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‘Three brave friends’ set sights on picking up gold together in Brazil

Feb 16,2016
Gwak Dong-han, Kim Won-jin and Cho Koo-ham pose for a photo at Taereung National Training Center on Jan. 4. Their New Year’s resolution is to stand at the top of the podium in the Rio Olympics. [ILGAN SPORTS]
Judo has been Korea’s traditional gold mine in the Summer Olympic Games, producing 40 medals in total - 11 golds, 14 silvers and 15 bronzes, so far.

This August in Rio de Janeiro, judo starts on the second day of the Games schedule and it is expected to provide Korea with its first medal of the 2016 Olympics.

Among Korean judokas, three friends are hoping to bag gold medals. They are Kim Won-jin, Gwak Dong-han and Cho Koo-ham.

Gwak is world No.1 in the men’s 90-kilogram (198 pounds) division, while Kim is second in the 60-kilogram division. Cho is ranked seventh in the under 100-kilogram division. All three are considered to be gold medal contenders.

“By looking at the talent of these three friends it’s certain that they will get a medal,” said Korea Judo national team head coach Seo Jung-bok. “What matters is the color of the medal.”

The three have had similar careers. Four years ago, they were all selected as training partners for the national team for the 2012 London Games. Since then, they have all managed to become national team members and represented Korea in the 2014 Incheon Asian Games.

The trio says there is a “Kim jinx” which influences the performance of Cho and Gwak. Usually in the international tournaments, judokas in the lightweight divisions compete first before heavyweight judokas and because of this Cho and Gwak play their matches after finding out Kim’s result.

Surprisingly, the three have collected similar results in big events. They first collected bronze medals in the 2014 Incheon Asian Game and in the same year, they went on to win gold medals at Jeju Grand Prix in September and Tokyo Grand Slam event in December.

When Kim settled for a bronze medal in the World Judo Championships last September, Cho also got a bronze medal, while Gwak won a silver. In last year’s Jeju Grand Prix, all three defended their titles.

The trio were all born in 1992, the year of monkey under the Chinese zodiac. Since this year also falls under the year of monkey, the trio told Ilgan Sports, an affiliate of Korea JoongAng Daily, that there is “good feeling” for them to achieve gold medals in the upcoming Games.



Q. It’s 2016. Are you in the ‘Olympic mode?’

A. Kim: Training goes on as usual, but it makes me practice at least one more.

Cho: A few days ago, I had a dream of winning the Olympics. As I was heading to the podium in my dream, I said to myself, ‘this should not be a dream’ even though I was already dreaming. I think I was just so desperate. In an unconscious level, I think I’m already in Olympic mode.

Gwak: I noticed that my hands and feet got numb after today’s training. Even though it’s training, I put my best effort forward.



Do you agree that Korean judo national team is famous for having tough training?

Kim: I’m roommates with Gwak and we sometimes say when we are in bed that this night should not end (laughs). Since the training is so tough, we just want to hold onto the night.

Gwak: Probably our sole pleasure will be the cancellation of afternoon training which happens once or twice a year. Even if we are resting in the afternoon, it really makes us happy.

Cho: From 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. every day, we do judogi climbing training and I lose 3 kilograms after two hours training. At night, I do personal training to fill in what I’ve left behind. I check the weather forecast every day because when there is heavy rain, the outdoor morning training switches to indoor training, which is relatively non-challenging.



What do you think when overcoming physically challenging moments?

Gwak: Like most athletes, I imagine myself winning a gold medal.

Cho: I’m a little different. Most athletes think of themselves at the podium when they are tired, but I imagine myself losing. Since I really hate losing, it gives me energy.

Kim: I think of my parents and my girlfriend. When I think about how there are so many people who support me, it just makes me work hard at my job.

Does it feel special for you three training together on the national team?

Cho: We’ve heard many times that the three of us are special and strong. In particular, Kim beat senior middle school students even when he was a freshman.

Kim: Cho and I are both from Gangwon and have known each other since elementary school. Both of us dreamed of being on the national team together, of course.



So how do you help each other?

Gwak: After I entered Yongin University, I got to know Kim and Cho. In school, we would always stick together. Even if I went overseas for a match, I didn’t feel alone because of these guys.

Kim: It’s good that I have people to talk to when I’m sad or get stressed. Cho is a guy who cheers us up by sending text messages.

Cho: Yes, but even if I send messages, they don’t reply (laughs).



When you were training partners for the national team members four years ago, did you imagine that you would be competing in the Olympics in the future?

Gwak: I was partner for Song Dae-nam who is now assistant coach in the national team. When I saw him winning the gold medal at the 90-kilogram division [in the 2012 London Games], I said to myself that I will be repeating [the achievement] four years later.

Cho: As we all worked hard, I knew it would be our era one day. Now, we all say let’s win gold medals together.



What do you desperately need at this moment?

Kim, Cho, Gwak: Sleep, sleep and sleep.



What do you want to do after the Olympics?

Gwak: I want to have a girlfriend. I like a girl who sings well ... such as EXID’s Solji.

Cho: What? You are not looking at her singing ability, but her looks. My answer is the same as Gwak. I want to have a girlfriend who is tall and easygoing, like comedian Jang Do-yeon.

Kim: I have a girlfriend, so I want to eat meat with friends. When three of us go to eat samgyeopsal (pork belly meat), we eat enough for 10 people. The owner of the restaurant really likes us.



What do the Games mean for you?

Kim: I hope we can be remembered as young judokas where ‘three brave friends’ or ‘three legendary friends’ were born.

Gwak: We have reached this far together, and we should be experiencing same gold medal moments together. I don’t want one of us winning gold, while another takes a bronze medal.

Cho: I hope Kim wins a gold medal first, because two of us can win if he wins. I’m not putting pressure on him, but Kim has to do well (laughs).

BY PI JOO-YOUNG [choi.hyungjo@joongang.co.kr]


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