(Yonhap Interview) Coach predicts Olympic gold for world record holder Lee

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Dec. 26 (Yonhap) -- Speed skating world record holder Lee Sang-hwa is a sure bet to become a two-time Olympic champion in the women's 500 meters at the upcoming Winter Games in Sochi, her Canadian-born coach said on Thursday.

In an interview with Yonhap News Agency, Kevin Crockett said it was easy to see that the 24-year-old had been "dominating."

"I don't expect that to change," Crockett said on the sidelines of a pre-Olympic function for Winter Games athletes at the National Training Center in northern Seoul. "I don't expect (the women's 500m in Sochi) to even be a close race. I wanted her to go in there and win by so much after the first race (of the two races in the final) that she's comfortable."

Lee set her first world record in January this year and then broke it three times in November alone. The current world record now stands at 36.36 seconds. Lee has also won all seven International Skating Union (ISU) Speed Skating World Cup races that she entered in the 2013-2014 season.

Lee has so far overwhelmed her chief rivals, such as Jenny Wolf of Germany and Wang Beixing of China. Wolf has finished second behind Lee in four World Cup races, while Wang has had three third-place and one runner-up finish behind the South Korean.

Wolf and Wang grabbed the silver and bronze medals behind Lee at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, and it could be much the same story in Sochi when the 2014 Winter Games kicks off there in February.

Crockett also dispelled concerns that surfaced recently about Lee's health and her Olympic preparations. She decided to skip the South Korean national sprint championships this week. Her absence could jeopardize her eligibility for the upcoming world sprint championships in Tokyo.

Lee, who skipped her final World Cup race earlier this month with a cold, could go almost two full months without live competition before Sochi. But Crockett insisted there's no need to worry about his prized pupil.

"I think she's proven to the Korea Skating Union and the world how great she is," the coach said. "I call it race management. I think it was too much racing. I just like to play it safe with her. We want to get back to training."

Crockett, the bronze medalist in the men's 500m at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, said his prior Olympic experience as an athlete and later as a coach for China suits him well for the role as a mentor for athletes off the ice as well.

He said he was a successful Olympic athlete because he stuck to his routines and tried to keep pressure off himself. He wants to make sure his athletes don't get bogged down by the weight of expectations.

"What I learned at the Olympics is to really try to keep everything normal," the Toronto-native said. "I just try to keep the pressure off them a little bit. We treat it like any other competition. We know that it's important. But we don't do anything different. We don't start training harder at the Olympics (but) just keep everything the same."

Aside from Lee in Vancouver, Mo Tae-bum won the men's 500m gold and 1,000m silver, and Lee Seung-hoon grabbed the men's 10,000m gold and 5,000m silver in Vancouver. Both will be trying to defend their titles.

Crockett, who works with sprinters, said Mo, 24, will be able to hold his ground against the tough competition.

"Mo is going to be real dangerous," the coach said. "I expect him to be on the podium in both races (500m and 1,000m)."

Though he doesn't coach Lee Seung-hoon, Crockett said he's noticed a major improvement in the former short tracker.

"He wasn't very strong last year but he's done some things really well this year," Crockett said. "He's an incredible athlete. For him, it will really be about that day. What's happening between the ears, that will be the decider for him."

Crockett admitted he has felt "a lot of pressure" as a coach of the country that shocked the speed skating world with five medals in Vancouver, but said he will embrace the challenge of trying to better South Korea's performance from 2010.

"Coming into such a successful Olympic team, I always get this question: 'How can you make it better'?" said Crockett, who has coached South Korea since September 2012. "My job is to have them in top shape. I am confident I can do that."

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