Ready to make a splashPYEONGCHANG, Gangwon
“Faster, faster,” cries out a man in a pink swimsuit and a whistle around his neck, as a chubby boy swims the backstroke with rapid strokes across the 25-meter pool. Nearby, another man with a clipboard stares at his stopwatch.
“Keep going! Don’t stop on the way! Don’t hold onto the rail!” hollers the demanding-looking coach, whose voice booms across the indoor pool area. The boy swiftly completes his two laps, and earns kudos from the coach for his efforts as he jumps out of the pool, breathing heavily but still quite composed.
From afar, this teenager resembles an ordinary high school student. But up close, one quickly notices the awkwardness in his stare, his slurred speech, the gawky gait.
Yun Da-un, 17, has Down’s syndrome, a genetic disorder often characterized by slanty eyes, a broad flat skull and moderate retardation. But Da-un’s also one of three competitors on Korea’s national Special Olympics swim team at the 2003 World Summer Games in Dublin, Ireland.
He is among a corps of 16 Korean athletes headed to these Olympics for the disabled, which runs from June 21 to 29. Da-un’s two other swim teammates are autistic.
For about a week before the competition, the three swimmers are engaged in intense training at Yongpyong Resort. Other Special athlete competitors in soccer and track and field, are training at Kwandong University in the coastal town of Yangyang, about an hour away.
On Monday, the Korean squad ― most of whom have either Down’s syndrome or autism ― will depart for Ireland. For most, it will be their first time out of the country.
Da-un is the most docile of the three swimmers. His teammate, Choi Chi-won, 19, keeps stopping while doing laps to look back at his coach. The coach, Oh Yeong-hwan, seems angry.
“Hey, don’t stop! I told you not to stop!” he yells. Meanwhile, another swimmer, Kim Jun-woo, 18, suddenly refuses to enter the water. A loud and cantankerous argument ensues between Mr. Oh and Jun-woo. After much haggling, the coach slaps the ever-mumbling Jun-woo on the back and lures him into the pool by saying, “If you do one more lap, I’ll give you something good to eat.” When the rowdy scene has played itself out, the coach scratches his head in obvious frustration.
Da-un, sitting on a white plastic pool chair, stares intently at the scene before him, his mouth half-open and appearing to be in deep thought. He dries himself over and over again with a towel.
When it is Da-un’s turn to swim, coach Oh tells Chi-won to get in the adjacent lane so the duo can compete. In the 50-meter freestyle race, Da-un is the clear winner and the coach gives him a high five as the teen jumps out of the water.
Throughout the morning training session, Da-un is tireless, jumping into and exiting the water without complaint. He swims as diligently as a beaver building a dam.
“Among the three, Da-un has perhaps the highest mental age,” Mr. Oh, a 14-year veteran of coaching the retarded, says. “He has the mind of a 6 or 7-year old, while these two, who are older than Da-un, are about 4 or 5 years old in mental age. Da-un is more aware of what’s going on and has nunchi,” a Korean term for keen perception. Even so, Da-un only uses simple words and sentences.
Asked whether he enjoys swimming, Da-Un has this to say: “Yes.” As for whether he will earn a medal at the Special Olympics, he also answers “Yes,” though more curtly. He does not return looks, but remains alert when someone approaches him.
Does he find swimming tiresome? “Yes.” Is he afraid of the coach? “No.” When did he start swimming? Silence, followed by “I dunno.” Does he prefer freestyle or backstroke? “Freestyle,” he replies tersely.
Because he is more perceptive than his other teammates, Da-un tends to lead the pack, according to the coach. “He takes care of the other two,” says Mr. Oh. “When we go somewhere he leads the others to follow him.”
After practice, the trio hit the showers and then head to eat lunch at the hotel’s restaurant. When bowls of steaming ojingeo bokeum, or squid stew arrive, the threesome eat voraciously while Mr. Oh and his assistant Koh Yeong-hwan talk to the boys between slurping down the soup, and encourage the special athletes to eat slowly.
Da-un doesn’t speak much, and continues to answer in simple sentences. He says ramen is his favorite food, but after lunch he asks for pastries and cookies.
Mr. Oh explains that Da-un often asks for bread because his mother owns a bakery. What does Da-un want to become when he grows up? He hesitates for a moment before answering: “A swimmer.” What are his hobbies? “Dance.”
“Kids with Down’s syndrome have a remarkable talent for imitating others,” his coach adds. “Da-un here can dance like Kim Gun-mo,” the Korean pop singer.
At first, swimming was part of Da-un’s therapy, which began in fourth grade. He stuck with it, and it’s paid off, as he’s about to represent Korea before the world.
“Special Olympics is not about setting records you know, unlike ordinary Olympics,” explains Mr. Oh. “It is a sports festival for the disabled, like these kids.”
In Ireland, events are divided by performance level, so those expected to finish the 50-meter freestyle in about seven or eight minutes are segregated to create an element of competition, the coach explains.
“It’s not so much about winning,” says the coach. “I teach these kids not to foul, not to stop on their way and not to grab the rail. More than anything, the Special Olympics is about participation; these boys need to be instilled with the sense of having an objective.”
The origin of Special Olympics was a day camp for mentally retarded youngsters founded in 1963 by Eunice Shriver, wife of the late U.S. Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver. It became an international sporting event in 1969. From 1975, the Special Olympics were held every four years during the summer. This summer’s event, Korea’s 25th appearance, involves 7,000 athletes from 150 countries.
Resting in the bleachers at the base of a grassy ski mountain, Da-un grips his large gray knapsack tightly. He appears shy at the moment, though his coach says he can be a lively kid around others. Does Da-un have many friends at his school, the Jumong School for the Disabled in Sangam-dong, southern Seoul? How about a girlfriend?
He cringes in embarrassment when the coach cuts in, “Da-un, tell us about Ji-yeon.” A bit bashful, Da-un answers succinctly: “Yes.” The coach explains that Ji-yeon is a classmate confined to a wheelchair whom Da-un likes to care for in school.
“Our society’s perception of the disabled is very twisted,” Mr. Oh says. “People think disabled people are unhappy, unfortunate souls. And as for the mentally retarded, they think these kids are total lunatics. But the fact of the matter is, they are innocent kids who just need extra care and attention.”
Does Da-un know what the Special Olympics are?
“Yes,” he answers. Raising his index finger and grinning he adds, “I will win and get a medal.”
by Choi Jie-ho