Run, swim, bike to the topMun Si-eun was one of only a few Koreans participating in the 2004 Tongyeong ITU Triathlon World Cup. And when he finished the Olympic-length course ― 1.5 kilometers of swimming, 40 kilometers of cycling, 10 kilometers of running ― the crowd let out a roar of approval.
Not only is 2004 his first year competing as an elite athlete ― before turning 20 this year he competed in the shorter, sprint course ― he was able to place in the top 20.
Before he crossed the finish line, he bowed deeply to the crowd. “The crowd was so supportive, and I wanted to thank them,” says Mun. a second-year student at Dong Seoul College.
It’s a rainy morning, and he’s just finished 1.5 hours of training in Dobong-dong, southern Seoul. Here, near a triathlon gear store called Hello Tri, he hooks his cycle up for indoor training, runs outdoors, and swims ― more than six hours daily with breaks in between.
Coached by Gwak Gyeong-ho, one of Korea’s first triathlon coaches, Mun is getting ready for the Seorak International Triathlon, in Seokcho, another competition that might get him one step closer to the top. Meanwhile, his younger brother has also joined the ranks of junior triathletes.
Triathletes are ranked based on a point system. The more races you successfully compete, the more points you are awarded.
At the international level, no Korean made the cut for the Athens Summer Olympics, but there are only about 20 elite triathletes in all of Korea.
This year will be the first year that the triathlon is a medal sport in the Summer Olympics, and with hopefuls such as Mun and the 2,000-plus amateur triathletes in Korea, the future of the sport here looks bright.
The triathlon has a short history in Korea. How did you start?
My father loved sports. He got me into martial arts and swimming. I swam in high school, and a coach came up to me and suggested I try a triathlon. I trained for two months, and went out to the Marine Commander-in-Chief Triathlon, sprint course. It was August 2002.
I came in first. Even with that placement, I thought it was so hard. It was my first time running in a race, and I hadn’t paced myself. But it was fun and rewarding. The training I put in to it showed.
After that, I was hooked. Swimming is important to me, but with the triathlon, you get to be in nature. The Tongyeong course for example, is one of the most scenic courses in Korea.
Any thoughts on the Seokcho event this weekend?
Last year, the waves were really rough. People complained that it was dangerous. The organizers have found a spot with less waves, and I’m looking forward to seeing it.
What’s your training regimen like?
I train six hours daily, emphasizing the transition from cycling to running. You use different muscles and it’s important to be able to transition.
The biggest event for you this year will be?
The National Athletic Meet for North Chungcheong province in October. It’s one of the biggest sports festivals in Korea. If you get a good score, you get respect all around from the athletic community.
How do you manage your education and training?
I have special privileges from the college that allow me to focus on training. I’ll be majoring in sports psychology.
Your plans after you graduate college?
Study abroad, probably Australia or New Zealand, to learn English. I’ll continue training. Then onto the army. The army has a special division for professional athletes, so they can continue training. I hope to be accepted there.
I would eventually like to coach, but that’s nowhere in my near future, and I’m focusing on my training.
To make it to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
And your competition?
The best triathletes are from Kazakstan, Japan, China, Korea, then Hong Kong. The Japanese are one level above us, partially because the history of competing in a triathlon has been longer.
The best athletes are more than 30 years old. I have to continue doing this for five years to even be in their class.
Have you ever wanted to stop?
It’s only happened to me once. Last year was a hard summer, and I had reached a plateau.
I told the coach I was tired, and he told me to stop. After a week, I started training again. And it was different.
What’s the most important thing about training?
Your thoughts. Sometimes you want to quit. It’s a fight with yourself.
by Joe Yong-hee