Korea's Medal Hopefuls for Winter Olympics Next Month

The Sochi Winter Olympics in February will serve as an opportunity for Korea to cement its standing as a winter sports powerhouse on the ice and a force to be reckoned with in speed skating, figure skating and short track.

Korea finished fifth in Vancouver four years ago, its best result to date at the quadrennial event, with five gold, six silver and two bronze medals. It is targeting a seventh-place finish at this year's Games.

Much attention is being focused on Lee Sang-hwa, Mo Tae-bum and Lee Seung-hoon to see if the three speed skaters can repeat the success they enjoyed in Vancouver.

Lee Sang-hwa has perhaps the best chance of defending her Olympic title as she reset the world 500-m record no less than four times last year. She also improved her starting times, which until then had been the one chink in her armor.

Mo is eyeing several medals in Russia to add to his gold medal at the 500-m race and silver at the 10,000 m from the Vancouver Games. He finished tied for first place in the shorter sprint event at the World Single Distance Speed Skating Championships in the Netherlands in March, and won gold in the 1,000-m race at the Speed Skating World Cup in Berlin on Dec. 8.

Lee Seung-hoon, who won gold in the 10,000 m and silver in the 5,000-m race in Vancouver, is now focusing more on the team pursuit event, in which he will participate with Joo Hyung-joon and Kim Cheol-min. Korea ranks second after the Netherlands at the team event in the latest World Cup rankings.

From left, Lee Sang-hwa, Shim Suk-hee and Choi Jae-woo From left, Lee Sang-hwa, Shim Suk-hee and Choi Jae-woo

Short track athletes are also determined to restore their trophy-winning ways after falling short in Vancouver. Of the 45 medals that Korea has collected at the Winter Olympics, 37 were from short track. But the team only managed two gold, three silver and two bronze medals in 2010, failing to meet expectations.

The best prospect this year is Shim Suk-hee. She picked up 10 gold medals at recent World Cup events and will compete in the women's 500-m, 1,000-m and 1,500-m races, as well as the 3,000-m team relay event.

The women's curling team and mogul skier Choi Jae-woo are also considered strong medal prospects. This is the first time the curling team has earned a berth at the Olympics. They did so by finishing fourth at the 2012 World Championships despite the lack of training facilities in Korea. The team got another confidence boost by claiming second place at the Winter Universiade in Trentino, Italy last month.

Choi placed third at the Junior World Ski Championships in 2012 and ranked fifth in the men's mogul race at the Freestyle World Ski Championships in Norway in March last year, giving Korea its best-ever performance at the biennial event.

Korea is sending 11 athletes in the three disciplines of bobsleigh, luge and skeleton, but most plan on soaking up the experience in Sochi and are eyeing medals at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

The one exception could prove to be Yoon Sung-bin, who won a silver medal in skeleton at the Confederations Cup in Austria in December within a year of taking up the sport.

englishnews@chosun.com / Jan. 03, 2014 10:20 KST