Speed skater Lee Sang-hwa got off to a strong start in the final season of her 22-year career, keeping her chances of winning a third consecutive Olympic gold medal in the women's 500-m race alive.

Lee clocked in at 38.52 seconds in the first race of the women's 500 m at the national trials for the ISU Speed Skating World Cup in Seoul on Wednesday. It was slower than her world record of 36.36 seconds, but it was not a bad start for the new season.

"I feel better than last season. A year ago at the national trials, I felt labored, but this time I felt light when skating," Lee said after the race.

Lee won gold at the Olympic Games in Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi in 2014. However, she wrapped up last season without winning any gold medals. Japan's veteran skater Nao Kodaira, who blossomed after she turned 30, put a break to Lee's reign. In February this year, Kodaira beat Lee to claim gold in the World Championships in Gangneung and again in the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan in February.

When asked about her thoughts on Kodaira, Lee stressed, "I can ruin my race if I think about other skaters. What's important is that I’m satisfied with my effort." 

Lee Sang-hwa skates in the women's 500-m race at national trials for the ISU Speed Skating World Cup in Seoul on Wednesday.

Lee feels better about the new season as her body is in better condition. When she won gold in Sochi in 2014, both of her legs were in pain. Her left knee joints were damaged, and her right calf had a varicose vein. Lee felt the effects throughout last season, and in the end, decided to have an operation on the right leg. She has recovered well from it, and the right leg feels almost pain free. Lee cycles to keep the muscles strong in her left knee to compensate for the damaged joints.

"Once I started to feel fit and pain free, I began to think about records again," Lee said.

"I think I will become emotional when I visit ice rinks around the world that I used to visit every year and think this will be the last time I will skate here," Lee said. "But I'm happy that my last Olympics will be at home in Korea. I prepared a lot for this season."

The Pyeongchang Winter Olympics opens on Feb. 9 next year in the alpine city of Gangwon Province.

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