By Peter Rutherford
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's rise to the top of the speed skating world has been built on flawless technique and unparalleled work ethic, says coach Kevin Crockett, and it is his job to keep them there.
Canadian Crockett, who won speed skating bronze at the 1998 Nagano Games and has been coaching South Korea since August last year, told Reuters on Wednesday his skaters were in great shape with 100 days to the start of the Sochi Games.
South Korea won three gold and two silver medals to top the speed skating standings in Vancouver, a stunning performance considering their only previous medals were a bronze four years earlier in Turin and a silver in Albertville in 1992.
Crockett, who changed his name from Overland to honor his grandfather, said the foundation for that recent success was pure dedication.
"I think one of their main strengths is their work ethic, they work harder than anybody else I have ever seen," he said at Korea's national training centre in northeastern Seoul.
"They tend not to fold under pressure, which is another big one. They love to race ... and technically they're probably the best skaters in the world, I'd say. Hands down."
While there have been reports that Korea's sports coaching style can be overly authoritarian, Crockett said those suggestions were wide of the mark.
"From the outside looking in you might think that but there's a really good relationship between the coaches and the athletes," he said.
"It's definitely not military style where you hate your coach.
"I'd say with the younger, younger kids, it's sometimes a little bit harsh, but I think rumors of abuse and all this stuff are really overblown. I certainly haven't seen anything like that."
Crockett said his success working with Chinese skaters prompted Korea to bring him onboard and that his familiarity with Asian culture made him a good fit here.
"I was getting good results with China, and the fact that I know about the work ethic in Asia and I can conform to a system really appealed to them," he added.
"Plus I was willing to come. It's not easy to get a lot of foreigners to move here. I left a fiancé, I left a house, I left all that stuff back home to come live in a training centre.
"It's a sacrifice, but it's worth it."
2010 Olympics gold medalist Mo Tae-bum said Crockett's coaching style really complemented the Korean system.
"Kevin is very detailed," said Mo, who won gold in the 500 meters and silver in the 1,000 in Vancouver. "The Korean style is strong and emphasizes many hours of training, Kevin's style is still strong but he makes sure we rest when we need to."
Crockett's future with the Koreans is likely tied to their performance at the February 6-23 Sochi Games, and while he was reluctant to make medal predictions he was optimistic they would not return empty handed.
"I know what they're capable of, but I never like to give a medal count, I find it just puts pressure on the athletes. Plus I'm a little superstitions," he added.
"But I can say they're in great shape, so I have high expectations."
(Additional reporting by Narae Kim; Editing by Pritha Sarkar)