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Meet the Masterman junior who just represented Brazil in the Youth Olympics

Lucas Koo, 17, loves K-pop and going really fast on the ice. He just represented Brazil in short-track speedskating at the Winter Youth Olympic Games, and has Olympic dreams.

Lucas Koo, a 17-year-old Masterman student, is a speedskater who represented Brazil at the Winter Youth Olympics. He is shown here in a hallway of his school.
Lucas Koo, a 17-year-old Masterman student, is a speedskater who represented Brazil at the Winter Youth Olympics. He is shown here in a hallway of his school.Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

When Lucas Koo was 4, he stepped onto the ice for the first time, a preschooler taking speedskating lessons because a local rink advertised 10 free classes.

Lucas was an energetic kid, into swimming and soccer, but those lessons transformed him, his mother remembers.

“Once he got onto the ice, he didn’t want to leave,” said Bonnie Park. Her son was so enthralled he often had to be coaxed into leaving when his lesson time was up.

Thirteen years later, Koo stepped onto the ice in Gangwon, South Korea, representing Brazil in short-track speedskating in the Winter Youth Olympic Games. He finished in the top 10 in two of his three events.

Then Koo flew home to Philadelphia, where he jumped back into his junior year and a full load of classes at Masterman. Sure, his friends and teachers knew why he was gone for three weeks. But it’s not a big deal, insists Koo, an affable 17-year-old with an affinity for K-pop, video games and going incredibly fast on the ice.

“I don’t want to be like, ‘Oh, I’m an Olympian,’” Koo said. “It’s not a huge topic.”

No small sacrifice

Koo was born in the Washington, D.C., area to a father trained as a dentist and scientist and a psychologist mother; the family lived in Rochester, N.Y., for a time before settling in Philadelphia when Koo was 6.

Koo did well in school, first at Meredith in Queen Village and now at Masterman, but skating has long been a constant.

He loves the intensity and pressure of the short track, Koo said.

“I love going fast, going into the corner; your form has to be compact, there’s a huge amount of pressure on your leg, and you also have external forces, people bumping into you,” he said.

Koo trained as much as he could, but when he was 10, he grew frustrated with the sport. The speedskating scene is not nearly as robust in this area as it is in some other parts of the country; Koo was practicing once or twice a week and losing, and he hated that.

“He said, ‘I really want to focus on speedskating. I’ll keep up my grades and I’ll give up my other sports if you let me skate,’” Park said.

Koo’s parents decided to let him go for it, no small sacrifice for any of them.

“When your child says something like that, you do what you can to see what happens,” Park said. She knows the family is lucky to have the flexibility and resources to make their son’s dream happen.

(For his part, Koo knows his mother “sacrifices almost her entire life just to help me skate.”)

These days, Koo trains five or six days a week, traveling to Bridgewater, N.J., most weekdays and heading back to the D.C. area to train on weekends. It’s a commitment for the whole family — Park has put her career on the back burner so she can get her son to practice, 90 minutes to two hours to Bridgewater during the week and 2½ hours to the Potomac Speedskating Club in Maryland on the weekends.

The car is Koo’s de facto office, where he completes most of his homework. (And there’s a lot of homework — he carries four Advanced Placement classes at one of the city’s most competitive schools.) Park picks Koo up from Masterman after school, and they often don’t get home until 11 p.m.

Honoring his Brazilian roots

Koo is ethnically Korean, but his father, now a Penn professor and scientist, was born and raised in Brazil. Koo chose to skate for Brazil to honor his Brazilian roots and the many family members who still live there, but also to help Brazil compete in a sport where it hasn’t fielded an Olympic athlete in many years.

“I could have represented the U.S., but I wanted to represent a country that isn’t well represented in ice sports, and make a name for myself,” said Koo. “I would be just another skater in the U.S.”

Koo used to visit Brazil often, but the pandemic halted that; when he travels there during the Philadelphia School District’s spring break, it will be his first trip there in four years. The trip is happening in part for Koo to visit Brazil’s Olympic center.

His goal is set: Koo wants to represent Brazil in the 2026 Winter Olympics in Italy.

After his scheduled graduation from Masterman in 2025, Koo is contemplating training full time for a year; he hopes to qualify for the Olympics. It’s not a given that he’ll make it, just as it wasn’t a given that he qualified for the Youth Olympic Games. Koo had to make it to the top 34 in the world, and powerhouses such as the U.S., Korea and China dominate the sport and get 16 spots; the remaining countries have to earn places for themselves.

Brazil did by virtue of Koo’s performance.

“It was a surprise when he made it,” said Park. “The Olympics are going to be the same way. Even when you go, you could be the best skater and not get the spot.”

Juggling school and skating

After the Youth Olympic Games, Koo jumped back into another pressure cooker of sorts: his junior year. For college, Koo is eyeing the Ivy League — studying business at the University of Pennsylvania is his first choice, followed by Harvard, Yale — “you know, the cliche ones.”

Typically, there’s just a short break in the speedskating season; Koo ended his season early this year to focus on his grades, taking the SATs and ACTs.

Even missing the three weeks of school to participate in the Youth Olympic Games was tough, Koo said. But he promised his parents he’ll make up any ground he lost during the time off from Masterman.

And while he’s in the skating off-season, through April, Koo isn’t slacking. In addition to practice, there’s plenty of gym time — weights, spinning, cycling. As an elite athlete, he needs to keep up his strength and endurance.

But yes, he’s also a teenager with a weakness for Popeyes.

“Now that I’m in my off-season, I can’t lie, I’ve been slacking a little,” Koo said, smiling. There’s a bit more time for hanging out with his friends, watching YouTube, playing video games.

And though school is front and center these days, being on the ice is rarely far from Koo’s mind.

“Right before going into the heat box,” Koo said, referring to the area on the ice where competitors put on skates, “just waiting to go on the ice — that’s the most crazy pressure I’ve ever been in. My heart starts beating fast, I keep thinking, ‘What’s going to happen?’”

Pep talks from his coach help keep Koo calm. So does putting on music — rap, K-pop — and zoning out.

The highs are very high, but the lows are tough, such as the Youth Olympic Games race he flubbed.

“I was on the floor right after, I was telling my coach I wanted to quit, I was hyperventilating,” said Koo. But it was important to get himself together — Koo had another race coming up, and he managed to stick that one.

“Being able to reset is so important,” he said.

Koo isn’t sure whether he’ll skate in college; some Korean schools sponsor skaters, but Koo is fairly certain he wants to stay stateside.

“I just know that skating is going to be a huge part of my life for the rest of my life,” said Koo. “And for now, I’m just focusing on my goal to make it to the Olympics.”