Israel's Vladislav Bykanov (front) competing at the ISU World Short Track Championships last year. Israel's Vladislav Bykanov (front) competing at the ISU World Short Track Championships last year. Israel's Vladislav Bykanov (front) competing at the ISU World Short Track Championships last year. (Photo: Vincent Jannink / AFP/Getty Images)

Fresh off a gold in Europe, Israeli speed skater reveals his 'biggest dream'

Short track speed skating is one of Korea's most popular sports. And at the Winter Olympics, Vladislav Bykanov hopes to make a big impression in the host country.

Vladislav Bykanov became the first Israeli man to qualify for the Winter Olympics in speed skating in 2014 in Sochi, Russia. Four years later, he’s fresh off three medals – including one gold, at the 2018 European Short Track Speed Skating Championships. He feels fit and confident going into the Pyeongchang Games, where he'll participate as part of Israel's largest-ever Winter Olympic delegation.

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Bykanov had been enjoying a few days off after returning from Dresden, Germany, but he's back at it now – training twice a day on the ice, plus doing weights and cardio.

We caught up with him to talk about short track, the weight of carrying the Israeli flag and what he’ll do after Pyeongchang. Hint: It isn’t retirement!

How did you get into short track speed skating?

I started in Israel when I was 8 years old. They were developing a program there. At first I went just because I wanted to go where my friends were going, but slowly it became more serious and more professional.

Where do you train currently?

I live in Heerenveen in the Netherlands. My coach from Canada moved to Holland to coach the Dutch national team, and I came with him.

Vladislav Bykanov taking his "first steps" on skates as an 8-year-old in Israel. Vladislav Bykanov taking his "first steps" on skates as an 8-year-old in Israel. (Photo: Courtesy Vladislav Bykanov)

Why are speed skating and short track speed skating classified as different sports?

It’s a different type of skating, and the equipment is a little bit different. You go faster on the long track – the main goal is just to go as fast as possible. In short track, the goal is to finish in the top two, to move to the next stage. Short track is more about strategy than speed.

What did you choose short track vs. long track?

There was no option to do long track when I was young. Short track attracted me because you race against people. You don’t race against yourself. You have passing, speed, pushing, falling. It’s more contact and close to other skaters than just going fast.

You have had some recent success, winning a world cup and the 2015 European Championship. What is your confidence level this season?

My confidence level is really high. I’ve been doing really well in the past two years, and I’m only getting better. Two years ago, I won my first – and Israel's first-ever medal – in the Short Track Speed Skating World Cup in 2016. Since then, I’ve been racing in more finals, and I’ve finished among the top skaters in every competition.

Israel has never won a Winter Olympics medal. Could you be the man to change that?

Well, that’s my biggest dream. I really would like to do that, but of course, everybody wants to get a medal. I think the top 10 or 20 guys can make the final on any given day. So whoever is the most mentally prepared for the games and comes at his best on the day of racing is going to get the medal. I will do my best.

What does it mean to you to compete in the Olympics? For yourself? For Israel?

For us, the Olympics is the biggest stage that could be, and all of our training programs are built on four-year cycles. It’s amazing to represent Israel at the Winter Olympic Games. For such a small country, it’s awesome to send the biggest team they ever had, and it’s very nice to be part of it.

You were selected to carry the flag in the opening ceremony in 2014. What was that like?

Carrying the flag was the most amazing experience ever. Coming out of the tunnel with the flag and so many people, it was really mind-blowing. I will remember it for the rest of my life.

How will you approach your second Olympics differently?

Four years ago it was my first time, and I was overwhelmed by everything. Every other day was something new to see and to experience, so you don’t leave yourself time for getting ready, to come to the competition at your best. You head is busy with what’s going on around you. I think this time I won’t be at the opening ceremony because I have a competition the day after. I’m going to be more within myself, getting ready mentally, and trying not to get distracted.

In which events do you plan on competing in Pyeongchang?

I’m doing three distances – 500m, 1000m, 1,500m – which are spread out through the whole two and a half weeks. My first race is Feb. 10, and my last race is Feb. 22, if everything goes right.

Will you have time to watch any other sports?

Of course, I’m going to watch my teammates, and some other sports I’m interested in, like long track. I’m hopefully going to do that next year – short track and long track. I was thinking about racing both at this Games, but it was too tight of a schedule, and I didn’t want to risk my performance in the short track.

Is it common for a short track skater to transition to long track?

Yes, and especially with my coach. Two of my teammates have made this transition. The first one was on the international team in Canada, a guy from Latvia. He was the first ever to perform in two different disciplines at the same Olympics in 2010 in Vancouver. In Sochi, I had a teammate from Holland who also did short track and long track, and she also won two golds in long track and a silver medal in the short track. It’s easier to transfer from short track to long track because it’s a really tight radius turn in short track, and people in the long track are not used to it.

The head of the Israeli delegation Yaniv Ashkenazi has told us his favorite sport is short track. Do you expect to have a large cheering section in Korea?

I hope there will be a cheering section; it’s always nice to see an Israeli flag waving in the stands. This is going to be the most exciting sport of the games, not only because I think it’s the most exciting sport, but in Korea, it’s one of the most popular sports. Getting a medal in Korea would be incredible not only because it would be the first medal for Israel, but because it’s the primary sport in Korea. It’s going to be hard to beat them in front of their home crowd. I’m trying not to put any pressure on myself, I just want to go in and race my best, and hopefully, everything will fall into place.

You’re in your late 20s – is this likely to be your last Olympics or can we expect to see you in 2022 in Beijing?

I feel like I’m getting much stronger physically. I had a couple of injuries a few years ago, which took a long time for recovery. But now, I’m getting over my injuries, and I’m feeling stronger and stronger. I don’t see any reason why I should stop.

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Fresh off a gold in Europe, Israeli speed skater reveals his 'biggest dream'
Short track speed skating is one of Korea's most popular sports. And at the Winter Olympics, Vladislav Bykanov hopes to make a big impression in the host countr