Who is Viktor Ahn?
Viktor Ahn is an eight-time Olympic medalist who could become the single most decorated Olympic short track skater of all time if he wins another medal in PyeongChang. Born Ahn Hyun-Soo, he won his first four Olympic medals representing South Korea and another four competing for his adopted country of Russia.
Short track beginnings
Ahn Hyun-Soo was born in Seoul, South Korea on November 23rd, 1985 and first started skating in elementary school. He said he was introduced to the sport of short track when he watched the 1994 Lillehammer Games on television. In Lillehammer, one of Ahn’s heroes, South Korea’s Chae Ji-Hoon, won 500m gold and 1000m silver.
Ahn was 16 years old and the rising star of the South Korean short track team when he won overall gold at the 2002 Junior World Championships. He made his Olympic debut at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics the same year, and competed in two events. Ahn didn’t win any medals, but did find himself part of one of short track’s most memorable Olympic crashes: in the 1000m final, Ahn was in the leading pack of four skaters when a fluke crash on the final straightaway took down all the medal favorites. The fifth skater, Australia’s Steven Bradbury, was the only one left standing and won a surprise gold. Ahn finished fourth.
A year later, Ahn shook off that Olympic disappointment and won his first overall gold medal at the senior world championships. It was the start of a spectacularly dominant run for Ahn; from 2003 to 2007, he won five straight world overall titles.
With nearly twenty world championship medals already on his resume, Ahn had already earned a reputation as the top short track speed skater in the world when he made his second Olympic appearance at the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics. He more than lived up to expectations, winning a medal in all four events: gold medals in the 1000m, 1500m and 5000m relay, and a bronze medal in the 500m.
Ahn struggled with injuries and controversies in the years following the Torino Olympics. In 2008, he crashed during a training session and severely injured his left knee. He underwent four surgeries over the next 13 months in hopes of recovering in time for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. But he wasn’t in top form at that year's South Korea Olympic Trials, and was left off the team.
Soon after the 2010 Winter Games, Ahn was further alienated from his country’s short track federation when he wasn’t allowed to rejoin South Korea’s national team. Soon after, his club team also dissolved. Left without a rink and training by himself, Ahn’s father started looking beyond South Korea’s borders for better opportunities.
Ahn reportedly considered moving to the United States, but ultimately chose to become a Russia citizen. He made it official at the end of 2011 when he changed his name from Ahn Hyun-Soo to Viktor Ahn.
Despite the reinvention, Ahn returned to the Olympics in Sochi the same gold-medal-worthy skater he was eight years before. He won the Olympic titles in the 500m and 1000m, helped the Russian men to gold in the 5000m relay, and picked up a bronze medal in the 1500m.
Ahn followed up his Sochi victories by claiming his sixth overall title (and first representing Russia) at the 2014 World Championships. But he found himself off the podium entirely at the 2015 Worlds; his best individual finish was fifth in the 1500m, and he finished ninth overall.
He took the next season off due to a knee injury and didn’t compete at the 2016 Worlds. When he returned to the championships in 2017, his only medal was a bronze in the 3000m, a distance which is not contested at the Olympics. His results didn't improve during the 2017 fall World Cup season, where he failed to win a single medal at any of the four competitions.
Ahn has become almost more famous for his country switch than for his record-setting Olympic exploits. Before the Sochi Winter Games, headlines such as, “So, why is there a Korean guy on Russia’s speed skating team?” and “South Korean skater ‘defects’ to Russia” surrounded Ahn’s Olympic comeback.
And with Ahn skating in front of South Korean fans at the PyeongChang Olympics, his decision to compete for a different country will be a major storyline again.
Last summer, Ahn himself said he doesn’t expect a warm reception from the country he originally represented.
"I think the crowd's reaction may bother me," he told the Yonhap News Agency. "It's something I have to deal with, and I braced myself for this ever since I first got my Russian passport.”
But in 2013 a poll conducted in South Korea by Yonhap showed that Ahn may be overestimating the animosity of his native country’s short track fans. 61% of the respondents said that they understood why, after the South Korean federation was unsupportive of Ahn' post-injury comeback in 2010, he decided to compete for another country.
With eight medals, Ahn is currently tied with the U.S.’ Apolo Ohno as the most decorated Olympic short track skater of all time. While Ohno is retired, Ahn needs to win just one more medal in PyeongChang to have the title to himself.
If he wins two more, Ahn will tie with Norwegian biathlete Ole Einar Bjoerndalen and Norwegian cross-country skier Bjorn Daehlie as most decorated Winter Olympian ever. Both Bjoerndalen and Daehlie have ten career Olympic medals each, and will likely compete for more in 2018.
Ahn has made history for both his birth and adopted countries. At the 2006 Torino Olympics, Ahn became the first Korean man to win three or more medals in a single Winter Olympics. In 2014, he became the first short track skater representing Russia to win an Olympic medal.
He’s also the first short track skater to win gold medals in all four Olympic distances, and the short track athlete with the most Olympic golds of all time (six).
"First of all, the name Viktor is associated with the word ‘victory. It’s symbolic, as I want this name to bring me luck. Secondly, I know of another Korean named Viktor, who is very popular in Russia and is well-known in Korea – Viktor Tsoy. I want to be as famous in Russia as he was. And third, I was told that Viktor is a name which is easy to remember for Russian-speakers." – Viktor Ahn to RT.com
"Viktor Ahn, as he’s now called, is the most beautiful short track skating athlete in the world in terms of his technique and the way he skates... He may not be as good as he used to be, he may not have the same technique as he used to have, but what I like now about Viktor Ahn is he’s skating for himself, he’s not being pushed or pressured by the coaches, he’s skating because he really, really wants to win and he really loves the sport." – Apolo Ohno to NBC OlympicTalk
Off the ice
Ahn lives in Russia with his wife, Woo Na-Ri, and daughter Jane. Jane was born on December 29th, 2015. He pays tribute to his family via his skate guards, which are adorned with images of his family as well as photos of himself celebrating at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.