South Korea’s gold medal chances at the Summer Olympics rest primarily on two stars.
by JAY YIM
SON YEON JAE
In the sport of rhythmic gymnastics, Son Yeon Jae is among its fastest rising stars.
Slowly but surely she has been building an impressive resume, which includes becoming the first Korean rhythmic gymnast to earn a medal in an international competition when she won a bronze in the hoop discipline at the World Cup in Penza, Russia, in late April. A week later, she won another bronze medal in the ribbon final of the FIG Rhythmic Gymnastics World Cup in Sofia, Bulgaria.
“It’s not easy for even top-10 rankers to win medals in two straight World Cup series events,” Son’s choreographer Lucy Dimitrova told the Dong-A Ilbo. “I first thought Yeon Jae was a cute Asian girl, but now she’s grown into someone that European [gymnasts] need to pay attention to.”
Want more proof?
As of June 2012, she was ranked as the No. 5 rhythmic gymnast in the world by the International Gymnastics Federation and graced the cover of the April issue of le Gymnaste, a French gymnastics magazine. An official from the magazine said, “We were very impressed by a gymnast who only finished 32nd in the World Championships in Moscow in 2010, but who won a ticket to the London Olympics at [the 2011 World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships in Montpellier, France]. We chose Son as our cover model as we thought she has great potential.”
Standing 5-foot-3 and tipping the scales at 84 pounds, the petite 18-year-old who has all the looks and appeal of a Wonder Girls member, has been named by shampoo brand Pantene, an official sponsor of the 2012 Olympics, as one of the 11 most beautiful athletes that will compete in London.
Having already increased the amount of interest surrounding rhythmic gymnastics in Korea, where she is known as the “Gymnastics Fairy” by her fans, Son has stated she hopes a day will come when Korea gets recognized as a powerhouse in rhythmic gymnastics. She can certainly play a big role in helping make that happen.
For the last two years, Son has trained in Russia, where she practices for seven hours a day and lives on a strict diet of two meals a day. The athlete is confident of her medal chances.
“Once you are in the final, everyone starts again from zero points,” Son told Reuters in June. “If I perform perfectly then, a good result will come.”
A music video created to support and honor top swimmer Park Tae-hwan, titled “Marine Boy” (his nickname in Korea) features the singing talents of popular actor Kim Hyun Soo. It shows just how excited South Korea is about its national swimming icon as he prepares to compete in the summer games.
Park originally captured the country’s attention at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, when he won the country’s first-ever swimming gold medal with his victory in the 400-meter freestyle event. He also added a silver medal when he finished second to American Michael Phelps in the 200-meter freestyle.
Now Park, who is described by the Wall Street Journal as a “turbo-charged swimming super star,” could be primed to have an even bigger and better performance at this year’s Summer Olympics, and the stage could be set for him to have another exciting aquatic showdown with Phelps. However, Park’s biggest rival in London may be Sun Yang of China. Yang boasts the number one ranking in the world in the 400-meter freestyle, while Park is currently ranked No. 2.
Assuming Park and Yang do both advance to the 400-meter freestyle final, the stage could be set for quite the thrilling aquatics showdown at the London Aquatics Center.
“I think it’s going to be one of the more dramatic moments in [the swimming competition],” San Jose mercury News Olympics writer Elliott Almond told KoreAm. “[Park is] just so strong. He has the endurance and the speed, the great mix, and he’s fluid.”
Park has stated that he wants to set a world record in London. “I have been preparing for this goal for a long time,” he said, according to Korea.net. “Considering my age and condition, I have more confidence than ever.”
That goal certainly seems even more possible for the gifted 22-year-old, given his strong showings at two pre-Olympic meets earlier this year. In May, Park was named MVP at the Mel Zajac Jr. International Canada Cup, held in Vancouver, after he won the 200-meter and 400-meter freestyle, and finished runner-up at the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle event.
He then collected four more gold medals at this year’s Santa Clara International Grand Prix in June, where he recorded victories in 100-, 200-, 400- and 800-meter events. Although Phelps didn’t compete at this year’s event, Santa Clara had a strong field of international swimmers preparing to compete in London. Park did defeat Phelps by more than half a second at the 2011 Santa Clara Grand Prix in the 100-meter freestyle.
“I think I made some good sketches,” he told the Chosun ilbo after the event. “If I can add all the details in London, I think I’ll be able to produce a fantastic painting.”
This article was published in the July 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the July 2012 KoreAm, click below.