Cho, 13, on fast track to short-track success

Simon Cho: The record-setter from Rockville will test his considerable skills and mettle this weekend when he moves up in age group at the U.S. nationals.

Speed Skating

February 23, 2005|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

WHEATON - At 13, Simon Cho is too young for a soul patch and too green to be thinking about the Winter Olympics just a year away.

But this weekend on a rink in Milwaukee, the wiry speed skater with muscles of steel and a will to match will see how he stacks up against the best in his age group at the U.S. National Short Track Championships.

From that field will come the Olympians of 2010 and, perhaps, the next Apolo Anton Ohno, the gold and silver medalist from 2002 who made a hairy lower lip as much a part of his uniform as a helmet.

Cho is not used to losing. He isn't even used to looking at another competitor's back.

At the 2002 U.S. nationals, Cho broke seven national age-group records and won the 10-and-under Pony Division. In the 500-meter competition, he broke the record by 2.04 seconds, with a time of 52.46 seconds. In the 222-meter, 333-meter and 444-meter races, he set marks in the qualifying heats, then broke his records in the finals.

Last year, in the 10- and 11-year-old Midget Division, the Rockville skater set records in all four distances, sweeping the competition like a high-speed Zamboni.

"I just skate as fast as I can and try to lose guys," is how he explains his style.

Short track is that funky mix of speed skating and Roller Derby, where being first in the final turn guarantees nothing and sprawling, multi-racer pileups are common. It takes a powerful sprinter with rocket fuel for blood to careen around a tiny circle on blade edges 1 millimeter wide.

"It's not a sport most normal people would do," says Cho, grinning. "It's dangerous and scares my mother. I tell her it's OK."

Though it might seem Cho has an edge this weekend, his coach says he might have some learning to do in Milwaukee as he moves up to the 12- and 13-year-old age group with a larger talent pool.

"This is his first big-boy year. The difference between a 12-year-old boy and a 13-year-old boy is like the difference between a 15-year-old boy and an 18-year old," says Mikel Percy, who has been a national speed skating coach for four years. "Simon's going to have his hands full."

In addition to stepping up in age brackets, Cho will have to deal with a change in the racing format. U.S. Speedskating officials have dropped the 333-meter sprint, the shortest event, and added a 1,500 distance race.

If that weren't enough, there's the recent 3-inch growth spurt that has unbalanced Cho's center of gravity and put strain on his legs as he has made adjustments in his stride.

And just yesterday, Cho, 5 feet, 115 pounds, came down with the flu.

But Percy believes in his student. He travels 2,000 miles a week - four hours each way, four days a week - in an ancient Jeep Wrangler between his home in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania and Cho's practice rinks in Wheaton and Baltimore.

Mental toughness and the ability to dismiss pain are what separate Cho from most other short-trackers, says his coach. If holding the skater's crouch for three-quarters of an hour during drills is what it takes, he does it, sometimes with leg muscles twitching and tears streaming down his face.

He spends an hour on technique drills with names such as "Crazy Death Walk," then hits the ice for 90 minutes of skating. As he trains with the rest of Percy's students, Cho does one more repetition of any exercise, takes one more turn on the ice.

"I don't go on vacation," Cho says with a shy smile. "My last family vacation was two years ago. But I love what I do."

Cho, his younger sister and his parents moved from Korea to the United States eight years ago, just one year after the boy took up skating.

"When I was in Korea, my dad saw that I was running around a lot. He wanted to find a sport for my energy and without a lot of competition, like football and basketball," he says. "I liked the speed."

The family lived in Harrisburg, Pa., until moving to Maryland four years ago. His father, Jung Cho, is a bottled water distributor in Arbutus. His mother, Cindy Cho, works for Montgomery County schools.

Early in his training, Cho worked only with Korean coaches. Last year, he switched to Percy, who also coaches Kyle Carr, the 2004 National Intermediate champion from Pennsylvania, and 7-year-old Thomas Insuk Hong, who won all four distances in his age class in November at the Eastern States Short Track Championships.

"It's not that big a community," Percy says. "It was easy for us to find each other."

Until last year, Cho also held three records in long-track skating in the youngest age group. But he gave up the more conventional-style racing to concentrate on the controlled mayhem of short track.

Flu and all, he is looking forward to this weekend.

"There's a lot of older, more experienced skaters, but I think I'll fit in well because I like the challenges," he says. "I don't like to skate by myself."

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