MAKING WAVES

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MAKING WAVES

Three women are peering through a window, watching 30 or so swimmers work out in the pool at the Korea Physical Education High School in Jamsil, southern Seoul. Since there are no seats inside, every day for two hours, starting at 6 p.m., faces are pressed to the glass inside a small room attached to the pool.

The women's eyes never leave the swimmers.

"There she is! Don't you think she has the prettiest form?" says one woman.

"I heard she improved her times," replies another woman, with a tinge of jealousy.

The women are mothers who have come to see their children swim.

The group of swimmers beyond the glass holds perhaps more hope than the mothers. They represent a nation that, though surrounded on three sides by water, has done abysmally in international swimming competition.

Korea has achieved great success in archery, judo and short track speedskating, among other pursuits, but it has never won a swimming medal -- or even come close -- in any Olympic Games.

Park Na-ri, 14, under the close scrutiny of her coach, is completing her warmup for the evening: 800 meters in backstroke and freestyle. Afterward, she says with a bright smile, "This is the only time I can swim whatever strokes I want."

Although she has the distinctive broad shoulders of a swimmer, her muscles still show some softness. For the next two hours Na-ri practices her specialties: freestyle and butterfly. Na-ri's strength lies in the 100-meter butterfly, a sprint, and the 200- meter freestyle. "I know I have a slow start. I am working on that, but I like the longer distances," she says.

Choi Il-wook, the director of the Korea Swimming Federation, who also acts as a coach, watches Na-ri closely throughout the practice session. Like many coaches, he is sparse with praise. "She has an elongated stroke, which is good and bad for her right now. She needs more power to back up her form. When she gets that, she'll cover the same distance in fewer strokes. That's something she can't do right now, but we are working on it."

Dropping his voice, as if revealing a deep secret, Mr. Choi adds, "With her, we're shooting for the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing."

Na-ri started swimming when she was 6. She represented the city of Seoul in the National Youth Championships when she was in the third grade of elementary school. Each year she misses about 20 days of school due to her swimming schedule. She participates in three to four major swimming meets per year, such as the Donga Open and the Korea Open.

"Why swimming? Hm...." After a short pause, she says matter-of-factly, "Because I am good. Besides, I think I have grown taller because of it." At 171 centimeters (5 feet, 7 inches), Park Na-ri is taller than most of her schoolmates. Nevertheless, she wants to grow taller. Perhaps that's another reason she is hanging on to a sport that does not exactly ooze popular in Korea. "I am the only one at my school who swims. Soccer is really big, you know?"

One might wonder why Korea never had any success in swimming while neighboring Japan and China have achieved world-class status.

Part of the answer lies in the small number of swimmers in the country. According to Mr. Choi, there are only 2,700 swimmers registered nationwide. "Japan has about 9,200. And that's only for the city of Tokyo."

Mr. Choi says that a swimmer's generally short future in Korea and the lack of swimming teams are key reaons for the relatively shallow pool of swimmers. Many young Korean athletes who want to attend college shy away from swimming because of the limited number of colleges they can attend. Currently, there is only one college offering a swim team, while only a couple of dozen high schools in the country have squads.

"Right now we have 16 amateur teams operated by provincial governments. That's an increase compared to a couple of years ago," says Mr. Choi. With a dismissive gesture he adds, "But it is just not enough. I understand why young athletes in Korea avoid swimming. It's like a lack of job security. I can't blame them for staying away."

There are 14 swimming pools in the country that have been approved by the Korea Swimming Federation. Only three of those are Olympic-size and approved by the International Amateur Swimming Federation.

Then, of course, there's money. Coaches as well as swimmers need to be sent abroad to learn better techniques. Inviting foreign coaches here to lead seminars helps as well, but with the current swimming budget, the wish list is long and usually stays that way. This year, none of the first-rate swimmers representing Korea had a chance to travel overseas. It was no different for the reserves on the national team.

The quality of training facilities is another problem. Video cameras placed inside a pool to record swimmers' movements underwater are standard equipment in most nations that are serious about the sport. Not even the pool at the Tae Neung National Training Center in Gongneung, northeast Seoul, has one. Even young swimmers like Park Na-ri have felt the urgency for such equipment. "It would be nice to see how I swim so I can get better," she says.

For someone who has been tapped to break out in Beijing, 2002 has been a disappointing year. Na-ri placed second in all five events she entered at the National Youth Championships, open to elementary and middle school students. Last year she joined the national reserve team while posting an individual record of 2 minutes and 5 seconds in the 200-meter freestyle, four seconds off the Korean record. She also took three gold medals at last year's National Youth Championships, in the 100- and 200-meter freestyle and the 400-meter medly relay.

Even so, the young swimmer is not terribly worried about her slip in the rankings because she still has a lot of fun in the pool, crucial for young swimmers. "Our swimmers have some of the best records when they are in elementary school. The problem is that the times increase as they grow up, while it should be the other way around," says Mr. Choi. His reasoning for this phenomenon: "Korean coaches are under pressure to perform. So what they do is they push the youngsters really hard and the fun factor, what may be the most important asset for a successful athlete, is long gone when it's time to step up to the world stage."

Na-ri's only complaint about swimming: "I have very little time to hang out with my friends."

Besides having a wish to win a medal in the Olympics, Na-ri also dreams of swimming in the Olympic pool in Jamsil, the site of the 1988 Summer Games.

"Just once I would like to swim there to see how it is," Na-ri says. "Yeah, I would really like that." Curiously, that appears to be another item that might not get past her wish list. Since 1988, the pool, where Janet Evans of the United States starred, has not been open to Korean swimming teams. Instead, the pool is operated for profit-generating purposes by the Seoul Olympic Sports Promotion Foundation.

by Brian Lee

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