport.

Aaron's dream is to skate in the Olympics, to win a medal like the coach who is training him with a careful eye, shouting words of encouragement and instruction as Aaron takes yet another corner, fearlessly flying around the ice, his form flawless, other tiny, speeding youngsters in pursuit.

"We just want to support him as long as he wants to continue," says his mother, Jennifer Heo.


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