Thomas Insuk Hong was born to skate — almost literally.
Hang Jung Hong was pregnant and watching her 6-year-old daughter, Stephanie, learn speedskating at a rink in Seoul, South Korea. Her water broke, and she barely made it to a nearby hospital to deliver Thomas.
Thomas Hong, who immigrated to Maryland with his mother, sister and grandmother when he was 4, said he has always been intrigued by skating.
"I never did it back in Korea, but I was a baby and would want to put on [Stephanie's] skates," the 18-year-old recalled recently. "I remember that I really liked it when I was younger because, as a toddler boy, I just liked to go fast, and we go faster around the ice than we do on the ground. So it was fun."
Hong, a Maryland freshman who lives in Laurel and graduated from Atholton, has turned that boyhood interest into a calling. He was picked to represent the United States at the International Skating Union Short Track World Cups in Montreal this weekend and in Toronto from Friday through next Sunday.
Hong, who is the youngest of the six-member team traveling to Canada, did not qualify for the finals in the 500-meter sprint and 1,000-meter race. The 5,000-meter relay team of Hong, Keith Carroll, J.R. Celeski and John-Henry Krueger did not qualify for the championship final.
Jeff Simon, a three-time bronze medalist at the 2011 World Short Track Speed Skating Championships, is the coach of the Potomac Speedskating Club and has been tutoring Hong for the past 11 months. Simon, 26, said Hong has the ability to compete at the international level and possibly make the national team for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
"I expect him to do what he expects of himself," Simon said. "People get caught up in results and what color the medal is and how well you do in comparison to others. But at this point in the game, he's already at the top level. If he can master the ability of competing against himself, the results will come and the right results will come."
Hong said he picked up speedskating at age 5 and began competing a couple of years later. From age 10, he spent every summer visiting his father, DooPyeo, in Seoul and training with skaters there.
In South Korea, speedskating nearly rivals soccer and baseball as national sports, and Hong grew up idolizing Ahn Hyun-Soo, a South Korean who became a Russian citizen, changed his name to Viktor Ahn and won six Olympic gold medals and six overall World Championship titles.
Although he never considered playing another sport, Hong said he contemplated dropping speedskating during a growth spurt that made it difficult on his knees to stay in the low tuck position.
"I'd tell my parents I want to quit, but I don't think I was ever that close," Hong said. "I took a break from the sport completely for three months and after that, I came back and was completely fine. I think I became a little bit lazy because there wasn't something to drive me."
Hong's passion is evident in his practice schedule. He skates with Simon and the Potomac Speedskating Club at Wheaton Ice Arena in Montgomery County four times a week, spending 90 minutes running and conditioning off the ice before training another 90 minutes on the ice.
Hong works out on his own twice a week and meets with a personal trainer once a week. And then he has to hit the books as a student enrolled at Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.
"It's difficult for me, to say the least," the 5-foot-8, 140-pound Hong acknowledged, adding that he has sworn off fast food and late-night dining in College Park. "It just comes down to finding out my schedule and time management. There's no real secret to it. You just have to do what you have to do."
Alex Izykowski, the short-track manager and the assistant coach for US Speedskating, applauded Hong's ability to juggle school and training, but said many speedskaters ultimately choose one over the other.
"That's a hard load to manage," said Izykowski, who competed in the 1,500 at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. "To be successful in both — not many people can do that. At some point, some people have to make a decision. I don't know if Thomas is going to come to that fork in the road or continue to do both. We'd obviously love to have him out here training with our national team and getting ready and preparing and working as a team together and working toward winning gold in Pyeongchang."
Hong acknowledged that he and his family have considered focusing entirely on speedskating and enrolling at a local community college or in online courses. But he dismissed the notion that he is at a disadvantage compared with his peers.
"While I do believe that, theoretically, my peers should have the competitive advantage due to their resources, I do not let this fact hold me back during races," he said. "I am just as passionate and aggressive, if not more, as any other skater. I am proud to have been able to maintain my level of skating and education."
Simon said Hong's inclusion on the U.S. team for the World Cups is remarkable when considering that the other members of the team are training at the Utah Olympic Oval in Salt Lake City or the Academy of Skating Excellence in Milwaukee.
"They have lots of skaters, lots of athletes, lots of bodies, lots of equipment, lots of testing, doctors," Simon noted. "We have an ice rink — that's it. To be able to come this far at this level, it's significant. It's not something that should be overlooked or undervalued. I absolutely believe that Thomas is going to compete at the 2018 Games. He can go to the 2022 Games and the 2026 Games. He's young enough. But I was never about, 'Let's just make the team.' It's about being the best that he can be. How good can he be? He's mastered the art. Now what are you going to do with it?"
Hong, who is aiming to make the team for the 2018 Olympics, isn't sure which events he will participate in but said he is tempering his expectations.
"The competitor in me wants to medal," he said. "But this is my first World Cup. I don't have high expectations just yet. I really just want to go out there and see what I'm capable of. I haven't raced on the senior international level yet, and these are the top guys. So I just want to see where I stand."