South Korean Winter Olympic athletes declare selves ready for Sochi

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South Korean athletes set to compete at the Sochi Winter Olympics next year declared themselves ready on Wednesday, with 100 days left until the start of the quadrennial competition.

Athletes in skating events were on hand for the media day event held at the National Training Center in Seoul, an occasion that started the 100-day countdown before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia.

In Vancouver three years ago, South Korea enjoyed its best-ever Winter Olympics performance with six gold medals, six silver medals and two bronze medals, ranking fifth in the medal standings.

Also for the first time, South Korea won gold medals in a sport other than short track speed skating. Kim Yu-na captured the ladies’ singles figure skating title, while Lee Sang-hwa, Mo Tae-bum and Lee Seung-hoon each won a speed skating gold medal.

The country is gunning for its third consecutive finish in the top 10, and Kim said Wednesday she is recovering from her recent foot injury and is on course to defend her Olympic title. “I am mostly pain free, and I can do all the triple jumps,” she said. “For competitions, I will also have to build endurance. Overall, I think I am about 70 percent healthy.”

Kim suffered a foot injury last month that derailed her preparation for Sochi. She was forced to withdraw from her two ISU Grand Prix events scheduled for October and November, but said Wednesday she is considering entering a minor event in the winter.

“I am thinking about getting into a competition before the Sochi Olympics,” she said. “I think I may pick a minor event in December.”

In December last year, Kim ended a long hiatus from competition at a minor event called the NRW Trophy in Germany and won it handily. There are two similar events in December scheduled in Croatia and Ukraine.

Kim has previously said the Sochi Winter Games will be her last Olympics and said Wednesday she wants to “enjoy myself there more than at any other competition.”

The trio of speed skating gold medalists, Lee Sang-hwa, Mo Tae-bum and Lee Seung-hoon, also said they were determined to repeat their earlier successes.

Lee Sang-hwa, in particular, is peaking as the Olympics approaches. She set a new world record in the 500 meters with 36.80 seconds in January and defended her world title in the 500-meter event at the World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships two months later.

Lee said she feels she is a better skater now than she was in Vancouver, and she is also about five kilograms lighter than three years ago.

“Compared to Vancouver, I often feel that I am much lighter and lithe now,” she said. “It’s embarrassing to talk about myself, but I think I am skating at a higher level now than before.”

Lee has also been competing in 1,000 meters to help improve her endurance for the 500-meter races, and she has been breaking Korean national records in the longer distance event.

Lee added that she is trying to temper her own expectations in 1,000 meters and will concentrate on the 500 meter event.

She also said she won’t take anything for granted, despite her recent run of dominance.

“A small mistake can make a huge difference,” she remarked. “Skaters from Germany, China and the Netherlands are also on the rise, and I can’t be content now just because I’ve been skating well of late.”

South Korea has emerged as the force in speed skating only in recent years. In short track, the country has been the international power for decades.

South Korea leads all nations with 19 gold medals in Olympic short track competitions. It has won 45 medals in Winter Olympics, and 37 of them have come from short track.

The women’s team, led by the 16-year-old Shim Suk-hee, has swept through the recent ISU World Cup races, grabbing three titles in each of the first two legs.

The next two World Cup stops, in Italy from Nov. 7 to 10 and in Russia from Nov. 14 to 17, are even more crucial, for Olympic berths are up for grabs.

Shim said she is already looking ahead to those November races.

“I’ve never skated in the Olympics before, but people say ignorance is bliss,” she said. “I will try to keep that in mind and to skate without any pressure.”

In Vancouver, the women’s 3,000 meter relay team was disqualified despite crossing the finish line first, for interfering with China. Park Seung-hi, a member of that relay team, said she and her teammates want to make sure they don’t suffer the same fate.

“The memories of that race are still fresh, and we don’t want to make the same mistake,” Park said. “I’ve been talking to Cho Ha-ri (her teammate from Vancouver) about that incident a lot as we’ve been getting ready for Sochi.”

The men’s short track team hasn’t performed quite as well as the women, with just one gold medal after two World Cup competitions. Sin Da-woon, the reigning world overall champion, said he and the rest of the squad are trying to learn from their slow start to the season.

“I know people are concerned about our races of late, and they’re worried that we might not win any gold in Sochi,” Sin said. “But if we can use this as our motivation, I am sure we will have good results at the Olympics.”

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