[CURVEBALL INTERVIEW] Chung Jae-won is starting to pick up the paceCurveball Interview
Over the next few weeks, the Korea JoongAng Daily will meet with athletes from across the sporting world to discuss how they got their starts and earned their fame as well as their lives on and off the field.
This week’s interview is with long-track speed skater Chung Jae-won.
While Korea is a powerhouse in short-track speed skating, long track has always been dominated by European teams, especially the Netherlands. One notable exception was Korea's Lee Sang-hwa — the two-time Olympic gold medalist in the women's 500-meters — but when she hung up her skates for good two years ago, the popularity of the sport died down.
After two years of obscurity, Chung has started to pull the fans back in. In March he won his first-ever gold medal in the men's mass start at the International Skating Union (ISU) World Cup Final, proving that his silver in PyeongChang wasn’t just luck.
Chung is now a well-known figure among speed skating fans, both for his recent success, the Olympics and his baby-face looks. But what many people are unfamiliar with is the very start of his career. Chung’s brother is also a speed skater, competing mainly over short distances, but not many know that Chung Jae-won actually started by watching his brother.
“At first my brother went to the skating rink as a field trip in elementary school,” Chung says. “Since he was in first grade at the time, I was 6 years old [Korean age]. My brother started learning, and I had nothing to do. So I started going to the rink with him and my mom, and after watching him skate, I said I wanted to learn too. So it kind of started naturally.”
When he saw skating for the first time, Chung says that it looked “fun,” as the skaters were skating past so quickly. Watching them, he also wanted to try the sport. He says that he first started because he was “bored” waiting for his brother and because it looked fun.
While he skated for fun at a young age, Chung realized he wanted to get more serious about the sport when he headed into elementary school.
“In my lower grades in elementary school, I skated as a hobby but competed in national championships,” Chung says. “Since I kept winning, I realized that I had some talent so I wanted to keep skating, and that was about when I was in fourth grade.”
But it wasn’t until middle school that Chung decided to fully focus on long distance. When he first started, Chung skated over both short and long distances. Although short distance often draws more fans because of its mesmerizing high speeds, the young Chung was drawn to long-distance racing.
Two years have passed, and now that Chung looks back to his performance at PyeongChang, he says he is “proud.”
As well as winning silver in the team pursuit, Chung also found himself unwittingly involved in the controversial victory of teammate Lee Seung-hoon, who was accused of taking advantage of Chung, who acted as his pace setter. Chung's lasting memories are all of Team Korea's success.
In the team pursuit event at PyeongChang, Team Korea — comprised of Chung, Lee 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 Olympics. When Team Korea took silver, 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 goals. He dreamed of standing at the top of the podium for an individual achievement.
Although Chung was proud of the fact that the team finished second, the moment when they realized that the team lost to the Norwegian team was undeniably disappointing.
In the team pursuit race, the two teams of three skaters start on opposite sides. The team that finishes their eight laps earlier than the opposing team wins. As such, by the you've reached the final, a silver medal is guaranteed.
“At the time, just heading to the finals meant that we were guaranteed a silver,” Chung says. “We raced with the goal of winning, but we lost to Team Norway. There was some disappointment, but I was happy about the fact that we could finish second on such a big stage called the Olympics. When I went up to the podium, I couldn’t believe it.
"Right when we finished the race and saw that we finished second, there were some disappointments. But to be able to compete at the Olympics and to stand at the podium, which I had always dreamed of, it was a great honor as an athlete. And I got really nervous and couldn’t believe it.”
Despite his short career on the senior stage, Chung has still had his fair share of slumps. As he debuted with such success at PyeongChang, Chung says his biggest slump was the season immediately after the games, from 2018-19.
“Last year was the season after the PyeongChang Olympics,” Chung says. “I raced a lot worse than I expected in the first and second leg of the World Cup. Even in mass start, I had to make it to the semis to have a shot getting to the finals. But I couldn’t make the cut in the semis, so I think that was the hardest time, my slump."
To overcome his struggle, rather than taking a break from the sport, Chung decided to increase the amount of training as well as analyzing his plays by watching clips. While the gold medalist in the mass start race is determined based on who crosses the finish line first in the very last lap, in the semifinals, it is all about points. Chung analyzed the semis a lot.
“By increasing my training, I got better, and in terms of the mass start race, I analyzed the races a lot,” Chung says. “I analyzed why I couldn’t get to the finals. In the finals, although they give out points after a certain number of laps, in the end, the person who finishes first wins. It gets really confusing with the points system during the race, so I think for the semis, I analyzed a lot of the strategic sides of the race.”
Luckily for Chung, his favorite way to relieve stress is to train more. The 18-year-old trains harder because he believes the only way to overcome the stress is to fix whatever the problem is.
This is where his motto “no pain, no gain” comes from.
“Whether it’s training or competing, it’s a really difficult process,” Chung says. “But I can only win a medal if I can fight through it, and in training, I believe that I have to get through all that tough exercise to become a better player. So I train and compete thinking that I can’t gain anything without any pain.”
Although Chung says that the season after PyeongChang was his slump, now that he looks back at it, he thinks that he also sees it as part of his development.
“To get to this win, I’ve had a number of second- or third-place finishes,” Chung says. “If I were to consider that time as a process, now I think this medal is the result of that process.”
While he is just as serious as any other veteran skater on the rink, off the rink, Chung is just like any other 18-year-old. He plays PlayStation and spends the off season heading out to Jamsil to support the LG Twins.
Chung's off season doesn't last very long — he trains 11 months a year, so April is his only time off.
“During the month of April, I can rest,” Chung says.
But when asked about the happiest time of the day, like a lot of 18-year-olds, Chung says he likes to hang out at home doing nothing after dinner.
A real challenge
Of all the long distance and team events he competes in, Chung likes mass start the most. It could be because he’s won a lot of medals from the event, but the biggest reason is because he believes that the mass start races suits him well.
“Although I compete in long distance, I still do some short track training like cornering and stuff,” Chung says. “So I think this event kind of suits me well. I also think that I’m seeing better results from it, so I think I have the most affection toward that event.”
But he also feels that the team events have their own charm. While each and every individual performance is just as important in the team event, teamwork is also key.
“I think the biggest charm of the team event is how much the practice and the good teamwork we have is directly shown through the result,” Chung says.
In terms of individual events, he says that each and every race has its own attraction. In long-distance races, Chung says that the real test is that you have to be an all-rounder to succeed.
“Long distance is really difficult,” Chung says. “But to overcome that and look at my result at the finish line and know I can celebrate is the best feeling. And in the mass start, it’s a long race, but, at the same time, you need to be able to get through the cornering and have speed, so I think that makes it a real challenge.”
Despite his Olympic and ISU success, Chung still gets nervous when he stands at the starting line. When he starts warming up, he says he gets excited thinking to himself that he wants to win a medal, but when he stands on the starting line, he says that he starts feeling the pressure.
“I get most nervous when I’m standing right at the starting line,” Chung says. “But when we hear the gunshot and start the race, those nerves go away because from that point, I'm just focusing.”
Along with the nerves, Chung is always a little wary of his own endurance. Although he is a long-distance skater, he still starts to get tired at a certain point in the race. To pace himself, Chung counts forwards until the half way point and then starts counting backward toward the finish lines.
The hardest point in the race, Chung says, is “the last five or four laps.”
“It gets so difficult at that point that when I loosen up, it makes me feel a little more comfortable. But once I do that, then my record gets worse. I do think that I want to take a little break, but I have to get past that to see good results. In races where I have prepared well, I don’t get that tired until the end of the race, but in races where I haven't prepared well enough, even if I race each lap faster than the previous ones, I get tired quicker.”
Looking through his career, if he were to choose the best and the worst events he has competed in, Chung says the recent gold medal was his best race.
“Well, winning counts a lot,” Chung says. “But this is my very first individual win in a senior event and it was the last event of the season. This allowed my World Cup ranking from last season to go up to third and it was the race that allowed me to finish the season well.”
But when it came to choosing his worst, Chung couldn’t pick one specific event or a race.
“I’m a little greedy,” Chung says. “Since there were quite a number of races that I wasn’t satisfied with, I don’t think I can choose one. But I think there were quite a number of races where I thought the result came out badly.”
When it comes to choosing a role model, Chung once again couldn’t pick as he believes that all the skaters competing on the international stage are top-level skaters. Despite his first win, Chung was humble. However, after joining the national team and competing in senior events, his view has gotten a lot wider in terms of his standards and role models.
“There are a lot of skaters I have respect for, but one thing that has changed from the past is that before I joined the national team, I just watched the skaters around the world skate,” Chung says. “So based on that, the best skaters were my role models. But after I joined the national team and competed in international events, I felt that all the skaters there, including those who didn’t win medals, were great skaters.”
Having actually skated with skaters around the world, Chung learned that all the skaters above him were the ones that he should have respect for and look up to. As he believes that each and every skater has their strengths, he needs to learn those strengths in order to beat them.
“I think a lot of skaters are my role model,” Chung says.
BY KANG YOO-RIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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