[CURVEBALL INTERVIEW] Going round in circles is all Hwang wants in life
At 20 years old, Hwang Dae-heon is at the top of his game.
Short-track speed skating is a young person's game. Racing around a short, oval track at break-neck speeds requires an incredible amount of strength and balance. In both men's and women's short track, skaters tend to peak in their late teens and early 20s, before the constant repetitive strain of the sport ends their professional careers.
Hwang is just reaching that peak.
Two years ago at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, Hwang picked up a silver medal in the men's 500-meter race, becoming a household name in a country that takes short-track speed skating very seriously.
To his fans, he is perhaps best known for his trademark pose when he is called up to the starting line. When his name is called, Hwang is always caught on camera holding his sunglasses in his mouth with his helmet in his hands.
“I’ve always done that since I was a baby, like a habit,” Hwang says. “Since I have to wear the helmet first and don’t have any free hands, I did that and it turned out pretty well.”
Although it was in 2018 that Hwang first started to make headlines, his success on the ice actually goes back to November 2016. At the time just 16 years old, Hwang set a world record in the men’s 1,000-meter race, finishing at 1 minute and 20.875 seconds at the International Skating Union (ISU) World Cup Short Track Speed Skating Series in Salt Lake City. It was his very first senior event.
That record still hasn’t been broken.
“I don’t feel any [pressure about the record],” Hwang said. “I think I'm just proud of it.”
Despite Hwang's early success, he doesn't consider himself a prodigy. Instead, Hwang says his success is all down to hard work.
“I’m trying to get through everything,” he says. “And I’m working harder to [reach] my next goal.”
On the rink, despite being only 20 years old, Hwang is already a seasoned pro. Off the rink, however, he is like any other 20-year-old who enjoys hanging out with his friends.
“I'm just a regular student,” Hwang says, “because I’m only an athlete on the rink, where I’m training. But off the rink, I like hanging out with friends, I'm interested in clothes and like to visit and look up restaurants.”
As short-track speed skating requires a lot of movement, diet is overrated for Hwang, as at times, he loses about 4 to 5 kilograms (9 to 11 pounds) after training.
The start of Hwang’s career goes all the way back to when he was about 5 years old. Hwang himself doesn’t remember exactly when he started skating, but he vividly remembers that he went to the skating rink with his parents and apparently said, “It looks fun.”
“I skated right away that day,” Hwang says. “But since I was too young, the teachers there didn’t let me skate. They told me if I can stand on the ice without falling, then they would let me. Apparently I did, and that’s how it all started.”
It may have started because it looked fun to young Hwang, but it didn’t take long for him to decide he wanted a career in the sport. After watching Ahn Hyun-soo, who has now naturalized to Russia and goes by the name Viktor Ahn, at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, Hwang decided to to pick up the sport.
“About when I was in first grade in elementary school, I said I wanted to be on the national team,” Hwang says. “Even if I went back, I would have made the same decision.”
As he grew up and started taking the sport more seriously, he learned to really enjoy it.
“Since the events in our sport are different races, there are a lot of unexpected situations,” Hwang says. “From the 100 meters to the 1,000 meters, there are races that I’ve never expected. So there wasn’t a single time when I raced like I imagined I would. Since we have to decide every second of the race and unravel the puzzle, I think that kind of thrill is the real charm.”
While Korea dominates in the majority of short-track events, the country had its weakness — the men’s 500-meter race. For years, China dominated the event, and then Hwang showed up.
Heading into the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, Hwang set high expectations for the men’s 500-meter race, as he won back-to-back golds at the World Championships — in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons. Along with that, Hwang helped Korea win gold in the men’s 5,000-meter relay race both of those years.
That performance allowed him to win silver in the overall standing at the World Championships for the 2018-19 season, while he won bronze at the 2017-18 World Championships.
“I got to compete at a very big event, which is every athlete's big goal,” Hwang says. “Since it’s the Olympics, it was literally a dream-come-true event. There was some pressure in the beginning, but that went away. I told myself that it was just an event with five rings.”
In the first event, the men’s 1,500-meter race, Hwang had some disappointment in the finals. Hwang headed into the race with a good chance at gold, but instead he wasn’t able to finish as his left blade got stuck in the ice. This caused him to trip, failing to finish the race.
Even in the men’s 5,000-meter relay race, where Korea headed into the race as the favorites, it wasn’t to be. Despite Korea being the favorite, they failed to earn a spot on the podium as Lim Hyo-jun, who won gold in the men’s 1,500-meter race, fell during the relay, which led Team Korea to finish last.
“There were a lot of things happening [throughout the Olympics], but I think I learned a lot,” Hwang says. “Through that event, I think I got to be more mature, and for me it was a great one.”
The then-18-year-old did see some success of his own, as he picked up a silver in the men’s 500-meter race.
Following the Olympics, Hwang’s career really took off. He went on to pick up a series of golds at World Cup events, with 2019-20 turning out to be the hottest season of his career.
From strength to strength
At the 2019-20 World Cup Four Continents Championships, Hwang swept the event by winning gold in all of the individual races — 1,500 meters, 1,000 meters, 500 meters and the 5,000-meter relay — which allowed him to win gold in the overall standing.
But that wasn’t it. In each of the ISU World Cup Series events, Hwang picked up medals in at least one race.
“I think this still applies, but I think I worked harder based on what I learned from the Olympics,” Hwang said. “There are people who are just satisfied about the fact that they’ve won a medal at the Olympics and retire, but I worked hard so I can develop and become a better skater. To achieve bigger goals.”
Unfortunately, Hwang wasn’t able to finish his season, as short-track speed skating was also hit by the coronavirus outbreak. Due to the pandemic, the ISU ended up canceling the World Championships, which is the biggest and the very last one of the season. The top finisher in the overall ranking at the World Championships automatically earns their spot on the national team the following season.
It’s been years since Hwang started competing in the sport, but he still feels nervous before every race.
“Since it’s the start of the event, I get nervous and excited thinking about how it will turn out,” Hwang says. “It’s different every time.”
As the sport is all about speed and time, once the race starts, it requires the skaters to make decisions in the moment, without having enough time to think about the outcome.
“Since I have to make those decisions at every and any moment, once the race is over, I forget about it all,” Hwang says. “I seriously forget how I raced. I either go with my instinct or be rational. But once those two are combined, when the race is over, I can’t remember anything. When I finish first, it’s just like ‘Oh, wow.’”
Skaters may have to think about a lot of variables during the race, but once it's over, they have to wait to find out the official result.
As soon as the race is completed, the standings are shown on the board, but that is only the initial result based on time. As the winner is often determined based on times down to a one-thousandth of a second, once the race is over, the referees go through video reviews of the race and update the final standing.
On days when Hwang hasn't made any mistakes, he says that he’s not worried at all and randomly thinks about what to eat for dinner or when to go home. The problem is on the days he's not sure how he did.
“When I’m not sure, I have to wait,” Hwang says. “I get a little nervous. Even if I did make a mistake but don’t think that was really a mistake, then I would have to leave it up to the referee."
After years of skating, short track has now become part of Hwang’s life, and when asked what short track means to him, he says that it’s more like a friend now.
Mind over matter
However, just like any other athlete, when it comes to a slump, Hwang isn’t an exception. For athletes, injuries cause the worst slumps, and Hwang has had his fair share.
“I had an injury in middle school,” Hwang says. “But I still have that foot injury. With that foot injury, my back just got worse. Due to that, I took a break and restarted training. When I thought of that as a slump, it became a slump. So I just train thinking that I’m just doing it, trying my best.”
Just like his mindset with the slump, Hwang follows the same theory about superstitions. Some athletes have special routines they follow before their games or races, but Hwang isn't worried about those rituals.
“Once I make a ritual, even in situations when things are not going well, I have to do it,” Hwang says. “So I don’t have one. I just go with the flow.”
Competing in both the individual and team races, Hwang says that there is fun in both of the races. In terms of individual races, he says that there’s a sense of achievement in getting things done by communicating with the coaches and himself.
But when it comes to team races, there’s a greater sense of achievement.
“In the team races, I have to communicate with the team and the coaches,” Hwang says. “[When we win,] It feels like Korea achieved it. If we race well, rather than myself, I feel like Korea played well.”
Going forward, Hwang never sets a short-term goal as he always looks toward the distant future. In terms of his long-term goal, it's all about the Olympics.
“I have to set my goals high,” Hwang says. “Since it’s every athlete's goal, I think it has to be the Olympics.”
Along with his goals, Hwang also has a lot of ambition, which sometimes leads him to burn out.
“I just want to be perfect,” Hwang says. “When I practice, I train until I can do it. Even if it takes 100 times. One time, I couldn’t do this cornering, so I practiced until I bled. But I still did it.”
Hwang is still young, but he knows one thing for sure: He wants to be remembered.
“In each sport, you can name an athlete,” Hwang says. “But in short track, [fans] have whole lists of short-track speed skaters. I want to be on that list. My goal is to become an athlete who doesn’t get forgotten [by the fans].”