Ping-Pong ‘prodigy’ going for goldIt’s 10 in the morning, but the gym floor is already damp from sweat. The national Ping-Pong athlete Ryu Seung-min has been practicing for a while already. The 21-year-old smashes a few more Ping-Pong balls down the table before taking a break.
When he was younger, people called him a “Ping-Pong prodigy.” He may finally outgrow that nickname and step into the shoes of another moniker, “the pillar of Korean Ping-Pong,” for not only has he grown taller and heavier, but he’s picked up a few honors on the men’s pro Ping-Pong circuit.
Besides winning his second Egypt Open last May, he slayed world Ping-Pong heavyweights to take first place at the U.S. Open table tennis championships in Chicago earlier this month.
Now he’s eyeing Olympic glory as he gears up for the Athens Games next month.
“His strong point is the backhand drive, and it’s getting better,” said Kang Moon-su, his coach. “At the Sydney games, he was too young and nervous. This time, we’re confident he’ll get at least one medal, and hopefully he’ll take a gold in singles or doubles.”
Mr. Ryu was 7 when he first gripped a Ping-Pong paddle. His uncle was running a Ping-Pong parlor back then, and Seung-min would visit often to play the game that he would soon fall in love with.
“When I was in second grade, I moved to a school in Incheon because that was the only school around with a Ping-Pong team, and I wanted to be a professional player,” Mr. Ryu said.
His mother never imagined her son becoming so absorbed in the sport. “I knew he was good, but I encouraged him to play because the sport was helping him be less stubborn,” said Hwang Gam-soon. “Sometimes he was restless, but as he began to play Ping-Pong, he could concentrate more.”
When he entered the fifth grade, the school eliminated its table tennis team. Seung-min transferred to another school that sponsored a table tennis program. The hunt for such a school ended in Bucheon, about an hour west of Seoul.
From that point on, Seung-min almost never lost a match. Even players several years his senior were easily defeated. Some called him a “monster” for the seemingly boundless energy that kept him going after the ball.
By the ninth grade, he was selected as a national athlete, winning media attention as the youngest Korean to earn that title. Two years later, he swept the Asia Junior Championships.
But his luck seemed to fade in Sydney. Perhaps the enormous gym and crowd were too much for the 18-year-old to handle; he dropped out in the first round of the men’s singles competition. Paired up with his older teammate, Lee Chul-seung, for doubles, the duo made it to fourth place.
“I was crushed. I felt guilty after realizing that I was only worth that much,” Mr. Ryu said.
The Busan Asian Games in 2002 went much better ― he took a gold medal in men’s doubles. Again paired up with Mr. Lee, the duo defeated another Korean team in the finals.
The Asian Games gold medal had another benefit: It earned him an exemption from the army draft.
“I feel that I have to play better, especially because I don’t have to serve in the army anymore,” Mr. Ryu said. “I think Korea expects me to serve the country in a different way instead; I want to do something big for my country.”
These days, he has turned to meditation in preparation for the Athens Olympics. For a few moments at night and again at dawn, he sits still and imagines himself playing a perfect game. He also plays online games to get rid of the butterflies in his stomach.
Another of his favorite pastimes is chatting on a Web site created for him by his fans (cafe.daum.net/loveysm).
Mr. Ryu said he owes his success to his girlfriend, who has been by his side since the Sydney Games, and to an herbal doctor named Koo Yong-hoi, who prepares Chinese restoratives for him on a regular basis.
But he cares most about his parents. “I get to go home for only 10 days a year,” he said. “Most of the time I am at the Taeneung training center,” a facility where national athletes stay while training.
Returning to practicing his serves at the gym, he vowed: “I will not disappoint those who supported me.”
by Chung Jeh-won, Lee Min-a
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