Meet The Short Track Skaters Who Will Represent Team USA At The Winter Youth Olympic Games
by Nicole Haase
U.S. Speedskating is sending four short track skaters to Gangwon, South Korea, for the 2024 Winter Youth Olympic Games. Teenagers Cindy Jang, Julius Kazanecki, Elizabeth Rhodehamel and Sean Shuai earned their spots on the U.S. team thanks to their performances at the U.S. qualifier in September in Salt Lake City.
First held in 2010, the Youth Olympic Games bring together elite athlete from around the world to compete in an Olympic-style event, though with different disciplines and formats.
This year’s competition, which runs Jan. 19-Feb. 1, is the fourth edition of the Winter Youth Olympic Games and the first to be held outside Europe. The Games will utilize many of the venues that hosted events during the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in PyeongChang — including the Gangneung Oval for speed skating events.
Outside of the competitions, the Youth Olympic Games emphasize community and cooperation, with a Culture and Education Program based around five main themes: Olympism, Social Responsibility, Skills Development, Expression and Well-being and Healthy Lifestyles.
For most of the Americans, this will be their first chance to compete internationally or outside North America, and they will get to do it at actual Olympic venues while receiving the opportunity to learn about the Olympic values, explore other cultures and develop the skills to become ambassadors of their sport.
While she’s focused on the competition first and foremost, Rhodehamel is also excited to be in the athletes village, go to the opening ceremony and meet athletes from around the world. At 16, she’s remarkably composed and contemplative about longer term goals, so the skater from Madison, Wisconsin, isn’t inclined to say she hopes to be an Olympian one day. Instead, she’s focused on working hard now and achieving short-term goals, then reassessing and resetting what she’s working toward.
In the chaotic world of short track speed skating, there are a lot of things out of her control, but she tries not to let that bother her too much.
“Even if I do poorly in one race, it doesn’t speak for everything I’ve done,” she said. “I’ll have other opportunities to show what I’m capable of. You learn to deal with the stress.”
Having grown up a figure skater, Rhodehamel said she became used to the stress at an early age, allowing her to stay serene and not let her emotions get too high or too low.
The two sports are very different, but elements from her training as a figure skater play into her success as a speed skater. She used to have to be aware of how she was holding every joint, down to her fingertips. That body awareness can be crucial for speed skating adjustments. Figure skating experience also gives her balance, flexibility and a keen awareness of how to use her skate edges. Those are all especially important in her favorite short track race, the 500m. In the short, quick race, there’s no time to overthink things, Rhodehamel said.
“You go all out, and you keep going all out until the end,” she said. “You get to the front, and you try to keep your position and block people. It’s over so quickly.”
Joining Rhodehamel on the team is Jang. A native of South Korea, Jang is getting the opportunity to represent her home country in the country of her birth. As a younger skater, the idea of skating at the Youth Olympic Games felt wildly out of reach. Having made it at the younger end of eligibility, her goal has shifted from making the team to winning her races.
“It is a rare and honorable experience to have this opportunity to represent the Team USA,” she said.
Kazanecki hails from the Potomac Speedskating Club in Maryland. He’s eager to visit South Korea for the first time and take in all that the Youth Olympic Games have to offer.
Shuai grew up playing hockey and has only been speed skating short track for about six years. But once he put on speed skates, he took off and never looked back. Now his dreams have shifted from shooting pucks in the NHL to winning races in the Olympics. Qualifying for the Youth Olympic Games and representing Team USA is an important step along that path. He hopes to win a medal but knows this is also an important learning and growth opportunity.
Get to know the teens who will represent Team USA in South Korea:
Hometown: Seoul, South Korea
Why did you choose speed skating? I chose speed skating because of my brother. When I was younger, I would always follow my brother to his practices and races. He was always hard working and seeing him skate so fast amazed me. I knew instantly, “That’s what I want to do.”
What is your first speed skating memory? Falling down as soon as my skates touched the ice.
What are you most looking forward to at the Youth Olympic Games? I am eagerly anticipating the opportunity to represent the U.S. in my country of birth and wearing the U.S. suit for the first time. Also building friendships with other athletes from different countries and sports.
Who inspires you and why? Choi Min-jeong[CM1] (a three-time Olympic champion from South Korea). She is a very diligent and a hard-working skater.
What are some of your hobbies? I love to draw.
Hometown: Bethesda, Maryland
Why did you choose speed skating? I like the unique community and find the sport exhilarating.
What is your first speed skating memory? When I was introduced to it by my family watching Garden State skate. My first memory on the ice was me doing drills and being taught the basics.
What are you most looking forward to at the Youth Olympic Games? The unique experience the Olympics offers. It will be my first time going to Korea.
Who inspires you and why? I am not particularly inspired by an individual, but rather observing other people’s successes motivates me to be more successful.
What are some of your hobbies? I like to lift weights and learn different exercises. I also have a great interest in economics, politics and finance. For fun, I like to play games with my friends.
Hometown: Madison, Wisconsin
Why did you choose speed skating? I love the sport and the people who I’ve met through it. While training is hard, I am motivated by the people who believe in me and the idea that I could advance to a higher level.
What is your first speed skating memory? I remember before I got onto the ice I was walking down a ramp. The blades on speed skates are much longer than the blades of figure skates (which I was used to), and so I was having trouble walking. I remember turning to my mom, who was behind me, and saying, “I hate this.” However, by the end of the practice I was open to the idea of starting something new.
What are you most looking forward to at the Youth Olympic Games? I’m most looking forward to meeting new people and experiencing a new environment. I’ve never been anywhere in Asia and so I’m excited to travel somewhere completely new. I’m not just excited to travel but also to learn from the racing and try my best.
Who inspires you and why? I do not have a main role model who I look up to, but instead many people who inspire me to work hard and improve. I would say my coach Hongyang (Wang) is my main supporter. He believes in me and sets goals for me that inspire me to train to my max. He truly cares about me and my teammates, which allows us to put our faith into him and trust that whatever training he assigns us, hard or impossible seeming, will benefit us and help us reach our full potential.
What are some of your hobbies? I love being outside and going to new places. I also really enjoy swimming, especially in lakes with friends. Lastly, my favorite post-practice activity is getting ice cream with my teammates.
Hometown: Tulsa, Oklahoma
Why did you choose speed skating? It’s exhilarating to participate in a sport that requires not only blind strength, but also the wisdom to perfect your technique and the intelligence to race properly. It takes a lot of each trait to be even remotely one of the best in the world, and even then, the sport is so unpredictable to the point where the best can’t win consistently. But that’s what makes it fun.
What is your first speed skating memory? Training at Reston SkateQuest (in Virginia) with the Dominion Speedskating Club.
What are you most looking forward to at the Youth Olympic Games? Hopefully winning a medal, but I’ve been told the experience in general is a once-in-a-lifetime type of thing, and I should enjoy it a lot.
Who inspires you and why? It changes a lot and depends on which world cup skater’s technique I’m trying to pick apart and combine with my own. The top three on my list are Lin Xiaojun (of South Korea), Viktor An (of Russia), and Wu Dajing (of China), in no particular order.
What are some of your hobbies? Video editing/production, shoe collecting and mountain running.
Nicole Haase is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.