A joyous comeback for pro volleyball player Who In-jungWho In-jung, 31, a professional volleyball player for the Hyundai Capital Service’s SkyWalkers, is happy to hear colleagues and the media say he is getting his second wind and playing at his best.
Just one year ago, he was sitting on the bench as a substitute, watching Park Cheol-u, 20, who had just finished high school, play in his position. He feared his name was long gone from the minds of the media as well as fans.
Who agonized over whether he should leave the court forever. “The last year has been the most intense period of my life,” he noted.
The player had a chronic knee injury, and during the off-season he just rested without doing exercise. He only commuted between his house and the hospital. Last year, however, he spent much of his time in the gym, doing weight training. As an athlete who is over 30 years old, he could only rely on his stamina.
During the pro volleyball season opening game on Feb. 20, the SkyWalkers beat the most powerful team in the league, Samsung Fire & Marine Insurance’s Bluefangs. That day, Who scored 21 points.
His father, Who Guk-gi, 63, who owns a golf range in Ansan, called him and said, “It was enjoyable to watch the game. You did a good job.”
The elder Mr. Who said in the past it was not fun to watch the SkyWalkers lose to the Bluefangs all the time, and he had stopped going to the games a few years ago. It was the biggest compliment for the player from his brusque father.
Who is a Chinese-Korean. In 1920, his grandfather Who Bae-hang came to Korea and opened a Chinese restaurant in Ganggyeong, South Chungcheong province. His Korean-born father began playing volleyball at Ganggyeong Commercial High School and played for professional teams in the 1970s before becoming the head coach for Sunkyung Co.’s volleyball team.
Upon graduating from primary school, Who was 1.72 meters (5 feet, 6 inches) tall ― now he stands at 1.98 meters and weighs 87 kilograms (192 pounds). He wanted to become an athlete, and so his father advised him to attend Yongsan Middle School if he wanted to play basketball, or to go to Inchang Middle School if he was interested in playing volleyball.
He made the same choice his father did. If he had opted for basketball, he would have been playing against pro basketball player Seo Jang-hoon of Seoul Samsung rather than volleyball player Kim Se-jin of the Bluefangs, as all three sportsmen were born in 1974.
When Who was a 20-year-old sophomore at Kyonggi University, he could not compete in national competitions or for Korean national teams because he was technically a foreigner. Who was among the candidates for the national team upon graduation from the university, but his grandfather opposed it.
However, his father wanted him to play for the Korean national team and supported him in obtaining Korean citizenship. On the day he was naturalized, he wrote down his family origin in the family registry document as “Who In-jung of Suwon,” the first generation of the family to do so. A year later, he won a team gold medal at the 1995 Universiade in Fukuoka, Japan.
In December 1996, Who joined his current team. The media reported that the team paid 800 million won ($800,000) as a signing bonus. Some people said it was 1 billion won.
Who said he did not know the exact amount because “my father took care of it.”
The good old days for Who ended that year. The Bluefangs were formed in 1997, and his team was always in second place. He almost missed a chance to get married because of this.
Who met his wife, Kim Jeong-eun, 30, during the winter super league competition in 1994. Ms. Kim, then a student, was watching the game on television and decided to watch him personally on the court. They dated for four years and agreed to get married in 1998 when his team had beaten the Bluefangs.
However, the Samsung team continued its winning streak and so, regardless of the promise, they got married in 2001.
“I would still have been single if I had kept the promise,” Who said.
After the team beat the Bluefangs, he looked at his wife sitting in the stands. “I was crazy about the victory, but my wife was even more excited. The victory also reminded me of the promise we made,” he said.
Who is the biggest annual salary earner in pro volleyball, taking in 90 million won, more than Kim Se-jin’s 87 million won.
Had he quit volleyball two years ago, Who said, “I would have opened a restaurant. I am too old to work at a company.”
He has made a beautiful comeback with the help of the SkyWalkers’ head coach, Kim Ho-cheol, and is once again an ace of the team. “I will play for three or four more years,” Who said. “And I intend to play for the national team one more time.”
by Chang Hye-soo