Sihyeong Lee: “My primary goal as a skater is to set an example that inspires other athletes to continue skating longer.”

Posted on 2023-09-19 • No comments yet


Translation of the interview with Korean single skater Sihyeong Lee.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by (Sihyeong Lee) (@sihyeong__lee)

source: dd. 16th September 2023 by Park Ji-min

Lee Sihyeong was different from the beginning. He started figure skating for the first time in April 2010 at Mokdong Ice Rink. He wasn’t just trying it out; he was determined to become an athlete. Even when faced with questions like, ‘It costs 100 million won a year to be an athlete, can you afford it?’ he didn’t back down. He didn’t waver despite multiple trials over the course of a year. He was even forced to leave the rink because of his father’s opposition. From Mokdong to finally settling with Coach Choi Hyung-kyung at Gwacheon Indoor Ice Rink, he continued to nurture his dream as a promising skater in an unstable training environment. Starting his full-fledged athlete life, he didn’t give up his passion for figure skating, even while taking naps in the dressing room.

Sihyeong Lee: Looking back now, it was incredibly tough. I trained to the point where people would wonder, ‘How is that even possible?’

First, I would skate at 6 in the morning. Then I would go to school and return in the afternoon to practice spins during regular hours. After that, I would practice ballet for two hours, and from 8 to 10 at night, I would skate again. On days when there was more ice time, I would skate from 12 to 2 am as well. I used public transport back then, so if practice ended at 3am, I couldn’t go home. So, I slept in the dressing room at Gwacheon Ice Rink.

At that time, my mom worked at a nearby kimbap (Korean rice roll) restaurant. We commuted to different places in the morning. My mom worked, and I spent the whole day at the rink. That’s how we lived.

During your novice days, there was talk of an ankle injury, and that your shoe sizes were different. Can you tell us more about that time?

Sihyeong Lee: That’s correct. Even thinking about it now, it’s a bit ridiculous. I injured myself while jumping; I tripped over my ankle. That’s when my ligament tore. I finished the competition somehow, even won the overall. After missing all of the treatment time, a cast was placed on my left foot, so feet became mismatched. I didn’t handle it well in the beginning. I still carry the consequences of that injury to this day. It still hurts a lot after a lot of training. I regret not handling it properly back then. Even now, I often tell people around me to better deal with injuries in the beginning.

Let’s talk about your junior and senior seasons. You participated in your first Junior Grand Prix in the United States in 2015.

Sihyeong Lee: Before going to Colorado, I was really scared because it’s a high-altitude area. But what I thought was that ‘I need to improve my stamina because it’s a high-altitude area, so let’s go to the mountains!’ So I climbed a mountain. They said Colorado Springs is at an altitude almost equivalent to Chiaksan Mountain, so I went to Chiaksan Mountain. Since I had just been there, I was exhausted.

And when I first went to the Grand Prix event, I didn’t know anything, so I just did it without fear. I did all the jumps and performed well. My goal was to be within the top 10, and I was happy to finish in 9th place.

Did the training at Chiaksan Mountain help?

Sihyeong Lee: It didn’t help. If I hadn’t done that, I might have finished around 8th place, maybe? I might have done better without trying to save up more energy (laughs).

In February 2017, Sihyeong debuted at the Four Continents Championships in Gangneung. He was the youngest of the three South Korean men’s singles skaters who participated, and he achieved the highest ranking. With his calm performance, he made a strong impression for the audience, even receiving a standing ovation at Kiss and Cry. The following year, at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics venue, he performed a gala program under the bright lights.

Corporate and fan support followed this success. Therefore, before the start of the 2017/2018 season, Sihyeong left for Colorado Springs, USA, with his mother for off-season training. It was a challenging two months, with nothing being easy, from communication to meals.

Sihyeong Lee: Honestly, looking back now, I felt like a fool back then. So many people helped me, and there had to be visible results. So, with the strong determination to land a triple axel, I practiced it relentlessly for about 3-4 hours a day. I did jump it. But jumping and consistently maintaining it, and practicing it with the music, are different. I just kept practicing it obsessively.

I have a persistent problem with my left foot, and the axel is a jump that takes off from the left foot. I kept jumping until I suffered a stress fracture. The last month was really tough. I was in pain and couldn’t do anything, but I had come this far, and I couldn’t quit. My mind was full of conflicting thoughts. Many people supported me, but I was wondering how to achieve results when I was in pain, couldn’t eat properly… Looking back now, that time was quite a waste.

That season, there was the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in your home country. Did you have any ambitions for that?

Sihyeong Lee: Ambitions for the Pyeongchang Olympics… I didn’t have any (laughs). So, from the beginning, I participated in the Junior Grand Prix selection competition. Even when I went to the Junior Grand Prix and qualified, it was still that season… I also went to the Four Continents Championships. In the meantime, I kept practicing the triple axel, went to the Junior Worlds, and succeeded there. So, when I think of the Pyeongchang Olympic season, the memories that stand out the most are the Colorado off-season training and going to the Junior Worlds after practicing the axel.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by (Sihyeong Lee) (@sihyeong__lee)

And then, the following season, you were in your third year of high school. It must have been a challenging time. In the 2018/2019 season, you gave up on participating in the Junior Grand Prix after finishing 4th in the Junior Grand Prix selection competition, and you also faced disappointment in the Junior World Championships with the free skate. There were issues with boots and injuries, too. I’d like to hear about that time.

Sihyeong Lee: I couldn’t perform well throughout that season. I faced continuous challenges. I practiced well. I kept jumping the (triple) axel well, but strangely, during competitions, I couldn’t perform it consistently that season. It took me a very long time to find the right boots for me. There were no models that suited me. I wasn’t fully prepared, and it took a lot of effort to find the right boots. After failing to qualify for the Junior Grand Prix, I even considered quitting for a week and didn’t go to practice. I shaved my head and with a new mindset I reunited with coach Choi Hyung-kyung. However, I failed to qualify for the free skate at the Junior Worlds. It was really tough. As soon as it ended, I got on the next plane and practiced with a renewed determination. I probably came back in the next season with a completely different look and even won medal in the Junior Grand Prix.

In 2020, it was a challenging time for athletes. Even the national team members, who had Taereung as their main training facility, lost their training grounds when Taereung was designated as a residential treatment center. Ground training centers, gyms, and ice rinks were closed one after another. During this anxious and fearful time for everyone, Sihyeong Lee worked on a change of approach. He recovered from injuries having sufficient rest and improved his fitness through bodyweight exercises. Like magic, he maintained his peak condition. People even joked, ‘Did you secretly come to skate on the Han River ice alone?’

Sihyeong Lee: During that time, I was thinking about how to maintain my condition. With the ground training centers closed, there was nowhere to exercise. So, I used to take the subway and run around. I also went to Cheonmasan near my home, and I didn’t eat much. I was afraid of gaining weight if I didn’t exercise, so I either didn’t eat or ate one meal and continued exercising.

But what’s strange when I look back is that that season was exceptionally good for me. My condition was great, and I jumped really well. I did less training on the ice and increased ground training, so when I finally got back on the ice after a few weeks, it didn’t feel awkward. In fact, my jumps improved even more. Since I had extra strength, I included the quad salchow, and it worked because I had the strength for it. Actually, my coach was scared, so she told me not to attempt the quad salchow with a tano position. But during practice, I tried it once just for fun, and it worked perfectly. My coach said, ‘What did you just do? You shouldn’t do it like that,’ but since it worked, we decided to keep doing it.

With the successfully executed quad, I won first place in a ranking competition. I thought, ‘I’ve done it all, even got first place.’ It was more than just achieving first place; it was showing improvement during the challenging COVID-19 season, which was even better.

During that ranking competition, you also cheered for the athletes participating in the World Championships. Although you didn’t compete in the World Championships that year, it was a competition to determine the qualifiers for the Beijing Olympics, so it was essential for you. Did you watch it live?

Sihyeong Lee: I didn’t watch the short program. To be honest, I didn’t want to watch it. Of course, I cheered for them, but there’s something about watching it yourself, you know? My heart was pounding, and I tried to sleep, but when I woke up, Junhwan had done well in the short program. I didn’t want to watch the free skate either because I was so nervous. I just lay down. I lay there without sleeping, still trembling and thinking, “I have to sleep.” Then, I checked the time, and it was Junhwan’s turn. So, I watched Junhwan’s performance, and he did really well. I was so grateful, but I also felt sorry for him. At that time, Junhwan wasn’t in good condition. The day before departure, we met while he was doing ground training, and he even asked me if I wanted to go (to the Olympics). So, when it was over, I thought, “Junhwan really worked hard.” After that, I went to the Nebelhorn Trophy to try to secure an additional spot.

In 2021, thanks to Junhwan Cha’s dramatic advancement in the World Championships, Korea earned the opportunity to send two male singles skaters to the Olympics for the first time in Korean figure skating history. However, due to regulation changes, Sihyeong had to confirm an additional spot at the 2021 Nebelhorn Trophy. He successfully competed against tough competitors and finished in 5th place, proving himself.

Sihyeong Lee: In reality, my condition wasn’t good even before I left. Just living was uncomfortable. Breathing was difficult. Exercise was tough, and practice didn’t go well. I was given an opportunity, and I wanted to go to the Olympics. I became very sensitive.

Even when I traveled, it wasn’t enjoyable. The quad salchow wasn’t working well, and neither was the axel. Everything was shaky, and I was trembling, thinking, “I feel like I’m going to die, what should I do?” But then, when I started the warm-up, I thought, “Huh? I’m not trembling anymore.” As soon as I entered the rink, I wasn’t trembling. I jumped the quad salchow well. It felt like the best I had ever skated, even compared to everything before. So, I thought, “Okay, I practiced really hard for the free skate, so I have confidence.” I was still nervous, but for some reason, I felt like I would do well.

Usually, after about two minutes into the competition, you start feeling tired, and your stamina gradually diminishes, so you stop being nervous. However, I kept trembling until all the jumps were done. Nevertheless, I gave it my all, thinking, “It’s done; I got it.” I was disappointed with my score, but I secured the spot. The hotel had a swimming pool, so I went there alone afterward. After it was all over, I went swimming, and I still can’t forget that feeling. It felt like the whole world is mine.

And then you fulfilled your dream of competing in the Olympics. Please talk about the Beijing Olympics. You received a disappointing score in the short program, but I’m curious how you spent the time during the Olympics and afterward.

Sihyeong Lee: It was so exciting and great. I enjoyed practicing a lot. I practiced really hard and stayed focused. However, I didn’t perform well in the short program. I was too nervous. Up until that point, things had been going smoothly, but not being able to land the jump combination was the biggest setback.

I felt depressed. It was naturally tough. So, honestly, I don’t remember how that period passed. I kept thinking, “Should I quit?” every day. Of course, it would have been good to do well and reach the free skate, but since there was a bit of regret for not performing well, it became my motivation. If I had done well in the free skate, I would have considered quitting figure skating because I would have felt that I had done everything I could.

But it was so disappointing. Those thoughts kept coming back. Honestly, I didn’t think I would compete in the Olympics because there had always been only one spot for Korean male singles. So, I had absolutely no expectations. I genuinely didn’t care whether I went to the Olympics or not. However, I suddenly started to perform really well, and during that time, I lost track of my original purpose for a moment. So, when it got tough, those thoughts came back.

“Of course, it’s disappointing and tough that I couldn’t compete in the Olympics or any other competition. It’s true. There were times when I felt frustrated because there were times when I wanted to skate more, but I couldn’t. Of course, it’s a big competition, and it ended with regrets. But that doesn’t mean I can turn back time. In any case, whether it’s the Olympics or anything else, I couldn’t have won a gold medal just because I did well. I wouldn’t even call it my ultimate goal. I did it with the mindset of ‘I love skating, so let’s do it as long as I can.’ That’s why I worked hard.

Sihyeong Lee had a busy year in 2022. After the Beijing Olympics, he had a packed schedule of domestic and international competitions until the end of March, including the World University Games qualifiers in July. Starting in September, he participated in eight events, including the Challenger Series. Especially in January, he faced an intense schedule with back-to-back competitions, including the National Championships, World University Games, and Winter Sports Festival.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by (Sihyeong Lee) (@sihyeong__lee)

His demanding schedule was compounded by ongoing boot issues that had troubled him during the off-season. The boots he had been wearing were discontinued just before the Beijing Olympics, and the renewed model had a lower boot height, which posed a risk of injury for Sihyeong who performed quadruple jumps. He even had to resort to using his old boots, but they also began to break down one after another. This particularly affected his edge jumps, and ultimately, he had to suspend the quadruple salchow jump, which had almost a 100% success rate. Despite several issues, Sihyeong managed to switch to a toe loop for his quadruple jumps at the Nebelhorn Trophy in September, earning his first senior medal. His debut senior Grand Prix event in France also went well, with a clean free skating performance.

Sihyeong Lee: The Nebelhorn Trophy was comfortable for me because I had been there before. It was right after I left Jincheon, so my physical condition was at its best, and for some reason, I felt confident. I didn’t think I could win a medal; however, I was well-prepared, and that gave me the confidence to perform well. It felt great to win a challenge medal, even a silver one!

The program I performed, “All of Me,” was the first program I created myself. I also like Kim Yuna’s “All of Me” gala, so I wanted to create a homage to it. I had been thinking about it since I was in Jincheon, so I had already done the music editing. I happened to have a costume, so I ended up creating it on the spot. But because I had never personally choreographed a program before, I felt my limitations. Coach Choi Hyung-kyung suggested the idea of giving flowers, and that’s how we decided to incorporate flower-giving into the gala at the Nebelhorn Trophy.

I was excited about his first senior Grand Prix, but on the day of departure, I realized that I forgot my passport. So, I had to get an emergency passport and went through various difficulties before finally departing.

My condition was excellent at the time. I had been consistently landing jumps in practice, so I was somewhat expecting results in the short program similar to the Nebelhorn Trophy. However, when the scores came out, it was the same old story – stumbling once and receiving scores around 75 or 76 points. I was always disappointed in myself, wondering why that kept happening. However, I performed in the free skate the way I’ve practiced. It felt great. I attempted a triple axel in the second half for the first time and succeeded, earning a technical score of 90 points.

From the Nebelhorn Trophy to the French Grand Prix, everything was going really well, and even the ranking competitions weren’t bad. The problem arose just before the National Championships when I caught a severe flu. I managed the short program somehow, but the free skate was a complete disaster. However, I had to leave for the Universiade competition a day later. I coughed continuously on the plane for 15 hours. After several days of non-stop coughing, my chest started hurting, feeling like his ribs were breaking. I was a part of the opening ceremony lineup, but I felt so unwell that I had to run to the restroom to vomit. I lay down at the accommodation, and every time I breathed, it made a clicking sound, and it was excruciating. After returning to Korea and undergoing tests, it was diagnosed as Tietze Syndrome. It occurs when something falls between the ribs and cartilage and hits against it. It’s a condition that can arise from excessive coughing. Occasionally, when I exercises intensely and my breathing becomes labored, it still hurts in that area. It was challenging to prepare for the Four Continents Championships. I had dropped from 72kg to 68kg, and my energy levels had greatly decreased. My biggest worry was collapsing during the free skate.

Nevertheless, you showed remarkable strength in the free skating despite the challenging high-altitude conditions, and climbed to a final 6th place. After that, you went to watch the Senior World Championships with fellow skater Jae-Seok Kyeong.

Sihyeong Lee: Watching the World Championships, I noticed something. Among the male skaters from the first group onwards, there wasn’t a single skater who couldn’t land quadruple jumps. They all did it. Ultimately, it came down to differences in execution. Some skaters attempted two quads but failed to advance to the free skate, while others attempted only one but received exceptionally high scores. I realized that it all boiled down to differences in execution and thought, “Having one quad jump isn’t a weapon at this level. It’s a basic skill for male skaters.” Watching the competition was enjoyable because all the skaters were performing well.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by (Sihyeong Lee) (@sihyeong__lee)

You participated in the World Team Trophy as part of Team Korea, which was a first for Team Korea. How did you feel? You seem to have become very close with the teammates. Were there any special episodes?

Sihyeong Lee: We were asked to create a short introduction video of no more than 30 seconds for each skater. We decided to use Reels for this purpose. There were many options, but we thought Le Sserafim looked good as it had both English and Japanese elements. We discussed how to edit the video and make it unique. Junhwan suggested that each skater do their signature move in sync with the tempo. We edited it ourselves and ended up missing the deadline. We asked the organizers for one more day, and they agreed. So, it took us a week to create the video because everyone’s schedules didn’t align.

We also brainstormed ideas for the Kiss and Cry. Our goal wasn’t to win medals but to aim for the Team Spirit Award. We felt we needed something special for that. We considered various ideas. However, in the end, we decided to each showcase their unique qualities.

Sihyeong Lee has been invited to two Senior Grand Prix events for the 2023/2024 season. He couldn’t contain his excitement upon hearing the news while training at the Jincheon Training Center. Additionally, he expressed his ambition to steadily improve his condition in the new season and achieve success. As the first step toward this goal, he will compete in the Finlandia Trophy, which takes place in the first week of October. He also plans to participate in the Budapest Trophy. To enhance the overall quality of both programs, he is preparing his Short Program using last season’s piece, “Feeling Good.”

Sihyeong Lee: “I will be using ‘Feeling Good’ again for my short program, which I used last year. To be honest, I didn’t have any intention of changing my short program, but during my training camp in Colorado Springs, my choreographer recommended ‘Bittersweet Symphony.’ Although it’s a great program, learning two new ones felt a bit overwhelming. So, I decided not to waste the choreography I’d already created and save it for future use, perhaps as my Gala program if I get invited.

For my Free Program, I’ve a piece called ‘Cloud,’ recommended by Coach Joshua Farris. It’s a program that strongly reflects Joshua’s style. At first, it was a bit challenging for me because Joshua can express a lot with his skating, but I didn’t naturally feel that way. The program also has longer step sequences, and there’s less downtime compared to my previous programs. Physically and technically, it feels more demanding than what I’ve done before. However, I believe it’s necessary for my improvement, so I’m practicing diligently.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by (Sihyeong Lee) (@sihyeong__lee)

Are there any new season goals?

Sihyeong Lee: My primary goal is to manage my condition effectively throughout the season. My condition tends to be excellent at the beginning of the season, it often declines towards the end. And since I’m a bit older now, maintaining that condition consistently is a challenge. So my goal is to maintain good physical condition and compete without any injuries or health issues throughout the season.

I also find motivation in the strong performances of junior and senior male skaters. I appreciate the competition because it pushes me to improve. I feel grateful for the competition and I’m determined to work even harder to keep up with my peers. My goal is to maintain my condition until the end of the season and do well vy adding two quadruple jumps into the programs.

What is the success rate and stability of each of your quad jumps?

Sihyeong Lee: Actually, I’m mainly practicing the (quadruple) salchow right now. It has a landing success rate of around 70% in practice. During the Olympic season it was 100% in practice, it dropped as I adjusted to a new boots and my body positioning was not as consistent as before. It’s all or nothing now, I either land it or pop it. This season, I’m practicing salchow and toe loop to add two quads to my free program, and if the salchow isn’t good, I’m practicing to change to with a toe loop.

What about toe loop?

Sihyeong Lee: They are similar. The quad toe loop has a relatively consistent landing success rate. However, I see it more as an alternative option to use when the quad salchow doesn’t work during competitions, rather than a primary jump. The success rate can vary depending on my condition, and it can be influenced by factors like physical state and practice consistency. Despite the risk involved in performing quad jumps and the challenges they present, I believe that having two quad jumps in a program is necessary for my growth as a skater, as many other skaters also include quad jumps in their routines.

Sihyeong Lee: Sometimes it blooms later, but figure skaters are usually get noticed from a young age. Especially those who reach the elite level and become national representatives, typically receive support and training from a young age, work with international choreographers, and often spend time training abroad.

For me it’s a bit unusual. I didn’t start out as a standout skater from a very young age, but I managed to achieve significant milestones in Korean figure skating, including mastering the quad jump and representing Korea at the Olympics. An I’m still skating.

My primary goal as a skater is to set an example that inspires other athletes to continue skating for an extended period. I have a feeling why I can’t do it for a long time… First of all, I think it is a difficult situation for male athletes because there are military problems after graduating from college, and for non-national team athletes, there are various problems with getting on the team.

As people my age are disappearing from this sport and there are more young skaters, I wonder, ‘Should I stop? Maybe I’ve been doing this for too long without paying attention.’ ‘Am I in the wrong place?’ I also had this thought. Almost everyone of my age is either coaching or retired.

Still, I have a goal and I want to skate. When I ask skaters around me, they all say, ‘I didn’t quit because I wanted to. I was in a situation where I had to quit, and I stopped because my body wasn’t responding. It’s not like you can’t do it right now, so there’s no need to stop.’ Everyone says they have regrets. They say that later on, regrets like ‘I should have done more’ remain. I also thought, ‘Why are you still doing this?’ I don’t want to hear things like this, so I think I should work harder. Of course, I skate because I like it, but I still hope that other athletes can skate for a longer period of time after seeing me.


Related topics:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *