MARQUETTE, Mich. — Kim Hyo-jung glances down at her hands, then looks up shyly. A slight smile crosses her face. She feels out of her element speaking English to a table full of strangers.
Put her on a hockey-sized rink, wearing long-bladed skates and racing in a pack, Kim feels no such hesitation — no matter what side of the Pacific she’s on.
The 17-year-old Kim has been a rising star on the U.S. short track speedskating team since leaving her family behind in South Korea and moving to the United States two years ago.
“She’s the real deal,” five-time Olympian Amy Peterson said. “She walked on the scene a few years ago and has been good ever since.”
So good that Kim has won all four of her races so far at the U.S. short track national championships, which resume today. Kim has 102 points with two days of racing remaining — 39 ahead of second-place Allison Baver. The top five men and women in the overall standings earn Olympic berths.
“She’s remarkable. She’s really stepped it up to a whole new level,” U.S. Speedskating president Andy Gabel said.
“Coming from Korea and the work ethic they have, she’s shown our team that’s how hard you do have to work to be one of the better skaters. She’s been a great influence.”
Kim moved to the U.S. Olympic Center in Colorado Springs, where she trains and rooms with Baver, the other top U.S. female short tracker and girlfriend of men’s star Apolo Anton Ohno.
“I’m sure her parents felt it was a better opportunity for her,” Baver said.
Kim’s parents emigrated to Southern California, where they lived for 12 years, and her father became an American citizen. In 1988, the couple moved back to Korea, where Kim was born and documented as a U.S. citizen. She retains Korean citizenship, too.
At 11, she began speedskating, the only sport she’s ever competed in. She trained six days a week, skating four hours a day, running and stretching for one hour and sandwiching homework in between.
In Colorado, she attends a Christian high school, studying the Bible, math and English. She hits the rink for practice at 7:30 a.m., goes to class for a couple of hours, skates after school and works with a tutor for two hours in the evening.
Kim, who answers to the nickname Halie, described her first year in the United States as “really hard.” In Seoul, she lived with her extended family, who catered to her every need as an only child.
“I never did my laundry,” she said. “After I came here, I had to do everything by myself. It was really hard. I was crying every day.”
So why leave South Korea — a hotbed of short track — to strike out on her own in America?
“Because I’m a U.S. citizen,” she said. “I decided to go to the U.S. when I was 10 or 11. I always thought about the U.S. national team for a long time.”
Baver doesn’t sense any resentment toward Kim by the other American women, noting that her presence enhances the chances of winning a relay medal in Turin.
Kim and Baver will have to carry much of the burden. They are far superior to their teammates, so they often practice with Ohno and the other U.S. men.
If Kim had stayed in Seoul, she would have faced much stiffer competition to make the powerful South Korean team.
“I always try to practice hard and go harder,” Kim said. “Even if I was in Korea, I still could make the team, too, because I like to train hard.”
Kim was hampered by shin problems when she moved to Colorado, and told Baver her career likely would have ended had she stayed in her homeland.
“They would’ve kept pushing and pushing,” Baver said of the South Korean coaching regime. “They don’t look at injuries like we do.”
At the same time, Baver gets a kick out of Kim’s reaction to small things, like headaches.
“It’s like she’s going to die,” Baver said. “Koreans are very dramatic.”
Kim only sees her parents twice a year. Her mother is in Marquette this week, keeping solitary vigil in the stands during practice. But she has to return to South Korea in January, leaving her daughter alone again.
As much as the other skaters try to make Kim feel at home, Baver knows it’s not the same.
“She tries to stay within her culture,” she said, noting Kim’s “morning, noon and night” fondness for kimchi, Korea’s national dish of fermented cabbage.
“She’s always talking Korean on the phone and online in chat forums. She really wants to go home. The U.S. is not home for her. I feel terrible for her.”
Baver acts like a mother hen on the road. She asks Kim what time she wants to get up and places their room service orders. Once, Kim said she wanted “Tiger cereal” for breakfast.
Baver realized she was referring to Tony the Tiger and said, “Oh, you want Frosted Flakes.”
“Halie and I work really well together,” Baver said. “I help her with her schoolwork. On the ice, there’s a lot of respect both ways.”
If Kim can fight off cravings for her homeland, she could be an enduring presence in the sport.
“She’s so young and has such an amazing potential,” Gabel said. “Here’s a skater that we can really build programs and teams around.”