College sophomore Benjamin Oh sits at the back of the coffee shop wearing a bright red Penn hockey sweater, calmly looking over his phone as he sits back, relaxed and comfortable.
From the looks of things, one wouldn’t expect him to be preparing for a final exam that afternoon.
One also wouldn’t expect him to be a nationally-ranked, competitive, short-track speed skater shooting for the Olympic team. After only six seasons, he has already been a national champion in his age group and is going to his second international competition representing the United States.
“Ben is a fierce competitor, and you wouldn’t necessarily know it from looking at him,” College sophomore and varsity fencer Arabella Uhry said.
“He has this really warm smile and loud rhythmic laugh that makes you realize he’s ... one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet,” College sophomore Alicia Lu said. “The guy you see on the ice [though] is all business, seriousness and excellence.”
Oh started playing hockey when he was eight years old, and his steady, fair and observant nature allowed him to emerge as a natural leader within his team, Oh’s mother Anna Rhee said.
After watching the 2010 Winter Olympics, Oh decided to try short track speed skating and took to it naturally. “It was very enjoyable coaching Benjamin ... because he is a very fast learner,” Oh’s coach Hyun Jung Lee said. “A skater must know how to react quickly and think of a good strategy within a short amount of time.”
Speed skating has two forms: short track and long track, with short track taking place on an Olympic-sized hockey rink with a 111-meter track. Oh chose short track because of its fast speeds.
“Short track is so unpredictable. Anything can happen,” he said. “In the 2002 Winter Olympics, Steven Bradbury won the 1,000-meter event after all of the other skaters crashed in the last corner.” Bradbury was the first Australian to win a Winter Olympic gold medal.
This past winter break, Oh competed in the Junior Nationals in Midland, Mich. which was a qualifing competition for the Junior World Championship Team. As the reigning national champion in his age group, it was his last year competing in the Junior Division.
“I made a lot of mistakes on the first day and fell three times. After the first day, I wasn’t in a position to qualify,” Oh said.
After hurting his knee during the first day of races, he went into the second day of races in sixth place, Uhry explained. “With the pressure of only one weekend of races to determine whether he’d represent the U.S., he came through placing very high in other races to make up for the deficit of day one.”
Oh attributes luck to this turnaround, but Uhry, a fellow student athlete, recognizes Oh’s mental grit. “Not everyone can pick themselves up so easily after doing not as well as expected and have the mental calmness and perseverance to push through,” she said.
Oh ended up qualifying for the team, saying that “it was my proudest moment on the rink”, and is determined to represent the United States well.
As an athlete outside Penn’s varsity system, Oh must coordinate his own workouts and training schedule. “Last semester I went home [to Burtonsville, Maryland] every other weekend for on-ice training and worked out twice a day for up to three hours at a time,” Oh said.
Oh has greater flexibility in scheduling his training in comparison to Penn varsity athletes, but he must balance the pressure of school and skating without always having the mutual understanding between these two commitments.
“It’s really frustrating because speed skating is such a small sport and most speed skaters move to Salt Lake City after high school to train and only go to college part time,” Oh said. “Our organization doesn’t really focus on school as a priority so scheduled meets often conflict with school ... Last semester I had to miss two finals.”
This contrasts with the varsity experience. “Being an athlete at Penn, I have a huge support system with my coaches and teammates. They help me handle a lot of my academic and athletic stress,” Uhry said.
On top of academics and athletics, Oh must also balance extracurriculars. Despite time restraints, Oh plays for the men’s club ice hockey team and is involved in the Penn Taiwanese Society and Korean Students Association, as well as community service groups.
Oh worked at West Philadelphia High School last spring as part of an academically based community service seminar and helped high school juniors with the college application process. Oh was committed to mentoring his student until he finished up his applications, even though Oh had no academic obligation to do so, explained Theresa Simmonds, a coordinator at the Netter Center for Community Partnerships.
“Benjamin demonstrated a very high level of concern for his student at all times,” Simmonds said. “His dedication to his student would have been admirable on its own; given the additional combination of his rigorous training program and his studies, it is especially so.”
While his peers are busy looking for summer internships, Oh said that he tries not to let the pre-professional culture at Penn get to him. “My schedule is completely different from a lot of people’s so I don’t let it stress me out too much,” he said.
Currently undeclared, Oh plans on majoring in philosophy, politics and economics and thinks he will stop speed skating after 2018, but not until he tries out for the Olympic qualifiers in December 2017.
“It’s all up in the air right now,” Oh said. “But people who have my best interests in mind help me make the best decision whenever I doubt myself.”
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