“Getting the third place was my happiest moment on the ice. “I just thought, ‘That’s it. We’re done. We made it.’”
Exactly one year ago today (9 March) the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games opened with a flourish. It was a Games that would change the lives of the South Korean Para ice hockey team, who dramatically claimed their first Paralympic medal in front of an emotional home crowd.
But no one’s life changed more than star player Seung-Hwan Jung. Not only did he lead the team to their historic bronze, but he also married his wife Jenny and changed sport – twice!
“Getting the third place was my happiest moment on the ice,” Jung said, looking back at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games triumph.
“Now I’m able to move forward for better skills, a better team and a better life. And off the ice, after all those happy moments from the Paralympics, I got married, so I am now ready to enjoy a happier life with my wife too.”
The South Korean team had been aiming for a gold medal on home ice but Canada became a challenge too great for the hosts who lost the semi-final 7-0. Against Italy in the bronze medal game, Jung assisted Jang Dong Shin to score the winning 1-0 goal in the third period, a career peak for Jung, the now 33-year-old forward, who earned the nickname ‘Messi on Ice’ for his speed and exceptional control of the puck.
“I just thought, ‘That’s it. We’re done. We made it,’” Jung said.
A new challenge
After receiving the medal in the presence of President Moon Jae-In, the forward’s life took another big turn as he decided to quit the sport. Jung swapped his skate sledge for one with skis on and his hockey sticks for ski poles, starting to train in cross-country skiing with the aim of competing at the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games.
However, after a few months in the snow, he missed the sport that had given him two world championship medals and the honour of carrying his nation’s flag at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games Opening and Closing Ceremonies.
“Then I decided to come back to hockey,” Jung said.
“Cross-country skiing is totally different even though it is also a Paralympic sport. We all may think that it might be similar as athletes are using mostly their upper body but the muscle usage, equipment and everything else is completely different.
“My arm strength helped me a lot but after trying a few months of skiing I realised that I enjoyed it the most when I was on ice, so I decided to go back as soon as I could.”
Focused on the future
Now his focus lies on the Beijing 2022 Para ice hockey competition where South Korea hope to edge closer to the sport’s dominant nation, USA, who have won four of the past five Paralympic golds.
The first stop on the road to Beijing is the 2019 World Para Ice Hockey Championships, in Ostrava, Czech Republic, from 27 April - 4 May, where South Korea hope to top their PyeongChang performance.
“Now I have more confidence and will keep doing better,” Jung said.
“I will do my best to be in the world championships team and of course we’ll do our best to win. Our primary goal was to be in the first place at the [PyeongChang 2018] Paralympics too, and the experience there gave us some homework to do for future Games.”
Hoping to inspire
After the home Games in March last year, Jung was overwhelmed by well-wishers on Facebook and saw how lots of compatriots started to follow Para ice hockey. He hopes that the bronze could boost the country’s interest in the sport to give the team more chances to train and play international matches at home.
“Some people became big fans of our hockey team after the PyeongChang Games. Now more people want to see our games but we don’t really have an annual competition in Korea. That’s the saddest part. If we had better infrastructure to hold international games in Korea, that would be awesome,” he said.
“This is our new beginning. We have to build up new relationships, teamwork and so on. I’m hoping for some new players by Beijing 2022 and I’m hoping to get more fans, more interest and more support to create a better sports environment here.”
Over the next nine days we will be looking back at the major moments from PyeongChang 2018, including interviews with Paralympic champions Declan Farmer and Marie Bochet.