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Kim Yeon-koung is learning how to be the understudy

After years at the top, the global star was benched

Apr 13,2019
Kim Yeon-koung encourages her team during a semifinal game against Galatasaray at Burhan Felek Voleybol Salonu in Turkey Wednesday. [ECZACIBASI VITRA]
Kim Yeon-koung has long been a towering figure in women’s volleyball, flying the Korean flag at international events since 2010 and emerging as a dominant player in leagues around the world since 2009.

In 2019, one of the biggest stars in volleyball had to learn a new skill - how to be a supporter, not the star.

Kim returned to the Turkish league, generally considered the best in the world, for the 2018-19 season to keep herself competitive against the world’s top players. Rather than rejoining Fenerbahce, the team she played six seasons with, Kim chose the opposing club, Eczacibasi VitrA.

Kim joined with high expectations of leading the club to the championship. Instead, she got benched.

Kim may not be playing as much as expected, but Eczacibasi has still benefited from her inclusion. This year, the team has already won the Turkish Cup and the Turkish Super Cup. Eczacibasi is now looking for its third title of the season, the League championship.

Eczacibasi has gotten off to a strong start already as they won Game 1 of the semifinals 3-0 against Galatasaray HDI Sigorta on Wednesday.

This season, Eczacibasi has three of the best spikers - Kim, Tijana Boskovic of Serbia and Jordan Larson of the United States.

But none of those three spikers are Turkish, and that’s where Kim’s problems began. In the Turkish League, a club is not allowed to have more than three foreign players on the court at the same time.

Due to that regulation, head coach Marco Aurelio Motta has preferred to go with strategies that don’t include Kim. When Lauren Gibbemeyer of the United States starts as a middle blocker, Kim is the excluded foreign member. In terms of Eczacibasi’s offensive strategy, the club relies heavily on Boskovic and Larson.

In the most recent game against Galatasaray on Wednesday, Kim only had one block and picked up six points, while Larson picked up 17 points and Boskovic picked up nine.

For a player like Kim, who’s always been the main scorer, this is unfamiliar territory. Kim has gone through multiple leagues and played in teams of different levels, but has always been the key player.

Even on the national team, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the success of the Korean women’s team all came from Kim’s performance over the years. At the 2012 London Olympics, for example, Korea finished in fourth place but Kim was still MVP and top scorer. As her position has changed so much, Kim struggled to adjust to her new club at the beginning of the season, regularly calling her agent to talk about her concerns.

“To be honest, the team used to be centered on me, but that’s not the case now,” Kim said in December last year. “I’m learning a lot from it. This experience will help me.”

After the 2017 season, Kim concluded her six-year stint with Fenerbahce and joined Shanghai to have a more flexible schedule that allowed her to concentrate on the Korean national team. Although her income was reduced by two-thirds, she was able to prepare herself better for the national team schedule.

Despite having more time on her hands, the results were disappointing. Kim led Shanghai to win the regular season but finished runner-up at the championship. The national team didn’t see much success either, failing to defend their title at the Asian Games and failing to advance out of the first round at the world championship with a record of one win and four losses.

Once she completed her busy schedule with the Korean national volleyball team, Kim announced her decision to return to the Turkish League, this time joining Eczacibasi.

Despite the limited time on the court, Kim is still proving herself as one of the world’s best players. She has spent more time in receives and less in attacks this season, but her performance has proven that she is an all-around player.

“I’m confident in receiving,” Kim said. “I’m finding my role within the team.”

Just as Kim said, in terms of receiving, she certainly is fulfilling her role. Against Galatasaray, Kim’s receive accuracy was at 60 percent. Although her playing time is limited, her statistics prove that when she’s given the opportunity, she’ll be ready to perform.

And that’s proven to be the case. During Eczacibasi’s Turkey Cup finals match on March 24, Kim was substituted during the second set and scored 16 points in the rest of the game to help her club to a 3-1 win.

Eczacibasi will play Game 2 today at Burhan Felek Voleybol Salonu in Turkey.

BY KIM HYO-KYUNG, KANG YOO-RIM [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]


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