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OLYMPICS / HELENE ELLIOTT

Hyo Jung Stays on Track for U.S.

March 08, 2005|HELENE ELLIOTT

To her friends at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, she's Halie Kim. By any name, short-track speedskater Hyo Jung Kim is an impressive talent who's on target to earn international acclaim at the Turin Olympics.

Kim, 16, won each of her 11 races last week at the U.S. short-track championships en route to the overall title and a place on the U.S. team at the World Championships, which begin Friday in Beijing. A 5-foot-6, 122-pound dynamo with uncanny power and control, she has overcome the hazards of a perilous sport -- and the pain of a chronic shin injury -- to join the world's elite.

Born in Seoul, she began speedskating "because I was very sick when I was younger and my parents want to make me strong."

Her parents are Korean, but her father, Kim Soo Hong, became a U.S. citizen while he worked in California. The family moved back to South Korea to further her father's career with the multinational construction firm AMEC, whose projects have included rebuilding the World Trade Center and the Pentagon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. As a result, she speaks little English. Through her father's citizenship, however, she had U.S. citizenship at birth.

After deciding to skate for the U.S. in the 2003 world junior championships, she moved to the Olympic training center in January 2004. A cousin, Teddy Ko of Fullerton, a high school teacher in Paramount, keeps an eye on her. Other extended family members live in Tustin and La Mirada.

"I never really thought of being a Korea team member. I always thought my training would be to be a U.S. team member," she said with translation help from Ko. "I miss my parents, but I like it here in Colorado Springs. At first it was very hard to study English, but my roommate [Cherise Wilkins] and everybody helps me study."

If she's as quick a study off the ice as on, she has nothing to fear. She ranked seventh on the World Cup circuit this season and was unstoppable at the U.S. championships in Milwaukee.

"I'm very pleased with my performance, despite the fact I was worried about my physical well-being," she said, referring to the shin injury that kept her off the ice for a month early this season. "My times were better than I expected.

"Because of my injuries, I was a little apprehensive, but I did better than I expected."

Given to shy smiles and giggles, she collects keepsake key chains from her travels and enjoys being treated like a little sister by teammates Allison Baver, Apolo Anton Ohno and Rusty Smith of Sunset Beach.

"Rusty helps me get my blades nice and straight and clean," she said, "and everyone pitches in."

She's excited about the prospect of competing at the Turin Winter Games, less than a year away, but she knows nothing is certain in a fast-paced sport where disqualifications are common and often controversial.

"Every meet anywhere is difficult," she said. "However, I do feel confident."

If she wins a medal, she wants to be in the record books as Hyo Jung, to honor her heritage. But, most important, she wants to help the sport reach the level of popularity here that it enjoys in countries such as South Korea.

"Right now, basketball, baseball and football are the sports in this country," she said. "I hope someday the sport will grow. It is growing and hopefully I will be a part of that."

Baker's in a New Pool

Besides a new title and team to coach, nothing is different from Guy Baker's perspective.

"My job hasn't really changed," said Baker, who switched from coaching the U.S. women's national water polo team to coaching the men's team. He will make his men's coaching debut Friday at the Four Nations tournament in Hamm, Germany.

"The whole idea is to help develop the sport," he said. "The potential for USA Water Polo can be unlimited."

Baker, who led the women to a silver medal at the Sydney Olympics and bronze at Athens, took the men's job in January, a month after the resignation of hard-driving Ratko Rudic.

A few weeks later, Baker assumed the additional duties of director of high performance for USA Water Polo, which entails coordinating the men's and women's programs and national teams. His wife, Michelle Pickering-Baker, was appointed the national team director of operations after spending six years as the team manager.

Under Rudic, the men's team finished sixth at Sydney and seventh at Athens. With Baker, the U.S. women won the 2003 world championship, gold at the Pan Am Games and the two Olympic medals. Finalists to succeed him are Newport Harbor High Coach Bill Barnett, North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake Coach Rich Corso, men's junior national team Coach Doug Peabody, and Heather Moody, captain of the 2004 women's Olympic team. The selection is expected to be announced next week.

Leaving the women's team "was real difficult," Baker said. "Agonizing. And probably still a little painful. But I'm excited about how we're going to restructure [USA Water Polo].

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