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Twelve months ago Jung Seunggi entered the sliding centre at the Lillehammer 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games ranked number one in the world for his age group, full of confidence and focused only on gold. It was not to be.
A surprising sequence of error-strewn training runs pointed the way and the then 16-year-old trudged home with a disappointing eighth place in his back pocket. For a teenager who had enjoyed a meteoric rise from TV spectator at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games to junior number one in just two years, it was a harsh lesson. But one he has learned from.
“I would be much happier if I had got better results but it makes me feel confident for the next time. I was very nervous,” said Jung. “Compared to other athletes I lacked experience and skills. For the next time, I will prepare more.”
Wise coaches – and Jung, with the prospect of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games looming, has plenty of those to consult – would no doubt say bumps in the ice are a good thing in a burgeoning career. But it must still have been a hard knock to take.
Results-wise, Jung bounced back impressively, and quickly. Within a month of the YOG the Korean claimed his equal best finish in the seniors to date; a fifth in the North American Cup, an International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) backed development tour. He has followed that up nicely with five top-10s in the North American Cup this season, including another fifth place finish.
Jung cited two major factors behind his recovery: emotional support and the opening of the world-class ice start training venue in PyeongChang. Part of the Alpensia Sliding Centre, which will host the bobsleigh, luge and skeleton events at next year’s Olympic Games, the facility has transformed training for Jung and his teammates. Previously, they had to travel abroad and face the constant strain of “adapting to different foods and dealing with jet lag”, as Jung put it, or innovate and practise the crucial start technique through the summer using sleds on wheels.
“I try to push as much as I can. Home-track benefit is really important in this sport,” Jung said.
The Korean public will be hoping such advantage will translate into medals. The odds looks good. Yun Sung-Bin is one of the poster boys for the 2018 Games, having won silver at last year’s IBSF World Championships. He was the first Korean to win a sliding world championship medal of any colour. The 22-year-old was also second in last season’s overall IBSF World Cup standings and has started this season with a win and four podium finishes in his first seven World Cup races.
With bobsled pair Won Yunjong and Seo Youngwoo becoming the first Asian sliders to win an overall World Cup title last season, the Republic of Korea has a generation of athletes making the sport a cult hit with the youth. For Jung, such success drives him forward but also makes the chances of appearing in a home Olympic Games ever tougher. As well as Yun Sung-Bin, there are two further Korean IBSF World Cup regulars and a handful of compatriots jostling with Jung on the development tours. The teenager hopes the example of his sporting hero will see him right.
“I admire Ji-Sung Park, the footballer. He was not naturally talented on the football field, but he kept trying to train hard and finally he became a world star. I want to be like him,” Jung said. This work-rate, combined with his hard-won knowledge from the 2016 YOG, may still be enough to get the teenager to a home Olympic Games.