Team USA Makes History At Youth Olympic Games
by Paul D. Bowker
Sean Shuai’s historic win in the Winter Youth Olympic Games was three years in the making.
Shuai, a 17-year-old from Tulsa, Oklahoma, became the first American short track skater to win a Gold medal in the Youth Olympic Games when he won the Men’s 500m in Gangwon, South Korea, on Jan. 22.
“It means a lot to me, especially since I found out that I was eligible three years ago and have been working towards a gold at this event ever since,” Shuai said. “I felt a tremendous amount of pressure because I knew I had the capability to win a medal, but I didn’t have enough racing experience to be confident of my racing abilities to win.”
Shuai saved his power for the finish. He launched a final-lap pass to win the race in 41.498 seconds, defeating China’s Zhang Xinzhe (41.755) and Hungary’s Dominik Gergely Major (41.969).
“Super shocked,” said Shuai, who also won his quarterfinal and semifinal heats. “Even though I had a lot of confidence going into the final because of my 40.9 through the quarterfinals, I still wasn’t sure I’d win because my performance throughout the other two days wasn’t as good.”
The U.S. nearly won another Gold medal in the mixed relay. Shuai, Kazanecki, Rhodehamel and Jang finished in 2:47.124, which was less than a second behind winners China.
“It means a lot to me, of course,” Rhodehamel said of the podium finish. “I knew that there was a chance that we could place, but now that it’s really happened, it’s amazing. I’m very proud to have it and proud of the work we all put in to make it happen. The experience was unforgettable. I remember feeling so happy when we were in third, but when Sean made that last-minute pass it just made it so much more incredible. I’m very happy to represent Team USA in a positive way.”
“We have been working tightly together with a shared goal and the team spirit was strongly boosted by Sean’s gold,” said US Speedskating Short Track Coach Hyongyang Wang. “I had the flag with me every race day, and I knew they would hold it up to the world. They were confident, had no fear and were extremely proud of representing the U.S. And together, we made history.”
Rhodehamel was also a flag bearer for Team USA in the Opening Ceremony for the Games, a competition that featured more than 1,800 athletes from 78 countries.
“I felt great pride being able to be one of the two flag bearers for Team USA,” she said. “Before we walked out, everyone was just smiling and very happy. The flag was pretty heavy and hard to hold with two people, so Noah (Park) and I were just laughing at that before entering. The atmosphere was very joyful and welcoming, nobody seemed nervous. While walking with the flag I could feel everyone’s excitement. I specifically remember when we walked in, people were cheering so loud that I couldn’t hear anything but the crowd.”
While that moment in the Opening Ceremony was exciting on its own, a snowball fight produced even more joy. Rhodehamel said she and U.S. long track speedskater Marley Soldan started it.
“At first it was just a small group of us from Team USA until it grew to be a huge multi-country snowball fight,” Rhodehamel said. “There were people from China, Korea, Italy, Great Britain, Australia, Armenia, Canada, Taipei, New Zealand and, of course, the USA. The snowball fight lasted around two hours, and by the end most of us were dripping wet and laughing.”
In addition to winning two individual and team medals, Shuai nearly won a medal in the Men’s 1500m. He placed fourth with a time of 2:22.177, missing a podium finish by just .029 seconds.
Overall, Wang was thrilled with the U.S. performances in Gangwon.
“As a coach, this is one of the greatest moments in my life, and I can’t wait to see how this once-in-a-lifetime experience leads them toward a promising future career,” Wang said.
Among the long track skaters, Soldan and Max Weber each posted top-10 finishes. Weber finished sixth in the Men’s 1500m and was 11th in the 500m. Soldan placed seventh in the Women’s Mass Start, 14th in the 1500m and 22nd in the 500m. Soldan and Weber also placed eighth in the Mixed Relay.
Rounding out the team, Liam Kitchel had 14th-place finishes in both the Men’s 1500m and Mass Start, and was 17th in the 500m.
“The most memorable part of participating at the Youth Olympic Games was experiencing the village life and meeting my skating idols,” said Soldan.
“My takeaway is that having bad races is not a bad thing. Instead, they are experiences to learn from, and it’s important to focus on the fact that I got to skate at YOG and cherish the good that came from it.”
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic and Paralympic sports since 1996, when he was an assistant bureau chief in Atlanta. He is a freelance contributor to USSpeedskating.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.