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(Yonhap Interview) Teenage short tracker embraces newfound fame

2014/04/09 09:36

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, April 9 (Yonhap) -- An Olympic medal can bring a lot to an athlete: fame, wealth and plenty of attention, wanted or not.

Yet nothing has fazed short track speed skater Shim Suk-hee.

Shim, 17, rose from relative obscurity to national recognition thanks to three medals at the Sochi Winter Olympics in February. She won a gold, a silver and a bronze at her first Winter Games, and it was actually regarded by some as a slightly disappointing performance, for Shim had dominated the past two World Cup seasons and had the raw talent to win as many as three gold medals.

The highlight of Shim's Olympic debut came in the 3,000m relay final. As the anchor of the South Korean team, she made a ferocious charge to overtake Li Jianrou of China over the final lap for the gold.

It has been a whirlwind of off-ice activities for Shim since the Olympics, be it attending a corporate-sponsored sports award ceremony, showing support for the national men's football team during the World Cup Trophy Tour or throwing the ceremonial first pitch at a professional baseball game -- an occasion reserved only for the hottest of the stars in the nation.

The high school sophomore got a hero's welcome and was generally treated like a rock star at her own school, Sehwa Girls' High School in Seoul, when she attended her first classes of the year last week.

South Korean short tracker Shim Suk-hee throws out the ceremonial first pitch at a local baseball game on April 5, 2014. (Yonhap file photo)

South Korean short tracker Shim Suk-hee throws out the ceremonial first pitch at a local baseball game on April 5, 2014. (Yonhap file photo)

If Shim is overwhelmed at all by her newfound fame, she hasn't shown it. If anything, Shim seems to be embracing it.

"I am thankful that people have been asking me to come to such meaningful occasions," she told Yonhap News Agency after last Friday's media showcase of the FIFA World Cup Trophy in Seoul. "All of this is quite new to me, and I am still not used to these things."

   Shim added that celebrity isn't the biggest change she's experienced after the Olympics.

"Obviously, I get recognized a lot more these days," she said. "More than anything, though, I think I've become more comfortable in my own skin after the Olympics, now that I've had my first taste."

   Even the cutthroat competition in Sochi might not have prepared Shim for what she was to face afterward. She appeared to be in awe of the attention she was getting from the audience after Friday's event, as one after another approached her for photos and autographs. Shim had the wide eyes of a kid in a candy store, which, in all essence, is what she is.

Away from the rink, Shim, bespectacled, slightly gawky at 175 centimeters and so shy her voice is barely audible in a quiet room, wouldn't pass for an athlete. It is difficult to believe someone so introverted could transform into such a hard-nosed athlete with a flair for the dramatic, as attested by that remarkable relay finish in Sochi.

As much as her athletic talent, it is childlike candor that has endeared her to the public. On stage alongside the national football head coach Hong Myung-bo during Friday's event, Shim was asked how she will cheer on the football team during the World Cup in Brazil. Her answer even made Hong, an intense man with a permanent frown on his face, smile.

"Just like everyone else, I will put on a red shirt (the national team color) and munch on some chicken," Shim said.

Shim later said she is grateful for the public's acceptance of her personality.

"I am still very awkward," she said. "I want to thank people for liking me the way I am."