New name, new country, nearly the same old Viktor Ahn.
The 28-year-old short track speedskater reached the podium in his return to the Olympics, giving his adopted country of Russia its first medal in the capricious sport.
The bronze Ahn won in the 1,500 meters on the first day of short track competition Monday was his fifth Olympic medal, and first since the 2006 Turin Games. A career-threatening knee injury in 2008 forced him to miss Vancouver four years ago.
"I had to think a lot of things over, then I was injured," he said through a translator. "It was my great pleasure to get back to the sport."
Born in Seoul, Ahn previously competed for South Korea as Ahn Hyun-soo, winning three golds and a bronze at his first two Olympics.
"It’s fun to see him back," 1,500 champion Charles Hamelin of Canada said. "He was the one I looked at in 2006 and 2007. All the races I do with him are difficult and to be able to win the 1,500 was the best."
The red-haired Ahn got the loudest cheers from the mostly Russian fans at the Iceberg Skating Palace.
"It played a big role in my achievement," he said. "I would like to thank everyone for believing in me."
Ahn stayed back in the pack in the 1,500 before making his move toward the front in the closing laps.
"The bronze medal he got is just a small step towards a gold medal," Russian coach Andrey Maximov said. "We have 500, 1,000 and the relay, and I hope he will manage to show what he’s capable of. The technique and the psychological state that he showed in the 1,500 was just amazing."
Switching names and countries created challenges for Ahn, including overcoming the language barrier with his teammates.
"My Russian is not so good so I can’t easily communicate with them," he said. "I believe the relationship (with the team) has changed a lot since I came."
Ahn returns to the ice Thursday in the 1,000-meter heats, and he’ll be a key member of Russia’s team for the 5,000 relay semifinals.
"Viktor Ahn, in my opinion, is still one of the best short track speedskaters to ever put skates on," said retired star Apolo Anton Ohno, the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian who is working as a TV commentator in Sochi. "His technique, his experience, and his ability is at the very, very top, and I think his chances of winning gold are very high."
Ahn changed national allegiances because he said he didn’t get the support he needed in South Korea, but he downplayed any tension with his former teammates.
"I never had any problems with my Korean colleagues," he said. "This issue is artificially ballooned in mass media. I’m hopeful we’ll maintain the same type of relationship."
Ahn avoided the media in the days leading up to the start of short track in Sochi, in keeping with his preference of talking after races and not before.
"He’s a really modest and quiet guy. He’s easy to like," short tracker Viktor Knoch of Hungary said. "He got basically sent away from Korea. They said they didn’t need him anymore.
"But he didn’t just say, ‘OK, I’ve won my five (overall) world championships and my three Olympic titles. I’m going to stop.’ He decided to come back, and I think that’s a pretty big deal."
Ahn’s switch to Russian citizenship in December 2011 fell outside of South Korea’s strict laws about obtaining dual nationality, forcing him to renounce his Korean citizenship.
"There are a lot of things he gave up for short track," Knoch said.