Olympic dreams, immigration hopes

A champion skater who arrived in the U.S. illegally hopes a solution can be found

May 12, 2010|By Simon Cho

Five years after leaving my hometown of Upper Marlboro, I returned to my elementary school to speak about being an Olympian.

Everyone knew I'd helped the United States speed skating team win a bronze medal in the 500-meter relay. But there's another important part of my story I don't always talk about: I'm a Korean immigrant who grew up in the U.S. without immigration documents.

I was 4 when, clutching my mother's hand, we crossed into the U.S. from Canada. My father secured my U.S. citizenship and passport when I was 11, but I remember little of the process.

When I was a child, my parents ran a small seafood takeout shop, worked 365 days a year, and came home late each night. Even with all their hard work, we barely scraped by. Growing up, I was the only child I knew who never had a family vacation, even on Christmas, Thanksgiving, Labor Day or New Year's. On days I helped my parents at the shop I came home exhausted, and I couldn't believe they worked this hard every day.

Then my parents made an even bigger sacrifice for me.

I'd started speed skating as a child and showed a particular aptitude for it. Later, to support my skating, my parents depleted the family resources, and we moved to Salt Lake City for my training. Without any job waiting for them, they risked everything so I could skate and dream big.

There aren't a lot of people of color in speed skating. When I came to skating, I came not just as a kid who wanted to compete but also as a Korean American who knew how challenging it could be to live as an immigrant, with all the hard work and insecurity, especially given that we still weren't citizens.

At times, seeing all the sacrifices and risks, I wanted to give up. I even took a break from skating. But my friends and schoolmates encouraged me to return, and I also got lots of support from older skaters of color, people like Apolo Ohno and Shani Davis, who told me I should cherish the journey.

This winter, I was a member of the U.S. Olympic short track speed skating team, and I brought home a medal. I reached my dreams. And driving me on was the sacrifice my parents had made.

America's always been my home. Yet returning from the Olympics was when I first realized I was truly an American and felt accepted. We flew from Vancouver to San Francisco, where we had a layover, and when our team got off the plane, a bunch of passengers gave us an ovation.

It's been an amazing journey. I was thrilled to be able to return as an Olympian to Stone Mill Elementary School. I spoke with all the children at the school, from kindergartners to fifth-graders, and saw the teachers who had helped build my character. It was great to share my story, which is unique but also typical. We all have dreams and hopes.

As important as skating continues to be for me, it's not the only area in which I want to succeed and make a difference. I want to help remove some of the challenges immigrant families face because I know that our immigration system doesn't reflect the best that we can be.

This year, President Barack Obama has an opportunity to reform our immigration laws. I hope my story will inspire him and countless others to go full force and have no regrets. It's time to bring that medal home.

Simon Cho is an Olympic short track speed skater. This article is copyright 2010, the American Forum.

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