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Short-track speedskating: Passionate hosts ready to rock

If you like your Olympic competition staid and sportsmanlike, the short-track speedskating rink isn’t the place.

The skaters’ helmets and pads are a dead giveaway that elbows will be flying at high speeds.

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Darting down low or around the pack to secure a better position can cause crashes that earned the sport its reputation as roller derby on ice. Throw in the fact that South Korea is a hotbed for short track and it makes sense that Gangneung Ice Arena will seat 12,000 spectators for the rock ’em, sock ’em action.

How prickly and passionate is the host country about the sport that has been its best? Apolo Ohno, the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian, was once Public Enemy No. 1 there.

At the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, South Koreans believed Ohno stole the gold from Kim Dong-sung, who finished first in the 1,500 meters but was disqualified for blocking. Ohno threw up his arms as he tried to pass Kim, as though to cry foul. When Ohno claimed his gold, thousands of angry emails shut down the U.S. Olympic Committee server for hours.

The animosity toward Ohno grew so heated that the entire American short-track team withdrew from a World Cup event held in South Korea in 2003, citing death threats against Ohno. In 2005, he traveled in South Korea, reportedly under police guard.

Ohno will be at the rink in Gangneung doing commentary for NBC, the U.S. network carrying the games.

The five days of short track begin Saturday with the men’s 1,500 meters.

Thomas Hong, a Laurel resident, Atholton graduate and Maryland student, finished fourth overall at the U.S. trials in Kearns, Utah, to clinch his spot on the team. He returns to his native South Korea seeking a medal.
Thomas Hong, a Laurel resident, Atholton graduate and Maryland student, finished fourth overall at the U.S. trials in Kearns, Utah, to clinch his spot on the team. He returns to his native South Korea seeking a medal. (Rick Bowmer / AP)

MAKING HISTORY: Maame Biney is the first African-American female skater to make a U.S. short-track Olympic team. The 17-year-old was born in Ghana and moved to Virginia with her father as a 6-year-old. She started skating soon after. Her explosive speed off the starting line and giggly personality could make her a star at the games even if she doesn’t medal.

U.S. CHANCES: The Americans’ best hope for a medal is in the men’s 5,000-meter relay. They’re ranked third in the world behind No. 1 Canada and South Korea. Three-time Olympian J.R. Celski has a shot in the 1,500. Olympic rookie Biney has an outside chance in the women’s 500.

INDIVIDUAL EVENTS: On the men’s side, South Korea, China and Canada have strong medal contenders in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500. Sjinkee Knegt is the rare Dutch short-tracker; most of his countrymen are known for their success in long track. Shaolin Liu of Hungary is a contender in the 1,000 and 1,500. Born to a Chinese father and a Hungarian mother, he trained in China for a year and skated for Hungary in the 2014 Games. In the women’s events, the host country — including Choi Min-jeong and Shim Suk-hee — and veteran Marianne St-Gelais of Canada are medal threats.

RELAY MEDALS: The South Korean women will battle China for gold in the 3,000 relay. In the men’s 5,000 relay, Canada is a favorite for gold ahead of South Korea.

AUSSIE HOPE: Deanna Lockett from sun-splashed Brisbane, Australia, will try to win a rare Winter Olympic medal for Down Under. In the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, Steven Bradbury won the 1,000 after all four of his rivals crashed in the final turn. A shocked Bradbury threw up his arms in disbelief at winning Australia’s first winter gold medal. Lockett earned bronze in the 1,500 at a World Cup meet in Hungary last fall.

Laurel resident Thomas Hong, center rear, with his U.S. teammates: At rear from left, John-Henry Krueger, J.R. Celski, Ryan Pivirotto and Aaron Tran; front from left, Jessica Kooreman, Maame Biney and Lana Gehring.
Laurel resident Thomas Hong, center rear, with his U.S. teammates: At rear from left, John-Henry Krueger, J.R. Celski, Ryan Pivirotto and Aaron Tran; front from left, Jessica Kooreman, Maame Biney and Lana Gehring. (Harry How / Getty Images)
Americans to watch

J.R. Celski: The Monterey, Calif., native won silver in Sochi in the 5,000 relay and bronze in Vancouver in the 1,500 and in the 5,000 relay. Celski, 27, has battled injuries this season and won bronze last season in the 1,000 at World Cup Dresden.

Thomas Hong: The Seoul, South Korea, native, Atholton alumnus and Maryland student won silver in the 500 at the 2016-17 ISU Short Track Junior World Championships. Hong, 20, finished fourth overall at the U.S. trials to clinch his spot on the team.

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Katherine Reutter-Adamek: The Champaign, Ill., native came out of retirement in 2016 hoping to add to the 1,000 silver and 3,000 relay bronze she won in Vancouver. Reutter-Adamek, 29, reached multiple A Finals while competing on the 2016-17 World Cup circuit.

Jessica Kooreman: The Dearborn, Mich., native had the best finish among U.S. women at the 2017 world championships, placing 17th overall. Kooreman, 34, finished fourth in the 1,000 and sixth in the 1,500 in Sochi.

Maame Biney: The native of Accra, Ghana’s capital, moved into her father’s Rockville home at age 5 before relocating to her current residence of Reston, Va. Biney, 17, won bronze in the 500 at last year’s world junior championships and is the first black woman to qualify for a U.S. Olympic speedskating team.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story contained a Russian athlete who was recently banned from the Games, according to reports.

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