Hwang Daeheon and Lim Hyo-jun lined up in the center positions 3 and 4 in the midst of a huge finals group of nine skaters. With so many skaters jockeying for a podium finish, you knew a tumble or two was coming in this sport of short track speed skating, where margins are razor thin.
It’s Saturday, February 10, 2018, the day after the Opening Ceremonies of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics and I’m in attendance at the Gaengneung Ice Arena for the women’s 500-meter, women’s 3000-meter relay qualifiers, as well as the men’s 1500-meter qualifiers and finals. The anticipation of a South Korean winning gold was so great that you may not have noticed that US Vice President Mike Pence was in the house. But you couldn’t miss the North Korean cheering squad, a red mass of continuous cheering and singing that electrified the arena.
The 1500-meter race takes 13.5 laps, and over 2 minutes. That’s a long distance for short track, so the nine skaters start kind of leisurely. But a few laps in, the intensity grows. The Dutch skater and 28-year-old short track veteran, Sjinkie Knegt, takes the lead.
At the tenth lap, 21-year-old Lim takes control. He slides in front of his elder teammate and world #1, Hwang, and a lap later he jumps inside the leader, Knegt, and takes the lead. At that very moment, it appears that Hwang is clipped from behind by French skater Thibaut Fauconnet, as he and the French skater take a hard tumble into the corner. One Korean down, but one Korean up.
With two laps to go, the question is, can Lim hold the lead. You only need to wait seconds to find out in short track. Lim crosses the finish line and raises his arms in victory just ahead of Knegt, setting a new Olympic Record at 2:10.485. After enduring numerous leg injuries and seven surgeries during years of training, first as a swimmer and then a skater, on this day, Lim lept over his higher ranked teammate, Hwang, into the South Korean pantheon of champions.
As an aside, the bronze medalist of the men’s 1500-meter short track finals was Semen Elistratov, a member of the OAR, aka The Olympic Athletes of Russia, and the first OAR medal of the Games.
US Vice President Mike Pence was gone. The North Korean cheerleading squad had departed. After all, the start of the unified Korean women’s team ice hockey match was about to start nearby, and that was the geo-political moment of the night. As a consequence, they missed the first gold medal awarded to the host country at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and it was Lim Hyo-jun.
To be honest, I’m rooting for the USA and Japan when I can, but when you’re in an arena and the hometown is going crazy, you can’t help but get swept up when you’re in a crowd of thousands of strangers united in their unadulterated joy.
Great start to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics!
All pictures/videos taken by the author.