Republic of Korea’s glittering short track skating dynasty is in good hands judging by the form of Choi Min-Jeong, who overcame early heartache at the Olympic Winter Games Pyeongchang 2018 to leave with two gold medals and a renewed confidence that sees her striving for even greater success at the start of 2020.
As a teenager competing in front of a home crowd at her first Olympic Games, Choi learned to overcome the most intense nerves as well as the disappointment of disqualification to ultimately triumph and emerge an even more formidable and focused figure.
Now 21, she can view PyeongChang as another lesson in a long education in the sport, as she explained on the eve of the inaugural ISU Four Continent Short Track Championships in Montreal in early January, where she swept up all five available gold medals.
“When I was six years old my dad recommended I take up skating as a hobby,” she said. “As soon as I got the skates on it felt right. I joined a local club when I was eight and it went from there. My parents always supported me. My mum and sister actually took it up too, but they put the skates away when they realised they couldn’t keep up.”
Instead, inspiration came from watching compatriot Jin Sun-yu’s triple Olympic gold haul in 2006 and following her three World Championship title runs. Like Choi, Jin thrived over the longer distances, and it was those performances in Turin that left a lasting impression on the youngster.
“The 1500m is also my favourite distance, it plays to my strengths: my stamina. Skating isn’t all physical but, for me, the natural instincts I have learned came secondary to the work ethic. I’m not tall and I don’t have explosive power, so I’ve had to work and work at my racing from the start.
“I don’t know if I ever had a ‘natural’ talent. It wasn’t until I was 17 and in high school that I realised I could really do this. That was when I first broke into the national team and thought I can take it to the next level.”
It is a typically humble piece of self-appraisal from a young woman who by then had already earned her first Junior Worlds 500m gold in Erzurum, Turkey, in 2014, when she left with the overall bronze.
The records show a relatively seamless step up to senior level, with Choi blowing away the competition in the 1000m and 3000m to take a first World title in Moscow in 2015 and again in Seoul a year later. But that does not tell the whole story, as the real making of the maestro was still to come.
“The move up was really hard. It was a very different environment, but I just thought I was very lucky to be where I was and wanted to make the most of every opportunity. I’ve never had a secret. I truly put my successes down to setting big goals and working hard to try and achieve them.”
As her Olympic debut at PyeongChang loomed, Choi endured a difficult 2017. Heading into the Rotterdam World Championships as a clear favourite for another overall title, she left without a single individual medal. It focused her efforts.
“I’d prepared so hard for the 2017 World Championships and just couldn’t get the results I wanted. It was so frustrating, but it meant I had to go into the Olympic year with a different mindset. Like a game of poker, I knew I had to go all in. I had the confidence in my skills so I just felt I needed to enjoy the racing.
“I was still so edgy on that first start line that I can’t even describe it. But then, I’m generally a nervous person all the time. I knew that my body was in peak condition, but even so I was more nervous than usual.”
Great Britain’s Elise Christie set an Olympic record in the 500m heats only for Choi to go even faster. The two were the big favourites heading to the final, but further drama meant that neither made it on to the podium: after Christie crashed out, Choi was penalised for interference having finished second.
Delight for the home fans as Choi Minjeong #KOR sets a new Olympic Record in women's 500m #shorttrackskating! How will she do in the final?@ISU_Speed @Korea_Olympic #PyeongChang2018 pic.twitter.com/bnymadZHWB— Olympic Channel (@olympicchannel) February 13, 2018
“The penalty was hard to take, but I am even more proud to have been able to overcome the disappointment and win the 1500m gold. I put that all down to what I learned from what had been a very negative experience at the 2017 World Championships where nothing went right.”
Choi went on to help her team to the 3000m relay gold, the celebrations revealing just how much it meant as they won by more than eight seconds.
Having dominated the World Championships medals for so long, it seems remarkable that Rep. Korea is still without a ladies’ 500m Olympic champion. On current form, Choi looks on the right path to correct that anomaly at Beijing 2022.
“I’m not taking anything for granted. I need to stay in shape and hit the forthcoming World Championships in form. What I do know is that I will set myself the target in Beijing of racing better than PyeongChang. That’s got to be my starting point.”