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Lee Yoo-mi in a still from Mental Coach Jegal. She plays a short-track speed skater whose career has stalled, and Jung Woo the mental coach hired to resurrect it.

K-drama Mental Coach Jegal: Korean speed skating drama stars Lee Yoo-mi as an underdog and Jung Woo as her mental coach

  • The brutal arena of short-track speedskating is the stage for this Korean drama series about brilliant skater Cha Ga-eul (Lee Yoo-mi), who has hit the buffers
  • Jung Woo is enlisted as her mental coach, years after his taekwondo career was unfairly ended. Can he impart his wisdom to the stubborn Ga-eul?

Among all the period dramas, romantic comedies and high society tales Korean series producers churn out, when the occasional sports drama comes along it tends to stand out.

What’s more, Korean sports tales often focus on less prominent spectator sports, which makes them that bit more refreshing. Among recent Korean sports dramas have been hits such as Racket Boys (badminton) and Twenty-Five Twenty-One (fencing).
Hoping to repeat their success is the new series Mental Coach Jegal, which explores the unfamiliar world of short-track speedskating. The title role is taken by Jung Woo, recently seen in the Netflix crime drama A Model Family, but his hot-under-the-collar character is more in line with the gruff protagonist he played in last year’s Mad for Each Other.
Having recently accumulated millions of fans following her appearances in Netflix hits Squid Game and All of Us Are Dead, Lee Yoo-mi gets her first Korean drama leading role as a professional speed skater who faces more obstacles off the track than on.

In 2008, Jegal Gil (Jung) is a professional taekwondo athlete with great martial arts skills, but a nasty temper to go along with them.

Feeding that temper is the unfair treatment he and his friend Cha Mu-tae (Kim Do-yoon) receive on the national team training grounds where, as in many other aspects of life in South Korea, strict hierarchy and connections dictate success and failure.

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Following some particularly brutal hazing, Gil enters a match with his rival Ku Tae-man, played by Kwon Yool (Dali and Cocky Prince), with an injured leg. His temper gets the better of him at the worst possible moment, when he permanently injures himself to knock his opponent down. To add insult to injury, he loses the match.

Thirteen years later, Gil is a changed man. He is a popular speaker and the writer of a motivational book which has launched his new career as a self-styled mental coach for athletes.

Years since they last met, Mu-tae appears before him and asks for his help for his sister Cha Ga-eul (Lee), a brilliant short-track speed skater whose career has been in the dumps for years owing to the dreaded “yips”, a term used to describe a sudden and unexplained loss of ability in experienced athletes.

Jung Woo as Jegal Gil in a still from Mental Coach Jegal.

Careful not to reawaken his own trauma, Gil has a rule about not taking on national team athletes, but for his friend’s sake he goes to meet Ga-eul. She’s just as stubborn as he was in his youth and she initially balks at his help.

In the years since leaving taekwondo behind, Gil has changed dramatically, but the question now is: can he successfully impart his wisdom to the intractable Ga-eul?

Re-entering the world of national athletics, Gil soon finds himself face to face with his old nemesis Tae-man, who is now director of the Human Rights Centre in the Korean Athletics Association.

Kwon Yool (left) as Ku Tae-man and Jung Woo as Jegal Gil in a still from Mental Coach Jegal.

Gil’s renewed connection with Tae-man takes a dark turn when an aspiring athlete commits suicide; she had filed a complaint with the Human Rights Centre, but Tae-man never bothered to read it, and later shredded the document to cover his tracks.

The yips aren’t Ga-eul’s only problem, as she has also fallen out of favour with the violent national team coach Oh Dal-sung (Heo Jung-do), who forces his star players to sabotage Ga-eul during competitions.

Because of their country’s colonial past, history of military regimes and present corruption-fuelled social inequality, Koreans see themselves as a nation of underdogs. This sentiment is reflected in the stories of athletes who are unfairly treated, but also amplified within the context of lesser-known sports.

Lee Yoo-mi in a still from Mental Coach Jegal.

It’s a strong formula and Mental Coach Jegal has compelling characters, but what the show hasn’t done so far is give us much of an insight into skating and what makes it special.

There’s plenty of time for that to change, but for the moment the story seems more concerned with sports world corruption and the mental toll it can take on the people who aren’t destined to rise to the top.

Mental Coach Jegal is streaming on Viu.