PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - It was not the fear of speeding down a snaky icy track at more than 100km per hour head-first and face-down, his chin hovering a few inches over the surface.
For South Korean skeleton slider Yun Sung-bin, then 19, the hardest of it all was an eating spree to gain 16kgs in just two weeks.
“I was new to the sport and felt that bulking up was the best and fastest way to improve performance. Weight means power and energy in this sport,” Pyeongchang gold medalist Yun, nicknamed “Iron Man” for his flashy helmet and red racing suit, told Reuters in an interview.
Yun, who became the first athlete outside Europe or North America to win an Olympic sliding medal at Pyeongchang on Friday, said he had a meal nearly every two hours.
“There was never a moment that my stomach felt empty. I was full every waking moment, and all I did was training and eating,” the soft-spoken Yun said at a lounge near the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium.
Yun just gorged on anything from protein meals to a staple Korean food with a bowl of rice and side dishes, and as much of them as he could stuff himself up.
“I can’t imagine ever doing that again.”
Having maintained 87 kg for several years, Yun now has a normal diet of three meals per day — and his taste — back.
He wants to celebrate the end of the Olympics with fried chicken and instant noodle — South Koreans’ favourite choice of snacks but something that he tried to limit in the run-up to competitions.
Eating aside, the unpopularity and tough training of the sliding sport made him rethink about his choice in the year after he took up skeleton in 2012.
“My friends and other people asked, what is skeleton? Why on earth are you going to do it? It was the same response back then,” Yun said.
But he said challenges and difficulties went away quickly and he ended up finding fun doing the sport.
South Korea has long been a powerhouse in short-track speed skating and “Queen” Kim Yuna won the country’s first figure skating gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, sparking more local interest in winter sports.
Skeleton racing, though, was little known to the South Korean public until Yun’s stellar results and the rise of the “Skeleton Emperor” to global stardom.
Jon Favreau, who directed the first Iron Man movie, also tweeted a picture of Yun on Saturday, saying “Iron Man on ice.”
In real life, the new South Korean Olympic hero said he doesn’t have a nickname.
“I don’t know if I’ve become anyone’s hero. But I can’t feel more proud if other athletes and beginners in winter sport dream of becoming a world champion one day, because of me,” Yun said.
“At the next Olympics in Beijing, I hope to see not only myself but other South Korean players at the podium.”
For the time being, Yun wants good rest.
“After I have all the rest and all the sleep I wish, I want to go and travel abroad,” he said. Yun spends a good amount of time in Europe for training and competitions, but it’s been all about work.
“I want to go back to Europe, this time just as a backpacker.”
(This story has been refiled to fix typo in third para)
Reporting By Jane Chung and Soyoung Kim in Pyeongchang; editing by Amlan Chakraborty