It’s fair to say Benjamin Oh is facing a bit more pressure than the average Penn student this week.
That’s because Oh’s version of finals doesn’t involve competing with classmates to get friendly curves on exams or essays. Rather, it entails battling with some of the top athletes in the nation at the U.S. Olympic Trials, where Oh is one of sixteen men’s short track speed skaters seeking to qualify for Team USA’s five spots at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.
“It’s such an honor just being in the trials at all, and racing with a lot of skaters who I’ve been chasing for a long time. I’ve had the opportunity to race with some of the top skaters in the world,” Oh said. “I’m just soaking it in. It’s been an amazing experience for sure; racing against people that I used to watch on TV, back when I wasn’t even speed skating, is pretty surreal.”
Entering the last of the three days of competition at the trials, Oh’s chances of making Team USA appear slim. The 21-year-old finished Friday’s races in seventh place, only two spots off the border of qualification. But he struggled somewhat on Saturday, which caused him to fall several spots.
While not officially out of contention, Oh will need his best performance yet to stay alive for an Olympic spot. Ranked 13th entering the weekend in the Short Track Olympic Trials Pre-Qualification Ranking, though, Oh has already surpassed expectations, a notion he has not taken for granted.
“Trials are going pretty well, honestly better than I expected,” he said. “If I race extremely well tomorrow, then [making the team] is always possible, but I think tomorrow, it’s important to just have fun with it and just enjoy the experience of being here. I’m not too concerned about placement at this point.”
Indeed, no matter what Sunday’s results might be, the journey Oh has embarked on over the past two years has been a thoroughly fulfilling one.
Through his first two full years at Penn, Oh was largely like any other student. In addition to his training, Oh played for the club men’s ice hockey team, was involved in the Penn Taiwanese Society and Korean Students Association, and tutored at West Philadelphia High School.
But as the 2018 Games got closer, and Oh’s speed skating peers devoted themselves fully to the pursuit of Team USA glory, tough decisions had to be made. And at the conclusion of the 2015-16 school year, Oh fully committed to training for Pyeongchang by temporarily withdrawing from Penn.
“All of the skaters who made it [to the trials] started trying to make it around two years ago. And for part of that time, I was a full-time student at Penn, and it was hard because I only trained maybe four times a month, where a lot of the skaters that I’m racing with now trained maybe 10 or 11 times a week,” Oh said. “Just making it to trials has been a pretty amazing experience, and I took time off from school to train full-time."
From there, training was no ordinary task for the suddenly full-time skater. Taking advantage of both his Korean heritage and superior training programs, Oh opted to train in South Korea for the past 18 months, leaving his former Penn life in the dust.
“The past year and a half has been pretty crazy; I would say before I started my journey as a full-time skater, I don’t think I could’ve imagined being at this point,” he said. “Training in Korea meant a lot to me: it helped me get more in touch with my identity as a Korean-American, and just training there teaches you a lot about the importance of perseverance and the value of hard work."
But while full-time speed skating took Oh out of Penn, it could never fully remove Penn’s impact on him. Oh struggled at times, as his training took him far away from the friends, clubs, and classes he had grown accustomed to.
As such, it would’ve been easy for Oh to crumble and lose that desire for his ultimate goal. But even from 7,000 miles away, the stream of support from his former classmates never faded.
“Being in Korea was pretty hard, at least for the first year, because it felt very lonely. It’s a very different environment than Penn, when you’re always surrounded by people, being social and being active,” he said. “The friendships that I made during my first two years ended up meaning a lot more to me, because those people reached out, and they were a part of my motivation. They really helped keep me going when I was having a hard time or was feeling really lonely; they gave me the motivation to keep me going.”
Those friends are a big reason that Oh still plans on returning to Penn and graduating. If he does defy the odds and make the Olympic team, he’d have to miss yet another semester. But if he falls short, he'll be back on campus after winter break.
No matter when he returns, he'll be sure to cherish the experiences he put off while he trained.
“Those first two years, I missed out on a lot of college experiences because of training, and I wasn’t really able to be as involved or as active in the Penn community as I wanted to,” said Oh, who plans to work in politics after finishing skating. “So after the trials, I plan on being more present with my friends and with the groups that I’m involved with at Penn, which I’m really looking forward to. I would say the door is still open to skating in 2022, but until I finish college and the whole experience, I won’t be competing.”
But for now, Oh’s immediate concern remains nothing but the competition in front of him. And whether he moves on or goes home, he’ll walk away in solace knowing he embarked on the ride of a lifetime.