This story was corrected at 11:10 a.m. on June 25, 2013. An explanation follows the story.
On a fresh sheet of ice, long blades stand at a 90-degree angle, the back blade anchored down into the freeze.
The skaters stand four wide at the start line and crouch at the announcement of “ready.” When a gun sounds, they burst down the ice and into the first turn, hanging left after left on a rink measuring just over 111 meters.
It’s a scene that can be found throughout the Washington, D.C., metro area as a young crop of short-track speedskaters roots itself in the region.
Typically reserved for states with chillier climates and more available rinks, American short track speedskating is extending its grasp as local upstarts climb the ladder in the sport many call NASCAR on ice. In the junior category for those younger than 16, seven of the 15 highest-ranked male and female skaters are from Washington-area clubs, according to U.S. Speedskating’s elite “category one” rankings.
“You don’t need to go to Lake Tahoe or Salt Lake City to see and train with Olympic athletes,” said Alison Mittelstadt, vice president of the Potomac Speedskating Club. “You can literally do these things without leaving the suburbs.”
But the reason why the local skating community has been so successful still is an enigma, though United Capital Blades Speedskating Club President Anna Rhee has some ideas.
The Washington region has a large Korean-American population, a main contingent of the speedskating community. According to the 2010 Census, Koreans make up 12.8 percent of the Asian population in Montgomery County and 10.8 percent in Washington.
In Fairfax and Prince William counties — where most clubs practice due to the availability of rinks — people of Korean descent account for 21.8 percent and 15.7 percent, respectively, of all Asians.
Since 1994, South Korea has won 16 gold medals in short-track speedskating. In 2010, Korean-American Simon Cho — an Upper Marlboro native who trained with the Potomac Speedskating Club and now is under fire for admittedly sabotaging a Canadian’s skate at the 2011 World Championship — won bronze with Team USA at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Because of the large existing Korean community, many new immigrants choose to settle in the region and bring their love of speedskating with them, Rhee and Mittelstadt say.
Of Potomac Speedskating Club’s 40 skaters, about 10 are of Korean descent. Although the club’s office is in Arlington, Va., Mittelstadt said most of the skaters are from Maryland and most of its practices are in Wheaton.
At United Capital Blades, which draws skaters from all over Montgomery County, Rhee said, seven of 23 skaters are Korean-American.
United Capital coach Hyun-Jung Lee competed on the Korean national team since she was 13 years old. She began coaching in Korea after she graduated college in 1994 and immigrated with her family to Maryland in 2005.
“At that time,” she wrote in an email, “speedskating clubs were developing in Maryland, helping me to continue my coaching career here and develop my own club.”
Lee jumped in with United Capital as the club’s first and only head coach after it split off from Potomac in March 2013. Many youth sports coaches are parents or volunteers, but local skating coaches are paid, full-time positions.
“It really changes the dynamic because you expect the same from a coach you pay as you would, say, a piano teacher,” Rhee said. “The parents of kids want to see results. That’s not for all people, but that’s certainly an undercurrent.”
Standing 5 feet, 7 inches tall and weighing 135 pounds, Benjamin Oh, 16, of Burtonsville had enough of hockey. He’d played on travel league teams and gone to every tournament imaginable. As a tiny defenseman, he was tired of getting roughed up against the boards.
In 2010, he decided to try his fifth sport: speedskating.
“When I was a little kid, soccer and baseball and basketball were fun, but they weren’t really my sports,” he said. “I remember one day when I was a kid, my dad took me to Laurel Ice House and I learned to skate and I realized sports on the ice were my thing.”
When Oh started with Potomac, he said, speedskating came easily. He won three of his first four races at the 2010 Virginia Commonwealth Games in Richmond, racing in the 500-, 777-, 1,000- and 1,500-meter sprints. He said he fell during one of them, coming in last, but he can’t remember which one.
“I’ve had too many races since then,” he said with a laugh. “That’s too long ago.”
From there, Oh shipped off to the nationals, where he boasted a time 15 seconds better than the qualifier. But at the tournament, he fell in every race, returning home empty-handed.
The next year, at the same competition, he won second place in the 13-to-14-year-old “juvenile” age group and won bronze in the 3,000-meter relay. At the 2013 nationals in March, his relay team took home gold. A few weeks ago, with United Capital Blades, he was named to the category one list.
“Even though I don’t win as much, it’s still really fun because you’re racing against people who are really good,” he said.
Gabriella Hachem, 14, of Rockville, figure-skated for four years until picking up speedskating in 2011 with Potomac.
“I got on the ice for the first time and it felt weird because the skates were different,” she said. “But I got the hang of it right away and learned the technique.”
By March 2013, she went to her first national competition and was named the 13-to-14 year-old age group national champion. Right after the tournament, she jumped to United Capital.
Though their success might be unusual, the route Oh and Hachem took to speedskating is not. Most new skaters have some sort of ice-related background, Rhee said, which means they’re already comfortable off land and are used to traveling far through rush hour to find available rinks for long practices.
Clubs often rotate between the public Wheaton and Cabin John ice rinks and privately owned Rockville Ice Arena. Clubs even schlep to Laurel Ice House for practices, or Prince William Ice Center in Virginia.
Practices are about three hours long and contain both “dry-land,” technique-geared training in rink parking lots or empty fields, and a traditional on-ice element.
Even as the local speedskating population continues to grow, key factors such as travel and cost maintain a small community.
Teams participate in about six to eight events in a year and travel as far as Kearns, Utah, where U.S. Speedskating has its official Olympic oval, Mittelstadt says.
Potomac will host a small tournament at Prince William Ice Center in August.
A pair of skates, custom-made in the U.S., Canada or Korea, can cost up to $2,000, Mittelstadt said. Skaters can go through two pairs of $400 blades per season. Plus, there are team fees and tournament registration prices.
Rhee said the benefits of the close-knit skating community make those sacrifices worth it.
“The kids are devoted to the coaches and there’s a real community,” she said. “It’s hard to spend that much time with someone if there’s no feeling of community.”
An earlier version of this story had a wrong location for the office of Potomac Speedskating Club.