PyeongChang 2018 five years on: Han reflects on best moments of competing at homeHan Min-Su was captain of the Republic of Korea’s Para ice hockey team that won the bronze medal at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games. He also captured the spotlight at the Opening Ceremony as one of the final torchbearers 10 Mar 2023
As thousands of people watched in awed silence, Han Min-Su slowly climbed up a steep slope on the stage of the PyeongChang Olympic Stadium pulling himself up by a black rope. One step, two steps - he walked on his prosthetic left leg while carrying the flame of the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games.
Five years on, the retired Para ice hockey player from the Republic of Korea still gets goosebumps as he recalls that moment from the Opening Ceremony at his home Paralympic Games.
He remembers breathing in the cold air as he reached the top of the slope, looking at the crowd and passing the torch to wheelchair curler Seo Soonseok and able-bodied curler Kim Eun-jung, who then lit the cauldron together.
“It was slippery because the slope was severe and the snow was blowing,” Han said. “I was moving one step at a time and my heart was racing. When there was only one step left, I stopped for five seconds and took a deep breath.
“Then I took the last step and I was able to successfully climb that mountain. I smiled with my arms raised high, which I did without realising. I felt so much joy and I praised myself,” he added.
“Even during hard training, I treated myself harshly because I was afraid of becoming weak. But in that moment, I wanted to praise myself.”
Opening a home Games
The PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Games took place between 9 and 18 March 2018 in the Republic of Korea. More than 560 Para athletes from around the world competed in 80 medal events across six sports.
Han, a three-time Paralympian, was invited to become one of the final torchbearers roughly six months before the Opening Ceremony. While he hesitated at first, he eventually decided to give it a go because it would be an “honour” and a “good memory” as he neared his retirement from the sport he enjoyed for many years.
However, Han only had one rehearsal opportunity because the final rehearsal scheduled two days before the Opening Ceremony was cancelled due to heavy snow.
On the day of the Ceremony, he recalls telling himself to “stay calm” and “I can do it” as he prepared for his big moment.
He received the torch from Yang Jae Rim, a Para alpine skier with a vision impairment, and her guide Go Eun Sori, who walked up a set of stairs towards him on the slope. Then the stairs disappeared, and Han was by himself, relying only on his own strength to climb up using a rope.
Thinking about his family members, whose names he wrote on the helmet he was wearing, helped him to reach the top.
“I think I was able to successfully climb up the slope thanks to my precious family that supported me whenever I had a hard time,” the athlete said.
Climbing onto the podium
While Han captured the spotlight even before the cauldron was lit to open the first Paralympic Winter Games in the Republic of Korea, over the following days he made headlines once again by leading the host team to its first-ever medal in Para ice hockey.
As captain, Han helped the hosts beat Italy in the bronze medal match. Winning a medal at a Paralympic Games was a dream come true but doing it at home made it even sweeter, he said.
“The crowd was cheering together for the Korean team and that gave a big boost in our performance. It made us stronger mentally and gave us the stamina to not give up,” Han said.
“My family, relatives, friends and acquaintances were in the crowd and I wanted to do better because I wasn’t able to show many international games to them in Korea for 20 years,” he added. “I really wanted to win a medal and make them happy.”
Han, who was one of the founding members of the Para ice hockey team, sees the bronze medal as a “natural result” after all the time and effort that the athletes put into the sport since the team came together in 2000.
“I achieved my dream on the stage of my dreams because we all played and cheered eagerly,” he said. “My dream came true thanks to the support of my family and the Korean people.”
In the Athletes’ Village
Winning a medal was a life-changing moment for Han, who served as head coach of the team at Beijing 2022 after retiring as an athlete. But there is another memory that he continues to cherish five years after the home Games.
It happened in the PyeongChang 2018 Athletes’ Village after his team won the bronze medal. A volunteer approached Han and asked him for an autograph.
After Han signed his name on the volunteer’s jersey in big letters, the volunteer, a 24-year-old university student at the time, talked about his father who had a disability.
“The volunteer said he never respected his father until meeting Para ice hockey players here. He said he now has respect after seeing how we played,” Han said. “It was a moment my dream came true, and it was for somebody else. It was for the volunteer who has a father with a disability.”
Han also received more than 400 postcards after the Games from students attending the elementary school he graduated from.
“The majority of the comments said, ‘You look so cool’ or ‘I’m proud of you’ or ‘Do you plan to visit us?’” Han said. “Even though the postcards had spelling mistakes and wrong characters, it didn’t matter. I was so happy.”
Five years on
The athlete-turned-coach led the Republic of Korea’s Para ice hockey team at the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games, where they lost 4-0 to China in the bronze medal match.
Five years since the PyeongChang Games, Han sees a big change in the host country. As a legacy of the Paralympic Games, newly-opened Bandabi Sports Centers offer opportunities for people to experience Para sports.
Awareness of people with disabilities has also improved significantly through sport programmes held across the Republic of Korea, including Para ice hockey experience sessions for students attending universities, and elementary and junior high schools.
After Beijing 2022, Han left his role as the head coach. But he hopes to see the team continue to grow, with young Para athletes leading the charge under new head coach Kim Tae-ho.
“The Korean Para ice hockey team is changing generations to younger players so their performance has not been as good. But the rookies have been growing at a rapid pace,” Han said.
“Since young players have good teamwork with experienced athletes, I’m confident that the team can shine at the Milano Cortina 2026 Paralympic Games.”