For a few days at the end of January, a sea of stringed kites fills the skies of many cities in South Korea. The normally crowded streets of downtown Seoul — the country’s capital — empty and become almost devoid of people. Many of the residents are indoors with their families, or en route to the hometowns of relatives, all in order to celebrate Seollal, one of the nation’s greatest Korean holidays.
Generally spanning a period of three to five days, Seollal is observed by many citizens as a time to feast, be with family, and pay tribute to ancestral figures. Shops and businesses close, and work is waitlisted until after the festivities’ culmination.
While many enjoyed the extra days of leisure this year, one South Korean skier was itching to get back to work: Paralympian Eui Hyun Sin.
Born in Gongju, South Korea, Sin became accustomed to the savory meats and spare time that are part of the holiday’s tradition. But now, Seollal — and many of the other Korean holidays he continues to observe — are as much a celebration as they are a symbol of something he must sacrifice: time spent training.
As many of his competitors maintained a fairly consistent training plan in their preparation for this year’s 2017 World Para Nordic Skiing Championships, which took place Feb. 10-19 in Finsterau, Germany, Sin’s schedule forced him to skip a few training sessions. But that did not prevent him from medaling at the championships.
Sin, a 37-year-old sit skier who lost both his legs following a car incident, raced to a bronze in the men’s 12.5-kilometer sitting biathlon race and a silver in the men’s 15 k sitting cross-country race in Finsterau (in the LW12 category). In doing so at his first World Championships, he became the most successful in para-nordic skier in South Korea’s history.
“I was very happy, but I feel regretful at the same time, because I could not train enough because of the Korean holidays,” Sin wrote in an email, according to a team translator. “However, it means so much for me, because it was the first time for the history of Para Nordic ski of Korea.”
Along with becoming the first South Korean to medal at World Championships, Sin also won three International Paralympic Committee (IPC) World Cup races, two in Ukraine and also in the 15 k cross-country race at home in PyeongChang, South Korea, where the 2018 Winter Olympics and Paralympics will be held.
Nordic skiing is not the only realm of athletics in which Sin has made his mark. Prior to joining the Korean para-nordic ski team in 2015, he played internationally for the Korean para ice-hockey team and also competed in wheelchair basketball and para cycling at the national level. His involvement in these sports, as well as encouragement from friends, led him to turn to skiing for the past two years.
“When I was playing Hockey and Cycling constantly, one of my friends suggested me to join the Para nordic ski club,” Sin wrote.
He struggled with the decision as he had a solid job and needed to provide for his family.
“However, I thought that I am not that young and it is very special chance to participate in the Paralympics held in my own country. So, I decided to start the nordic ski,” he wrote.
He made the decision with a home Paralympics weighing heavily on his mind. And as he gears up for PyeongChang next March, he’s one of his nation’s best chances for a medal.
“The 2016/17 was the season which made me confident for the Paralympic medal,” Sin wrote. “Since there will be Paralympic Games in this season, I want to win the gold medal by training hard.”
Much of that training so far has taken place abroad. Following the last races of the season in April in Casper, Wyo., the South Korean para-nordic team planned to continue training in the U.S. until May 30.
Then Sin and the crew will make their way to PyeongChang for the month of June, followed by travel to Finland in July.
“This year, we are training with the new head coach Kaspar Wirz who is from Canada,” Sin wrote. “He has much experience and knowledge to teach, so the training is very fun. I am focusing on the skiing positions and shooting for the biathlon.”
With a full season ahead of him and a full one behind — he finished the 2016/2017 season ranked second in the overall cross-country IPC World Cup rankings — Sin is both excited about the opportunity to represent his country at home and the accomplishments he has already given to Korea.
“The highlights were the moment I won the gold medals in cross country 7.5 K and 15 K in the World Cup held in Ukraine,” Sin wrote. “The win was a big moment for me.”
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Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.