By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Dec. 31 (Yonhap) -- With South Korean athletes in bobsleigh and skeleton on the verge of securing spots at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Russia, their coaches remain confident that their pupils can come through as the qualifying process winds down.
Lee Yong, who represented South Korea in luge at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, leads the bobsleigh team, and Cho In-ho, who competed in skeleton in Vancouver, now coaches the skeleton squad, as their athletes are fighting for berths at the Sochi Winter Games starting in February.
For both events, world rankings by the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (FIBT) as of Jan. 20 next year will determine who gets to represent their countries in Sochi. In bobsleigh, male pilots must be inside the top 50, and female pilots must rank among the top 40.
In each of the two-man and four-man events, 30 sleds will be allowed to compete in Sochi. The top three countries based on world rankings will be represented by three sleds. The next six nations will have two sleds apiece, and the nine countries will each have one sled for a total of 30.
To qualify for skeleton in Sochi, male athletes must rank inside the top 60 and the cut line is the top 45 for women. Spots are available to 30 men and 20 women.
The South Korean bobsledders are scheduled to compete at the seventh and eighth legs of the North America Cup in Lake Placid, New York, from Jan. 6-12. The skeleton team will travel to Whistler, Canada, for the fifth and sixth legs of the Jan. 2-6 Inter Continental Cup, and move over to Park City, Utah for the seventh and eighth legs of the same event from Jan. 8-12.
As the qualification deadline approaches, South Korea is in a solid position to send two sleds in both the two-man and the four-man bobsleigh events.
In the two-man rankings, Won Yun-jong is sitting at 17th, and Kim Dong-hyun is at No. 23. Won claimed the fifth leg of the North America Cup in Park City in November, and Kim followed suit with a victory at the sixth North America Cup in Lake Placid in December.
In the four-man world rankings, Won looks poised for qualification at No. 28. Kim, at No. 40, may need a strong finish to stay inside the top 50.
In skeleton, Yun Sung-bin is at 22nd and Lee Han-sin is at 41st in the men's rankings.
South Korea has sent athletes in skeleton in each of the past three Winter Games, and had its first Olympic bobsleigh team in 2010. But the country has yet to win an Olympic medal in sled events.
At the National Training Center in Seoul last Thursday, a day before they were to depart for their next competitions, both coaches said it was time for their athletes to take the next step.
Lee Yong, the bobsleigh coach, said South Korea will try to fend off Romania and Britain to qualify for two sleds in the four-man event.
He said he expects Won Yun-jong to finish in the middle of the pack among 30 teams in Sochi in the two-man event, saying the 28-year-old pilot boasts a fast start.
"In terms of starts, I think we can be among the 10 best in the world," Lee said. "If we can be near the top at the start, we may still end up inside the top 15 even if we lose ground the rest of the race."
Lee noted that Won and Kim Dong-hyun have only a couple of years of experience as pilots, and with such green pilots, trying to improve starts takes comparatively less time than working on driving skills.
Lee added that he has tempered expectations for his four-man teams, especially the one led by the 26-year-old Kim. The coach said he wants younger athletes to get their firsthand experience in the Olympics and start early preparations for the 2018 Winter Olympics, which will be held in the South Korean alpine resort of PyeongChang.
"I think competing at an Olympic Games will make a huge difference for young athletes," Lee said. "I hope to keep developing bobsledders for the PyeongChang Winter Games. The focus for them this time will be mostly on getting the taste of the Olympics."
Cho In-ho and his skeleton team face weighty issues, so to speak, as they also try to blaze the trail for a future generation.
The FIBT caps the combined weight of the skeleton sled and the athlete at 115 kilograms. According to Cho, if the sled weighs more than 33kg, then the total is capped at 115kg, but if the sled is lighter than 33kg, then there is no limit on the athlete's weight.
Cho explained that heavier sledders in skeleton often have an edge in speed if their sleds are of the same weight. Since both Lee Han-sin, 27, and Yun Sung-bin, 19, have comparatively little experience, the coach said he focused on having them put on extra pounds and ride lighter sleds to achieve maximum speed. Trying to work on their maneuvering would have taken more time, Cho added.
According to the coach, Lee weighed 64kg when he first started the sport three years ago and his optimal competing weight now is 80kg.
Yun went from 75kg to 87kg over the past year, while reducing the weight of his sled from 35kg to 32kg.
"They may have little experience, but they can still be competitive because of their fast starts and extra weight," Cho said. "Veterans from established countries like Germany would focus on techniques. But from up-and-coming countries, you'd see bulky athletes with fast starts who win World Cup races in their second or third year of sledding."
Cho said he's concerned about Lee's recent weight loss following a series of international races. The situation forced Lee to use a heavier sled, but Cho said Lee remains a promising athlete.
"He's our secret weapon," Cho said. "If he can get up to his optimal weight, given his improving driving skills, he has the potential to be really good."
Cho admitted he understands the long odds that his athletes will be facing even if they qualify for the Olympics, but they will still be worth watching.
"I've been told many times already going to the Olympics itself would be virtually impossible," the coach said. "But our athletes have been performing beyond expectations. They trained hard this summer, and they're natural born athletes. People aren't giving us any chance, but just watch us."
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