There's no way for 13-year-old Laurel resident Thomas Hong to prepare for everything that might happen in a short track speedskating competition.
To the average spectator the sport might seem mundane — a bunch of athletes skating in a circle over and over again — but short track races are incredibly unpredictable.
“Anything can happen in short track,” Hong said. “It's basically pack skating. If one person falls, the whole pack can go down with him.”
Therefore, Hong said, the key to being a successful short track speedskater is being able to quickly adjust to whatever happens.
He's become quite good at that.
Hong won his fifth national title at the 2012 U.S. National Age-Graded Club Speedskating Championships in Green Bay, Wisc., March 16-19.
Hong won gold in each of four distances — 500 meters, 777, 1,000 and 1,500 — to claim the overall championship in the Juvenile Men (age 14) division.
Hong also won national titles in the Pony division when he was 9 and 10 and was Midget champion when he was 11 and 12.
“It's pretty cool [to win another national title], especially now that I'm not as young anymore. It's nice to be able to excel,” Hong said. “The competition gets a little bit tougher when you get older and people train more.”
In January, Hong was the only U.S. skater to participate in the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in Austria. It was his first real taste of international competition and he liked it.
Hong said his ultimate goal is to compete in the Olympics at the senior level one day.
“I not only think Thomas has the ability to be one of the top American athletes, I think he has the potential to be one of the top athletes in the world,” said Scott Koons, Hong's coach with the American Speedskating Club. “He is tremendously gifted. His technique, his form, he is at a very advanced level at a young age. I can see him competing at the Olympics, I can see him winning a medal.”
A slight 5-foot-6, Hong often is one of the smallest competitors on the track.
Although strength, especially in the legs and core, is paramount in short track speedskating, power isn't everything.
Hong is a technical skater, keen on the strategic aspect of the sport. His efficient strides counter whatever size advantage his opponents might have.
“Thomas understands the ice conditions he is skating on and can adapt,” Koons said. “At nationals everyone was complaining about how bad the ice was, it was soft. Thomas didn't complain, he just realized not to put as much pressure down and skated more on top of the ice and dominated. He is more a student of the game than anyone his age. He is more about strategizing and technique.”
Hong, who was born in Korea and moved to the United States with his family when he was 4, began skating when he was 5, mostly because his older sister began taking lessons. He couldn't be left alone, so he always tagged along to the ice rink.
“At first I kind of just did it for fun,” Hong said. “Then when I won my first championship [when he was 9] I was like, ‘Oh, I can be really good at this.'”
Anything can happen in short track speedskating, and that's what Hong is banking on as he works toward his goal of reaching the Olympics. His next step is to try and make the Junior World team next winter.
“Nothing is fun if it isn't risky,” Hong said. “Essentially, we're skating on knives, blades. There's no way to predict what's going to happen, you just have to adjust.”