Her team's down, but she's still got spirit

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Her team's down, but she's still got spirit

The United States has Kathy Ireland. China has Cho Soo-jin. But Ms. Cho is not Chinese; she's Korean.

It's a Thursday afternoon, Cho Soo-jin is shopping at Seoul's Dongdaemun market with her Chinese cheerleading squad. Major agenda: tiny T-shirts and cute hair-ties.

They wander outside the crowded building that is Doota. Eyes widen at the sight of life-size replicas of World Cup mascots. Photos, everyone.

The squad -- eight women and one man -- plus the president of the China Federation of Soccer Fans and a cameraman from CCTV, a powerhouse TV network in China, quickly gather and pose.

Ms. Cho, 28, buys an iced coffee and sits on a bench. Nearby, hundreds of people are walking in, out, or by the department store. For a couple of minutes, Ms. Cho is just another anonymous shopper, sipping a drink while easing tired legs. But soon, a father comes by with three kids in tow and asks for her autograph.

Ms. Cho emigrated to China in 1994 to learn Chinese and to escape what she considered a small-time life in Incheon. Her eight years in China has been an unusual success story. In China she hosts a morning aerobics show and models for Nike. She is the main instructor at Nirvana, the hottest fitness club in Beijing.

Sun Shuoyan, who is recording a documentary about the squad, says of Ms. Cho, "Her dance aerobics classes are in high demand. Her students always say her classes are very exciting."

Months back, Ms. Cho, who had never been a cheerleader before, organized the squad to cheer on the Chinese team and to film a workout video on Jeju Island. When the students at her instructor-level class heard about the plan, some, like Song Yong, thought, Huh? Soccer?

Ms. Song says, "But the more I thought about cheering a World Cup team, the more fun it seemed."

Ms. Cho is not a soccer fan. Her cheering squad is made up of aerobics instructors and office workers, not experienced cheerleaders. Ask her about her favorite Chinese soccer player and her face becomes blank. But she loves China and China seems to love her.

The Chinese team plays its last game Thursday against Turkey. After two losses, the Chinese have no chance of advancing to the second round. But if Ms. Cho has her way, spirits will still be high.

he sun reflects off of Ms. Cho's manicured fingertips with French-style silver glitter as she signs her name on a sheet of notebook paper. She hands the sheet to the father, who walks away muttering, "I should have asked for an autograph."

Ms. Cho's success has preceded her, to some degree, to Korea. A local publisher, Gimmyoung Publishing, released a book last month about her -- "The Woman Who Wakes Up China," or "Junggukui Achimeul Kkaeuneun Yeoja" in Korean. Ms. Cho's face has been on Korean television, her voice on radio and her photo in newspapers.

"I was a small-time Incheon girl with dreams to be on television doing aerobics," Ms. Cho says. She talks quickly, excitedly, as if she cannot get enough of life. Her body is in constant motion; she radiates energy. She was 14 years old when she took her first aerobics class, at a small Incheon health club. She was living with her father and his third wife, a family situation that was considered scandalous at that time. Aerobics gave her something to look forward to. But she says, "As I got older, I saw that there was no future for me in aerobics in Korea." So she left to do something else she had always wanted to do, study Chinese.

Once in China, Ms. Cho attended a language school. She made friends and found aerobics classes. As her language skills improved, aerobics began booming in China. She began teaching dance aerobics classes, riding the boom.

"When I think of my life, I think my dreams have come true," she says. She usually returns to Korea twice a year. She is full of excitement for the future and for the now, and tries not to dwell on her past. She recently met with her first aerobics instructor, and plans on seeing her father.

She pauses when a mother and a daughter walk up. The mother asks Ms. Cho, "Can you hold my child? You're a great role model."

Afterwards, Ms. Cho says, "One reason I like China is that the male-female relationship is more relaxed. Back in Korea, I find myself slipping into the traditional female role."

otal Eclipse of the Heart" is booming on the speakers of a fitness club in Ilsan. It is nighttime, and the squad is practicing the choreography for the workout video, which will be released in Chinese in China.

Ms. Cho sits on a stool, her elbows on her knees. The eight other members of her squad are stretching, dancing or lifting weights. Most of her squad wear black T-shirts with a red image of Lei Feng, a Chinese soldier from the late 1800s whom Chairman Mao often praised for being humble and selfless. Nearby, Sun Shuoyan, also wearing a Lei Feng shirt, keeps his camera rolling.

"I first saw her on SBS last January," says one of the film staff, Rufino Chung. He watched one of her Chinese workout videos and came up with the idea to make two 50-minute videos in which she and her squad would work out with the lush vegetation and majestic waterfalls of Jeju Island as a backdrop. Most of the filming was done just after China played Brazil on the island.

Now Abba's "Mamma Mia" is blasting. Ms. Cho starts her team dancing, yelling instructions in Mandarin. She sometimes sings along, sometimes grunts, but always smiles brightly. As the night wears on, there is a lot of stop and go to discuss choreography, timing and speeches.

At the end of the two-hour practice, the team returns to the hotel -- it is after 11 p.m., but the squad is used to these hours by now. "In China, we stayed up past sunrise to design our costumes and choreograph our moves," one member says.

On their way back to the hotel, Ms. Cho whispers, "I don't think China will win, but I'll sure have fun."

by Joe Yong-hee

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