Waiting at the starting line, skaters crouched at the announcement of “Ready.” When a gun sounded, they burst down the ice and into the first turn, hanging left after left on a rink measuring just over 111 meters.
Typically reserved for states with chillier climates and more available rinks, American short track speedskating is extending its reach as local skaters participate in the sport many call “NASCAR on ice.” In the junior category, for those younger than 16, seven of the 15 highest-ranked male and female skaters are from Washington area clubs, according to U.S. Speedskating’s elite “category one” rankings.
“You don’t need to go to Lake Tahoe or Salt Lake City to see and train with Olympic athletes,” said Alison Mittelstadt, vice president of the Potomac Speedskating Club. “You can literally do these things without leaving the suburbs.”
Many of the area skaters are of Korean heritage and brought their country’s love of skating to the Washington area, said Mittelstadt and Anna Rhee, president of United Capital Blades Speedskating Club.
Since 1994, South Korea has won 16 gold medals in short track speedskating.
According to the 2010 Census, Koreans make up 12.8 percent of the Asian population in Montgomery County and 10.8 percent in the District. In Fairfax and Prince William counties — where most clubs practice because of the availability of rinks — people of Korean descent account for 21.8 percent and 15.7 percent, respectively, of all Asians.
Korean American Simon Cho, who has lived in Upper Marlboro, won a bronze medal with Team USA at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Cho, who trained with the Potomac Speedskating Club, is now under fire after admitting to sabotaging a Canadian’s skate at the 2011 World Short Track Speed Skating Team Championships.
Of Potomac Speedskating Club’s 40 skaters, about 10 are of Korean descent. Although the club’s office is in Arlington County, Mittelstadt said most of the skaters are from Maryland, and most of its practices are in Wheaton.
At United Capital Blades, which draws skaters from across Montgomery County, Rhee said, seven of 23 skaters are Korean American.
Montgomery County resident Benjamin Oh, 16, prefers speedskating to other sports. Standing 5-foot-7 and weighing 135 pounds, Oh had had enough of hockey. He’d played on travel league teams and gone to many tournaments. As a smaller defense player, he was tired of getting roughed up against the boards.
In 2010, he decided to try speedskating, his fifth sport.
“When I was a little kid, soccer and baseball and basketball were fun, but they weren’t really my sports,” he said. “I remember one day when I was a kid, my dad took me to Laurel Ice House and I learned to skate, and I realized sports on the ice were my thing.”
When Oh started with Potomac, he said, speedskating came easily. He won three of his first four races at the 2010 Virginia Commonwealth Games in Richmond, racing in the 500-, 777-, 1,000- and 1,500-meter sprints. He said he fell during one of them, coming in last, but he can’t remember which one.
“I’ve had too many races since then,” he said, laughing. “That’s too long ago.”
From there, Oh went to the nationals, where he boasted a time 15 seconds better than the qualifier. But at the tournament, he fell in each race, returning home empty-handed.
The next year, at the same competition, he won second place in the 13- to 14-year-old juvenile age group and won bronze in the 3,000-meter relay. At the 2013 nationals in March, his relay team took home gold. A few weeks ago, with United Capital Blades, he was named to the “category one” list.
Gabriella Hachem, 14, of Rockville figure-skated for four years until picking up speedskating in 2011 with Potomac.
“I got on the ice for the first time, and it felt weird because the skates were different,” she said. “But I got the hang of it right away and learned the technique.”
By this March, she went to her first national competition and was named the 13- to 14- year-old age group national champion. After the tournament, she joined United Capital.
United Capital coach Hyun-Jung Lee had competed on the Korean national team since she was 13. She began coaching in Korea after she graduated from college in 1994 and immigrated with her family to Maryland in 2005.
“At that time,” she wrote in an e-mail, “speed skater clubs were developing in Maryland, helping me to continue my coaching career here and develop my own club.”
Lee joined United Capital as the club’s first head coach after it split from Potomac in March 2013. Many youth sports coaches are parents or volunteers, but local skating coaches are paid, full-time positions.
“It really changes the dynamic because you expect the same from a coach you pay as you would, say, a piano teacher,” Rhee said. “The parents of kids want to see results. That’s not for all people, but that’s certainly an undercurrent.”
The routes Oh and Hachem took to become speedskaters are not unusual. Most new speedskaters have an ice-related background, Rhee said, which means they’re used to traveling far during rush hour to find available rinks for long practices.
Clubs often rotate between the public Wheaton and Cabin John ice rinks and privately owned Rockville Ice Arena. Clubs even travel to Laurel Ice House for practices or Prince William Ice Center in Virginia.
Practices are about three hours and feature both “dry-land” technique-geared training, in rink parking lots or empty fields, and a traditional on-ice element.
As the local speedskating population grows, factors such as travel and cost result in a small community.
Teams participate in about six to eight events a year and travel as far as Kearns, Utah, where U.S. Speedskating has its official Olympic oval, Mittelstadt said.
Potomac will host a small tournament at Prince William Ice Center in August.
A pair of skates, custom-made in the United States, Canada or Korea, can cost up to $2,000, Mittelstadt said. Skaters can go through two pairs of $400 blades per season. Plus, there are team fees and tournament registration prices.
Rhee said the benefits of the close-knit skating community make those sacrifices worth it.
“The kids are devoted to the coaches, and there’s a real community,” she said. “It’s hard to spend that much time with someone if there’s no feeling of community.”