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How Chun got on right side of tracks

National short-track speed skating coach Chun Lee Kyung stands tall inside The Rink at JCube as her charges zip around. The latest challenge of her career is to build a strong foundation in the sport here and help Singaporeans qualify for future Wint
National short-track speed skating coach Chun Lee Kyung stands tall inside The Rink at JCube as her charges zip around. The latest challenge of her career is to build a strong foundation in the sport here and help Singaporeans qualify for future Winter Olympics.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

S'pore coach overcame odds and obstacles to become a four-time Winter Olympics champ

Life was a struggle for Chun Lee Kyung right from the time she took her first breath.

Born two months premature and weighing just 1.7kg, she was stricken with pyloric stenosis - a digestive disorder that prevents food from entering the small intestine. Vomiting would follow each feeding.

Her parents declined surgery on their newborn, taking Chun home from the hospital after she spent 15 days inside an incubator.

"They thought it would be destiny even if I died," recalled Chun, who grew up to become a four-time Olympic short-track speed skating champion and has been Singapore's national coach since November 2015.

A sickly child who would spend a few days every month at the hospital, Chun, now 41, was not meant to be an athlete either - much less one that went on to scale the sport's heights.

She went from fear in the water - brought kicking, screaming and crying to every swimming class for more than a year - to freedom on ice, quickly becoming the youngest to make the South Korean short-track speed skating team at 13. But just as she was knocking on the door of the Olympics, a 15-year-old Chun discovered she had a degenerative spinal condition. None of the treatments she sought made the debilitating pain in her back any more bearable, while surgery would have ended her athletic career before it even began. It seemed her hopes of becoming an Olympian, that audacious dream of being a champion on the toughest but grandest stage of all, was not meant to be either.

HARD WORK THE KEY

I was not born to skate and my coach always told me that I'm not a natural talent, so I must do more than others.

CHUN LEE KYUNG , four-time Winter Olympic gold medallist, on how she rose to the top despite life's numerous challenges.

But Chun is someone who, despite growing up small in build, has always been built of sterner stuff.

"I had a goal," she said. "When I joined the national team, my parents told me that if I chose this path, I must go all the way."

She went all the way indeed, her swift skates seeing her through three Winter Olympics (1992, 1994, 1998). She also once held world records in three events (1,000m, 1,500m, 3,000m).

At her second Games in Lillehammer, Norway, forcing a swollen left foot into her skate and racing through pain just days after an ankle injury, she took gold with her team-mates in the 3,000m relay, followed by another in the individual 1,000m.

By the time she hung up her blades for good in late 1998, she had four Olympic golds (two 1,000m, two 3,000m relay) and a bronze (500m), as well as nine world championship titles. Her tally puts her on par with China's Wang Meng for women short-track speed skaters with the most Olympic golds. She is also one of just seven women across all sports to win four or more golds at the Winter Games.

Said Chun, who is married with three children and came to Singapore so her kids could study here: "I realised that nothing is impossible if I try hard enough. I learnt that since I was seven. "

She is believed to hold the strongest credentials as a former athlete among Singapore's national coaches across all sports.

Being smaller, slower and weaker only drove her to work harder than others. So even after a long day of training that started before daybreak - the South Koreans trained up to eight hours a day, six times a week - she would put in additional drills of her own, squatting 500 to 1,000 times by her bedside before turning in.

"I was not born to skate and my coach always told me that I'm not a natural talent, so I must do more than others," said the 1.63m-tall Seoul native.

After retiring from short-track speed skating, Chun, a plus-two handicapper, became a semi-pro golfer, then a member of the South Korean national ice hockey team - not that anyone needed any more proof of what she is capable of.

Now with a team of young and inexperienced skaters under her guidance, Chun hopes her charges will realise the difference hard work can make - but more importantly, realise that what is deemed impossible can become reality.

She said: "Sport gave me a healthy life. It gave me glory, joy and a lot of good memories. I hope that others can get inspiration from what I did."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 06, 2017, with the headline 'How Chun got on right side of tracks'. Print Edition | Subscribe