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Who is Lee Sang-Hwa?

Lee Sang-Hwa

Who is Lee Sang-Hwa?

In PyeongChang, this South Korean speed skater will race for her third straight Olympic title in the 500m

Lee Sang-Hwa is a Seoul native who became the first Asian woman to win an Olympic gold in speed skating when she finished first in the 2x500m at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

Short track beginnings

Lee Sang-Hwa was born on Feb. 25, 1989 in Seoul, South Korea. She started skating at seven years old, and often raced her older brother on the ice. But when their parents could no longer afford to pay for the speed skating training of both children, Lee’s brother gave up the sport so Lee could keep skating.

Breakout moment

Her family’s investment in her training started to pay off in 2005, when the teenager had her first major victories on the international stage. First, she won an all-around bronze medal at the 2005 World Junior Championships. Then, in her debut at the senior world championships, she earned a  bronze in the 500m.

Olympic experience

Lee competed in her first Olympics at the 2006 Torino Winter Games. Then just 16 years old, Lee proved she had major medal potential when she finished fifth in the 2x500m race.

Four years later at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Lee was still considered an underdog in the 500m. The favorite was Germany’s Jenny Wolf, the three-time reigning world champion. Lee showed no signs of intimidation, however, and notched such a big lead in the first of two 500m heats that Wolf couldn’t catch up. When Lee won the 2x500m gold she became the first Asian woman to win an Olympic speed skating title.

Lee Sang-Hwa

Lee Sang-Hwa takes a victory lap after winning gold in the 500m at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Credit: USA Today Sports

At the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Lee had become the sprinter to beat: she had won two 500m world titles in recent years and broken the 500m world record in 2013. Despite a sore knee, Lee beat the field again and claimed her second straight 500m Olympic title—with an Olympic record time. Her performance in Sochi was so dominant that the silver medalist, Russia’s Olga Fatkulina, compared her to famed Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt.

Major competitions

Lee was back on top in 2016, when she claimed her third 500m title at the world championships. The next season, however, Lee struggled with a chronic right knee injury and competed less often in favor of concentrating on the most important races. It wasn’t enough to clinch another 500m gold at the 2017 World Championships, and Lee finished second behind Japan’s Nao Kodaira.

Lee plans to have surgery to treat her knee injury after the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

Lee Sang-Hwa

Lee Sang-Hwa (left) after winning 500m silver at the 2017 World Single Distance Championships. Japan's Nao Kodaira (center) won gold and China's Yu Jing (right) won bronze. Credit: 2017 Getty Images

Records held

Lee set a new world record in the 500m, 36.36 seconds, at a World Cup event in November 2013. While she didn’t better that time when she won gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, she did skate Olympic record times for both the 500m and 2x500m.

When she won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, she became the first South Korean athlete to win a Winter Olympics medal in a sport other than short track. And if she wins the 500m gold again in 2018, she’ll become the first South Korean athlete to win the same individual Olympic event three times.


Lee’s strongest event is unquestionably the 500m—all seven of her world championships medals have come in that distance. At the Olympics, the only other distance the sprinter competed in was the 1000m, but she’s never finished inside the top 10.   

Top quotes

"I was so envious of skaters who got cheers from the home crowd when I was in Vancouver and Sochi. I thought how it would be nice if the Olympics take place in Korea. That has come true, and I'm thrilled by it." -- Lee Sang-Hwa to The Chosun Ilbo

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Off the ice

Lee will celebrate her 29th birthday on February 25th, the day of the Closing Ceremony at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

She’s become well known as a Lego enthusiast who collects and builds sets. Getting her nails painted with colorful and detailed designs is another of Lee’s hobbies. 

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