By Raf Casert
The Associated Press
RICHMOND, British Columbia (AP) — Head coach Kim Kwan-kyu was looking for the right word on his translation computer to explain South Korea’s stunning success in speedskating at the Vancouver Games.
It’s not the Spartan ethos of relentless training and steely cold discipline that drove the Korean program decades ago.
Suddenly, the magic words flashed up on the screen and brought a smile to Kim’s face: “Atmosphere — Ambiance — Vibes.”
“He is a very warm man,” said Lee Sang-hwa, who won the 500 meters to the surprise of just about everyone this week.
Turn back the clock 20 or 30 years. Korean teenagers were sent to Inzell, the open-air oval high in Germany’s Bavarian Alps, for two months a year for extreme physical preparation. The lodging was rudimentary and the ice often too slushy.
“Soft ice [was] hard on legs,” Kim remembers of the five years he went there as a skater.
It was hard on more than just the legs, others remember.
“They were locked in. They had to train so hard that sometimes, they had to leave the ice vomiting from the effort,” said Marnix Wieberdink, a former Dutch skater who formed lifelong friendships with some of the skaters before becoming an agent for the national Korean team. “Literally, they were beaten.”
“They raced shaking with fear, and the results were zilch,” he added.
Incessant training right up to the major championships left the young Koreans too tired to peak. Nations with more sophisticated programs brought their skaters in prime condition to championships and the Olympics.
Coaches came and went. In 2004, Kim offered a new vision: Communication was no longer one-way, militaristic order to blind obedience.
“Then came Mr. Kim — a quiet, warm, sweet man,” said Wieberdink. “From then on, the whole style was changing. They open like a flower. They are more expressive.”
Kim told the Associated Press that it was the only way if Olympic gold was to come.
“I don’t like (to be) a strong coach. I am a relaxed coach. Relaxed coach is good for skaters. The skater thinks,” he said. The essence has become “heart-to-heart communication. Skaters and coaches.”
Lee, the 20-year-old winner of the 500, has known Kim since her childhood and has seen him change with the times as South Korea has opened up more to the world since the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
“In the beginning, he was very strict. But as we grew up, we are more responsible now and he is a little bit more lenient now. And so, yes, he is more lenient with our coaching as well,” Lee said through an interpreter.
Of course, sweet, reasonable talk does not yield records by itself.
South Korean success is also determined by a studious mix of long and short track training, which has given South Koreans an edge in the long, sweeping curves where fractions of seconds are translated into gold, silver, or bronze. When many others lose speed there, it is a place where Kim’s skaters make a difference.
And especially in the sprint events, where Koreans have some tradition, he has another magic term popping up from his translation computer — “Competitive power.”
Among the men in the World Cup, the top two 500-meter skaters are Korean. Yet it was Mo Tae-bum, ranked No. 14 in the world and only fourth in Korea, who came up with the gold in the 500. In the 1,000, two of the top three are South Korean.
And when many used to buckle under the stress of a nation where pride is still so important, skaters like Mo and Lee have thrived, partly because Kim has replaced fear with a warm embrace.
South Koreans have long dominated short track speedskating, but often they fell short in other sports. Not until 2002, when a Dutch coach took the soccer team to the semifinals of the World Cup, did the nation truly expand its athletic potential.
South Korean golfers have thrived, increasingly mastering the pressure. Y.E. Yang came from behind to beat Tiger Woods and become the first Asian-born man to win a major golf tournament at last year’s PGA championship. Among the women, six of the top 22 in the LPGA rankings are South Koreans.
Now long track speedskating is providing another breakthrough. South Korea had never won gold at the Winter Games outside of short track. Mo changed that last Monday.
Lee was all too happy to add to the momentum a day later, with gold in the women’s sprint. “I was very glad my friend was able to win gold, but I was also very anxious and very nervous,” she said of realizing that she had to match him.
Halfway through the competition, South Korea now tops the table with two golds and two silvers. The Netherlands is second with three medals, and the United States with two.
Kim is hoping for another silver and a little more. The coach is known as a very modest man. ♦