Chung Jae-won speeds past being a pace setter

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Chung Jae-won speeds past being a pace setter

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From left: Chung Jae-won poses with an overall third-place trophy in Mokdong, western Seoul, on March 16. Chung reacts after winning the men’s mass start race at the ISU World Cup Speed Skating Final in Heerenveen in the Netherlands on March 8. [KIM SUNG-RYONG, XINHUA/YONHAP]

Born on June 21, 2001, Chung Jae-won made headlines at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics by becoming the youngest Korean speed skater to win a medal at the Games. He was just 16, and the victory also earned him an exemption from serving his mandatory military service.

In the team pursuit event at PyeongChang, Team Korea - which comprised of Chung, Lee Seung-hoon and Kim Min-seok - won silver. At the time, Chung was the youngest speed skater on the Korean national team after joining just five months prior to the Winter Olympics. Along with age, he also made headlines for helping his fellow teammate Lee Seung-hoon win gold in the men’s mass start race at PyeongChang.

In the speed skating mass start race, where all the skaters race 16 laps at the same time, Chung set the pace for Lee so Lee could save his energy until the end to make his final spurt for gold. Because of Chung’s role in Lee’s win, Chung was put in an uncomfortable position when Lee began facing criticism.

While Lee faced backlash, Chung was praised by fans for his sacrifice.

“At the time, I was just a rookie who didn’t have any experience,” Chung said. “I wasn’t good enough to win a medal. I just focused on fulfilling my role of helping our senior team members, just like the strategy we talked about with our coaching staff.”

When Team Korea won silver in men’s team pursuit, Chung attributed the victory to his two older teammates who he says pushed him along the way, rather than chalking it up to his own ability. But once the Olympics ended, Chung started to set his own goal. He dreamed of standing at the top of the podium for an individual achievement.

“My priority at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics was to help the senior skaters,” Lee said. “At the time, I didn’t even think that I had to win a medal. After experiencing the Olympics, I started to think that I wanted to skate better. My ambition for winning started to grow.”

To reach his goal, Chung increased the intensity of his training and how often he weight trained. He went from weight training twice a week to hitting the gym every day.

When Chung competed at the PyeongChang Olympics, he only stood at 1.75 meters (5 foot, 9 inches) and weighed 60 kilograms (132 pounds). Now, he’s grown taller and gained a little weight.

“In a mass start race, you get to bump against other [skaters] like in a short track race,” Chung said. “The bigger you are, the more advantage you have. I gained a lot more muscle mass and got taller. So now, I’m 1.79 meters tall and weigh about 63 kilograms.”

His hard work finally paid off in the 2019-20 season as Chung picked up his first gold in the men’s mass start race at the International Skating Union (ISU) World Cup Speed Skating Final in Heerenveen, the Netherlands, on March 8. It was his first-ever gold in a senior event.

Ahead of the race, Chung worked hard on gaining weight by eating a lot of carbohydrates in a bid to not only bulk himself up but also store energy for the final last-minute spurt in the last two laps of the lengthy race.

Although points are given out based on the ranking after a certain number of laps, skaters care less about that and target to finish within the top three as the race distributes the most points after the final lap. Just like any other race, the final lap is the most important.

“Ahead of this World Cup final, I only ate bread and rice for a week,” Chung said. “I was able to make a final spurt, by gaining weight.”

Throughout the mass start race, Chung stayed toward the first half or the middle of the pack, and in his last lap, Chung sprinted to finish ahead of Bart Swings of Belgium and Joey Mantia of the United States for a win, with a total of 180 points.

But it wasn’t all smooth skating to get the gold. Chung experienced a lot of failures throughout the 2018-19 season, regularly failing to qualify for the finals in senior competitions.

“I regularly had podium finishes in junior events,” Chung said. “But the senior stage was definitely different. Skaters were bigger and were a lot faster. It was hard to follow them.”

Chung also had difficulty training from August, due to a back injury. However, winning silver in the mass start race at the first leg of the ISU World Cup in Minsk, Belarus, and at the ISU Four Continents Championships in Milwaukee, in the United States, allowed him to gain confidence.

“I came up with various strategies by watching the clips of higher ranked players,” Chung said. “I tried those various strategies in actual races and they worked out well.”

Back when Chung was in high school, he was just excited about the fact that he could compete at the Olympics and worked his hardest on the ice to help his senior teammates win, rather than himself.

“[At the PyeongChang Olympics,] I felt comfortable, mentally, because I just needed to do what I was told to do,” Chung said. “But now, my head is so complicated because I’m racing for gold. But it feels good to win gold.”

In just the two years that have passed since the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, Chung has now become a speed skater racing for his own goals, one of which is to be the world’s best.

“I was really wishing for a win,” Chung said. “Winning really does feel different.”

BY PARK SO-YOUNG, KANG YOO-RIM [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]

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