Speed skater beats youth and disability to capture his dreamInside the skating rink at Taereung sports complex, the air was even colder than outside. Circling the rink was a tall, skinny high school student, Ko Byung-wook. He is only 16 years old but made it onto the Korean national speed skating team for the 2007 Winter Asian Games in Changchun, China, which begin on Jan. 28.
He placed third in the 5,000-meter race behind Choi Geun-won and Yeo Sang-yeop during the national skating competition in December with a time of 6 minutes 59.81 seconds, which is his top speed to date.
“I tried to finish the race within the 6-minute range,” he said.
There are only six or seven Korean speed skaters who finished the 5,000-meter race in between 6 and 7 minutes.
Besides being the only high school student on the speed skating team, what is unique about Byung-wook is that he has a hearing disability. He wears hearing aids, without which he cannot hear the starting gun. This is why he chose long-track over short-track racing because he thought in long-track, it would be easier to make up any losses from slow starts.
He was diagnosed when he was 23 months old.
“When he was an infant, he did baby talk,” said Lee Duk-soon, Byung-wook’s mother. “When he was making trouble, I thought he was just being naughty. I didn’t realize he was unable to hear.”
Doctors found that his hearing nerves had partial damage. Without hearing aids, he cannot hear unless someone talks directly into his ear.
Byung-wook began skating seriously when he was in his fourth year of primary school. Ms. Lee wanted her son to do whatever he wanted and allowed him to make friends rather than studying.
He showed talent in sports from the time he was young, and even excelled in martial arts like taekwondo. His mother chose speed skating because “it is not possible to wear a hearing aid in water and long-track skaters are less prone to injuries than short-track skaters.”
He made quick progress. When he was in sixth grade, he won a national short-track championship.
“Byung-wook has good physical qualities for a speed skater, such as cardiovascular capacity,” said Kim Byung-ki, Byung-wook’s coach.
Byung-wook is 1.87 meters (6.1 feet) and weighs 70 kilograms (154 pounds). Through mountain biking, he was able to improve his strength and shave 10 seconds off his best time. Considering his age, he has great potential, Mr. Kim said.
The progress, however, has not been easy. When sweating, he had to pull out his hearing aids because sweat can damage them. He had a hard time understanding words, especially new ones he is not familiar with.
“I was puzzled over how to explain new concepts to him,” Mr. Kim said.
After he had surgery to install a snail-shaped tube in his left ear, he understands most of what Mr. Kim says and his speech also improved.
Unfortunately, Mr. Kim said it is too early for Byung-wook to expect a medal as the Winter Asian Games is his first international competition.
He still needs to improve his muscle strength and skating skills. Though he is good at cornering, he is unable to keep his head parallel and his knees together, Mr. Kim said. Before the Winter Asian Games, Mr. Kim said it is essential for Byung-wook to maintain his proficiency rather than over-practice and become exhausted. Byung-wook still practices five hours a day.
During the last semester, he went to school only in the morning two days a week. When not at the skating rink, he usually goes out with friends or plays computer games. He has also grown to like mountain biking. He even won the MTB Daegwanryeong Hill Climb competition in 2005.
He often jokes to his mother that he will open a computer game room in the future and make money.
The joke always elicits the same response from Ms. Lee. “Don’t say that!”
The progress he has made and the prospect of taking part in the Asian Games have been good for him, Ms. Lee said.
“Recently Byung-wook became more confident and passionate about skating,” she said.
by Limb Jae-un
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