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Sunday, September 24, 2023

Skating prince Cha Jun-hwan is ready to leave it all on the ice

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Cha Jun-hwan poses during an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo at the Korea National Training Center International Rink in Nowon District, northern Seoul on April 7. [JOONGANG ILBO]
Cha Jun-hwan poses during an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo at the Korea National Training Center International Rink in Nowon District, northern Seoul on April 7. [JOONGANG ILBO]

Figure skater Cha Jun-hwan is a man of many names.

The most successful male Korean in the sport ever, Cha is the latest skater to earn a royal moniker: The figure skating prince alongside Kim Yuna’s queen. Not satisfied with pure royalty, Cha is also known as the idol of the ice rink, a nod to his background as a child actor and model, as well as his obvious skating skills.

Cha, 21, was the first ever Korean male figure skater to medal at the World Figure Skating Championships, taking silver in Saitama, Japan last month.

Cha scored 296.03 points in the competition — his highest ever and slightly behind gold medalist Shoma Uno of Japan with 301.04.

Korean figure skating legend Kim, who won six medals at the World Championships — her gold in 2013 being Korea’s last — was the only Korean skater to have medaled at the event before this year, when both Cha and Lee Hae-in won a silver each.

Cha discussed his recent success in an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo at the Korea National Training Center International Rink in Nowon District, northern Seoul.

“I was skeptical about myself as I started this season,” Cha said. “I was worried whether I could even do well, but my skepticism turned into confidence after this year’s World Championships.”

Cha had not been that successful in previous years, when a hip joint injury hindered his performance.

After improving his stamina, however, he managed to succeed a quad — a jump with at least four revolutions — three times out of three attempts at the World Championships.

“I had to replace my ice skate because it broke right before the competition,” Cha said. “I made errors every time I attempted the triple jump that I did in the latter part of the free skate, but I was able to succeed after I focused on physical strength in my training.”

Cha also shone in the World Team Trophy — an event that started in 2009 in an attempt to encourage countries to develop top figure skaters, where the six countries with the best individual results during the season compete in a team format — in Tokyo, Japan ending on April 16.

He finished second in the short program with 101.33 points — the highest score by a Korean male skater — before finishing first in the free skate with 187.82.

Cha’s efforts combined with teammate Lee Hae-in, who finished in first place in both the short program and free skate, allowed Korea to medal with a silver for the first time ever at the World Team Trophy.

Only four countries — the United States, Japan, Russia and Canada — had medaled in the competition before this year.

Cha’s original dream, however, was not to be a figure skater. He was a child actor until he first put on a skate when he was a second grader.

“I think I would have been just acting because I don’t sing well,” Cha said. “I would probably be involved in TV dramas or movies.”

Cha’s life changed significantly compared to his classmates after he chose figure skating over acting. He spent more time on the ice rink than he did in school.

He continued that life through high school and became a university student — currently attending the School of Global Sport Studies at Korea University’s Sejong Campus.

“The Covid-19 pandemic began in my first year in 2020,” Cha said. “I had a fantasy about my university life, but I did not even have a chance to visit the school because a lot of classes went online.”

Cha has recently started learning to dance after watching an entertainment show about street dance.

“Dance and skating are similar,” Cha said. “I want to learn street dance whenever I have spare time and really want to display it at a gala exhibition.”

Cha is now looking to shine in the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Olympics.

Commentator Kwak Min-jeong — a former female figure skater who retired in 2014 — has watched Cha since he was very young and is confident that he will compete well on the biggest international stage.

“Jun-hwan has always been able to pull off a quad well in the free skates, although he has not been able to do so in the short programs,” Kwak said. “But he managed it perfectly at this year’s World Championships.

“His real challenge will be the combination of a triple jump and quad. Cha has done it well in training and it will be crucial to display it in a competition at some point. Since he earned a medal at the World Championships, an event that is as prominent as the Olympics. I think he has a chance to become the first ever male Korean figure skater to medal at the Olympics in three years.”

BY KO BONG-JUN AND PAIK JI-HWAN [paik.jihwan@joongang.co.kr]