Kim Hyo-Jung, 17, left her native South Korea and family two years ago to get a fresh start in speedskating, after what she describes as bad experiences with the South Korean short track team. Kim battled through homesickness and language barriers to secure a spot on the United States team getting ready to compete in next month's Turin Olympics.
Kim Hyo-Jung's parents came to the United States on business in 1979 and lived in the Los Angeles area for 12 years. She was born and raised in Seoul but holds dual South Korean and U.S. citizenship because her father became an American citizen during his years in California.
Speedskating is very popular in South Korea and Kim Hyo-Jung got her start on the ice during elementary school physical education classes. But as she progressed, she became disenchanted with the rigorous training regimen of her South Korean club team. Kim trained six days a week, skating two hours in the morning, doing dry land training consisting of running and stretching in the middle of the day, then skating another two hours in the evening.
And while she enjoyed it at first, Kim says she could not spend enough time on her studies because there were too many practices. She began having trouble with her coach, and things went downhill from there.
"I really don't want to train with Korean [team], because I did not really have a good experience over there," she said. "I am not saying the Korean club is bad. I do not want to say what exactly, [but] I did not really have a good experience. It is really hard to say [talk about] the Korean club, because that is not like every club - only my club. And I think they like their club [laughs]. I do not want Americans to think the Korean club is bad."
The Kim chose her words very carefully when talking about the problems with her coach, whom she refused to identify.
"I do not like to keep in my mind bad experiences," she added. "He taught me a lot, so that is why I do not want to say bad things about him, because he taught me for four or five years. He just did not teach me honestly."
Asked why she did not just quit because of all the problems, Kim Hyo-Jung had a simple answer.
"Because I love skating… I love skating," she explained.
Kim left her country and family in January of 2004 to move to the United States and follow her Olympic dream. But things at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado were difficult at first. She did not speak English, had no close friends and was homesick. She strongly disliked American food.
Because of her talent, Kim's arrival meant she would probably beat out one of her teammates for a spot on the squad. But rather than resenting her, the other American speedskaters have helped her adjust to her new life.
Her teammates, who call Kim by her adopted name "Halie," have become like a family of big sisters and brothers. They help her with homework and have taken her on numerous excursions, including canoeing, water skiing and a trip to the Mall of America in Minneapolis. Halie says she likes American style and freedom, and enjoys taking more responsibility for her training.
"Well, when I was in Korea, the coach pressured me," she recalled. "I did not really have to think I have to do this or that because the coach pressured me. But here I have to think about everything - technique, or skating or even training. That is what I like here."
Halie's goal of making it to the Olympics has been her big motivation on the ice. She gets through hard practices by reminding herself that she has to work as hard as she can to reach her goal. And that hard work has paid off. Kim won in all of the distances of her races at last month's U.S. championships in Marquette, Michigan.
Her dominant performance earned her the overall title and a berth on the U.S. Olympic Team. She will compete in the 500, 1000 and 1,500 meter races in Turin. Halie is philosophical about her expectations.
"If I do my best, any color will be fine. But of course I want a gold medal," she added.
U.S. speedskating president Andy Gabel calls Kim "remarkable" and says she is so young and has such "amazing potential" that she is the type of skater they can build a team around. And "Halie" Kim will try to fulfill her potential by making it to the Olympic podium in Turin.