Short track stars Shim and Choi out to impress on home ice

Shim Suk-hee and Choi Min-jeong are the young superstars of Korean short track speed skating. Shim won three Olympic medals at Sochi 2014, while teenager Choi has amassed seven world championship medals, including two overall golds. Both skaters will be looking for more glory on home ice at PyeongChang 2018.

Picture by 2017 Getty Images

Shim, who took up short track speed skating at the age of seven, was born and bred in Gangneung (KOR), the city that will host the Olympic short track competition at PyeongChang 2018. So important is that date to her that it makes up the last four digits of her mobile phone number.

A three-time Winter Games medallist and a world champion many times over, she has high hopes of further success in front of her own fans.

Though Shim made her first international appearance as a 14-year-old at the 2011 World Junior Speed Skating Championships, her career took off at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Innsbruck 2012, where she won 500m and 1,000m gold medals in fine style. She added a bronze in the 3,000m mixed relay, forming part of a team comprising athletes from different NOCs.

The Korean made a stunning entrance on the senior scene in the 2012/13 season, winning the overall ISU World Cup title at the age of 15 thanks mainly to six straight 1,500m victories in Calgary (CAN), Montreal (CAN), Nagoya (JPN), Shanghai (CHN), Sochi (RUS) and Dresden (GER). She also crossed the line first in three 1,000m races.

In March 2013, the precociously gifted Shim landed her first world title, in the 3,000m, in Debrecen (HUN). She added a silver in the 1,500m to finish third in the overall standings.

Shim tuned up for her Olympic debut the following year by retaining her World Cup title, the result of another string of fine performances in the 1,000m and 1,500m. Though her bid for medals at Sochi 2014 began with the disappointment of a quarter-final exit in the 500m, the teenager came back to win silver for the Republic of Korea in the 1,500m. It would have been gold had China's Zhou Yang not overtaken her on the last lap. 

Three days later, Shim raced the anchor leg in a thrilling 3,000m relay final in which the Chinese and Koreans swapped the lead five times in the final eight laps. Shim secured the gold for her country with some last-lap dramatics of her own, sweeping into the lead with a now-legendary outside pass of China's Li Jianrou.

"I felt great on the last lap," she said afterwards. "I was moving fast and was in a position to get past Li. It felt so amazing when I did."

She completed her Sochi 2014 medal collection a couple of days later, winning bronze in a 1,000m final won by her compatriot Park Seung-hi. Shim has stayed at the forefront of her sport since then, winning World Cup titles in the 1,000m in 2015 and the 1,500m in 2017.

Choi storms the global scene

When it comes to achieving big things at a young age, Shim's team-mate Choi also knows a thing or two.

Nearly two years Shim's junior, Choi made her international breakthrough in her second ISU World Cup race in Montreal in November 2014, when she beat her compatriot and Italy's Arianna Fontana in the 1,500m.

Within four months and still only 16, Choi claimed overall world championship gold in Moscow (RUS) after winning the 1,000m, 3,000m and the 3,000m relay. She retained the title in Seoul (KOR) a year later, winning the 1,000m and team relay and finishing a runner-up in the 1,500m.

In the meantime, she won the 1,000m World Cup title in 2015 and the 1,000m and 1,500m crowns in 2016.

Choi began the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic season in typically fine style, sweeping all four events (500m, 1,000m, 1,500m and 3,000m relay) at the opening round of the World Cup in Budapest (HUN) in early October 2017.

"I'm delighted to have come away with better results than expected," said the young speed skater, who is very much a believer in the motto "No pain, no gain".

In the 1,500m in Shanghai in November, however, it was Shim who edged to victory ahead of Choi.

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Pressure? What pressure?

Expectations will be high for the two skaters at PyeongChang 2018, where the host nation will be willing them to win as many medals as possible in a sport in which the country traditionally excels.

"People say we're under all this pressure because of the media focus on us," explains Shim. "But I don't bother with that. I just focus on my training. All I want to do is make sure I don't have any regrets about my performance at the Games.

"When I went to Sochi I was young and didn't have any experience. But when I go to PyeongChang, I want to win the individual races. I want to get results I can feel pleased about."

Choi is no less ambitious. Still only 19, she has high hopes of stepping onto the Olympic podiums several times in February 2018: "I had some good results, but I need to keep on getting better. I'm working on my start, on power and acceleration, on all my weak points."

The two will join forces in the 3,000m relay. "It's a race we really want to win," says Shim. "I hope the other skaters who are making their debuts at PyeongChang put in good performances and don't let their nerves get the better of them."