Winter Olympics mark homecoming for Thomas Hong

Laurel's Thomas Hong was born to speedskate — almost literally. Now he is making his Olympic debut in the country of his birth.

Editor’s Note: This is the third story in a four-part series highlighting local athletes who will represent Team USA in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Stay tuned for more stories throughout the week. 

WASHINGTON — Thomas Hong was born to speedskate — almost literally.

The story of Hong’s birth begins with his mother feeling contractions while on a skating rink in South Korea. But Hong is quick to correct those who want to casually guide the story of his birth toward something more spectacular and symbolic than it actually was.

“Almost,” Hong explains with a laugh. “My sister was at a speedskating practice and my mom — who was attending that practice — was also heavily pregnant. I don’t think her water quite broke at the rink itself, but she started to feel me come and had to be rushed to the hospital.”

Though Hong missed out on an epic origin story, it’s hard to ask for a better Olympic tale. Hong’s fourth-place finish at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials earned him a spot on the short track team, sending him to his first Winter Games in his birth country.

“It’s honestly just really exciting,” Hong said. “I can’t pinpoint the exact emotion I’m feeling but the games being in South Korea — it’s just that much more meaningful for me to represent the United States at such a high level in a place I’m so familiar with. I honestly couldn’t choose a better place to race my first Olympics.”

Hong and his family emigrated from South Korea to Laurel, Maryland, when he was 4-years-old and about a year later he took up speedskating. Simon Cho, a former Olympic speedskater and current head coach at Potomac Speedskating Club, has basically known Hong since he first put on skates.

“I’ve been able to kind of see his transition from skating as a little boy to a young man,” said Cho, who won bronze in the 5,000-meter relay in 2010. “Over the years I’ve seen that his strength has developed quite well; he is a very, very good top-end skater. His top-end speed is up there with the fastest guys in the world.”

Hong fell short in his first shot at the Winter Olympics, finishing 11th in the 2014 Olympic Trials. Back then, he was the youngest competitor at 16-years-old. Now he is a well decorated 20-year-old — still the second-youngest on the short track speedskating team, behind Reston’s Maame Biney — with medals (a gold and three bronze in relay) in international competition.

That has Hong in a sweet spot in his Olympic progression.

“Advantage is a little bit hard to say,” Hong said. “But it gives me the opportunity to maybe sneak up on some people who write me off as just a young kid on the scene. Hopefully I can surprise people.”

Though it wouldn’t be a surprise locally — the D.C. area has fast become famous for being a hotbed for speedskating talent — expectations for the short track speedskating team are high, especially in the relay.

“Individually in the 500-meters, I know I’m a little bit of a long shot,” Hong said, citing that he never finished better than 10th in the World Cup in 2017 individually. He did, however, get silver in a previous junior world championship. “We are pretty strong in the men’s 5000-meter relay; this year at two of the four World Cups, we actually medaled and broke the world record in a race in Shanghai (in November).”

Cho concurs: “His best chance at a gold is going to be in the relay … he is got a chance to win at least a medal,” he said.

Hong is currently on a hiatus from college to focus on the Winter Games but intends to return to the University of Maryland to finish school after the Olympics. First, he wants to capitalize on his chance to realize his Olympic dream — and Hong won’t let the distractions of family and geopolitical factors in South Korea phase him.

“I’m better equipped (to handle this) but just because I am familiar with Korea I’m not too concerned … And also, at this point I’m just so heavily focused on my skating that that thought doesn’t really cross my mind.”

Thomas Hong’s first race will be the 5000-meter relay on Feb. 13 (Heats). The finals for this event is Thursday, Feb. 22.

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