By Michelle Kim
SEOUL, Jan 17 (Reuters) - A LEGO fascination and penchant for nail art seem to be the only things capable of distracting South Korean speed skater Lee Sang-hwa, whose mental strength and dedication to training form the building blocks of her growing supremacy in the sport.
Since winning gold in the 500 metres at the 2010 Vancouver Games, Lee has had no equal over the distance, barring a brief interruption when she suffered an ankle injury.
The 24-year-old dominated the ISU World Cup campaign over the last 12 months, setting a new world record (36.36 seconds) along the way, and her form going into the Feb. 7-23 Sochi Games suggests her rivals can hope for nothing more than silver.
While figure skating 'Ice Queen' Kim Yuna dominates the headlines in South Korea, 'Empress Lee' seems a much safer bet to bring home gold from Sochi.
"I keep telling myself to keep this pace going. I think the Olympics is all about mind control," Lee told reporters earlier this month.
Lee first laced up her skates when she was seven and began skating short track with her older brother. After a few years, she found her talent was in long tack and began serious training for national and international competitions.
While winning gold in Vancouver was the highlight of her career so far, Lee believes she is just getting started.
"I don't think Vancouver was my golden age," she said in an interview with local media. "I think my golden age will be the Sochi Winter Olympics. My body feels it and I hope it will turn out that way.
"I don't want to be remembered as a Vancouver heroine," she added. "So many people were telling me I'd done enough because I'd won an Olympics gold, but that only made me skate even harder."
'Skate harder' seems to be Lee's mantra.
She trains so hard her coaches would bark to the men's team, "Look at Sang-hwa's thighs and learn from them!"
After 11 years on the South Korean national team, Lee is a seasoned skater noted for her composure and ease on ice.
"All my worries just disappear once I'm in the rink."
But she admits she sometimes finds it hard to keep cool about the Olympics. Lee has hinted she is a bit anxious about defending her title at Sochi.
"Because my record is so good I'm worried I might make a mistake at the Olympics," she said. "I'm really feeling the pressure of keeping my crown."
Lee says that while "training hard" is the key to overcoming her jitters, she also has a special recipe for releasing stress: LEGO and nail polish.
Her love for the colourful LEGO blocks is so well known that the chairman of the Korea Skating Union presented her with a special LEGO box set at an awards ceremony.
And her flashy nail art, which she says is her fashion statement, has become a trademark.
"I want to become a champion who enjoys her sport," she says.
Lee will spend the last few weeks leading up to the Olympics "maintaining momentum and good vibes" and getting some much-needed rest to build up her stamina.
However heavy the pressure weighs on her shoulders, Empress Lee has no intention of allowing her golden reign to come to an end in Sochi. (Editing by Peter Rutherford and Patrick Johnston)