By Yoo Jee-ho
PYEONGCHANG, Jan. 30 (Yonhap) -- With the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics fast approaching, South Korean short track speed skating star Shim Suk-hee is facing an ordeal that no athlete should have to deal with after being struck by her own coach during training about two weeks ago, leading to the instructor's lifetime ban from the sport.
Shim briefly left the team at Jincheon National Training Center in Jincheon, some 90 kilometers south of Seoul, but has since rejoined her teammates for the Feb. 9-25 Olympics.
How Shim will fare in her second Olympics will depend less on her physical skills -– which are abundant -- than on her mental fortitude. Can Shim, who celebrates her 21st birthday on Tuesday, regroup mentally in time to add to her collection of three Olympic medals?
In this file photo taken on Jan. 10, 2018, South Korean short track speed skater Shim Suk-hee trains during an open house day at the Jincheon National Training Center in Jincheon, North Chungcheong Province. (Yonhap)
Shim is the women's team captain for PyeongChang. Four years ago at the Sochi Winter Games, she was the youngest on the squad but demonstrated poise and skill that were well beyond her years.
She anchored the 3,000-meter relay team to the gold medal with an exhilarating charge over the final lap, while adding a silver in the 1,500m and a bronze in the 1,000m.
Shim won the world overall championship a month after the Sochi Olympics, and she and her teammate Choi Min-jeong have dominated women's short track over the past couple years.
Shim, listed as 175 centimeters, is a fluid skater who can kick into another gear almost at will. Choi has pushed Shim hard in recent years, and their budding rivalry within the national team could well lead to a South Korean gold medal sweep at PyeongChang 2018.
Shim has been a sensation every step of the way. As a middle school student, she grabbed two gold medals at the 2012 Youth Winter Olympics and won the world juniors overall title that same year.
She made her senior debut in the 2012-2013 season and captured 10 gold medals at six World Cup stops, including all six titles up for grabs in the 1,500m. Shim hasn't looked back since.
In addition to her off-ice issues, Shim has to be wary of her Chinese rivals on the ice -- namely, their penchant for questionable physical contact during races.
Shim has fallen victim herself. During the 500m final at the 2017 Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan, Fan Kexin of China was seen grabbing Shim's right knee with her left hand during the final lap. Somehow, both skaters were disqualified.
South Korea's short track speed skater Shim Suk-hee takes part in a Team Korea launching ceremony in Seoul on Jan. 24, 2018, ahead of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. (Yonhap)
But Shim didn't complain afterward, saying instead that she simply has to avoid being in a situation where rival skaters could make contact.
It's difficult to say what's going on through Shim's mind, only days removed from the disturbing incident. But during a Team Korea launching ceremony last Wednesday in Seoul, her first public appearance since the incident, Shim was seen sharing laughs with her teammates and taking selfies with them.
Shim declined to speak to reporters after the event, but the national team head coach, Kim Sun-tae, said Shim will be just fine.
"As Shim is an athlete with a strong sense responsibility, she does not want (the team) to be affected because of her," Kim said. "Shim is pulling herself together well and is practicing hard with purpose."