Shooters overcome hardships to win goldThis is the tale of two shooters.
One, a clay shooter, has permanent damage to the optic nerve of her right eye from an accident more than a decade ago. She came back to win four gold medals in the last two Asian Games.
The other, an air-rifle shooter who grew up with polio and shoots from a wheelchair, won five Paralympic gold medals.
Meet Son Hye-kyoung, the clay shooter, and Kim Im-yeon, who, on top of those gold medals, holds two world records in her field.
During the recently completed Doha Asian Games, where professional athletes in baseball, basketball, and soccer struggled, the amateur athletes brought the medals home to Korea.
Son was one of them.
In 1995, while practicing to make the national team for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Son tried to adjust the angle of a target-firing machine at the facility. When Son was looking at the machine’s launcher, it malfunctioned and fired a target into her right eye.
She started bleeding profusely. The surgery to stop the bleeding and fix her nerve took four hours. After spending about a month at a hospital, Son was able to see out of the injured eye. In Korea, a vision of 1.5 is considered pretty good. Son said hers is around 0.5.
“At the time of the incident, all I could think was, ‘Oh no, I won’t make it to the national team next year,’” Son said. “I told the doctors that I didn’t care about scars. I just wanted to be able to see again.”
She said her eyesight will gradually get worse, and because her eyes remain dry constantly, she can’t wear corrective lenses. Lasik surgery is not an option, either, because any surgical procedure will only make her eye worse. Because the damaged pupil no longer contracts, Son has to wear sunglasses on sunny days. But that’s not all.
As another aftereffect of the surgery, Son constantly sees a little black dot out of her right eye.
“I tend to put my gun down after the address more than other shooters,” Son admitted. “But there is little time to regroup in clay shooting. I have to refocus quickly.”
Another impetus for Son has been her determination to help her parents overcome hardships of their own.
Son grew up in a well-to-do family ― her father could afford to go hunting, and Son picked up the sport when she followed him one day to a local shooting practice range ― but after the family business went down, Son’s parents sold their house and began wandering around the country without a home.
With savings from the monthly pension she got from winning the gold medals, plus monetary rewards from the Korea Shooting Federation, Son said she recently moved her parents into a small place with monthly rental payments.
“It’s been difficult to get in touch with them because they wouldn’t answer my calls. They’d feel they’d get just too emotional speaking to me,” she said, choking back tears. “I’m going to pay a visit around New Year. It’s comforting to know they are safe and settled.”
Kim, with her obvious physical limitations, has had to overcome her share of adversity.
She said her family had enough wealth to afford her treatment and medication necessary for her polio conditions, which developed at the age of 4.
But in addition to the regular treatment, she “chose to” also fight it through exercises such as swimming, and stumbled upon rifle shooting one day.
“The image of my first day watching a shooting competition stayed with me for a long time,” Kim said. “The uniform, the sound of the blast, and the fact that it wasn’t the most approachable of the sports; a lot of things appealed to me.”
She also said shooting was “one of the sports where I could compete on a level footing against healthy people.”
“I started shooting to show to healthy people that I could do this,” Kim added. “And I am a very competitive person. I just needed to get my competitive juice flowing a little.”
That competitive streak has taken her through four Paralympics, and the recent Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled (the Asian version of the Paralympics), where she picked up three gold medals.
After her baby is born ― she is six months pregnant ― Kim will begin preparing for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
And after that?
“I won’t go to Beijing thinking this will be my last Paralympics,” the 39-year-old said. “I love this sport too much to start considering retirement. I know many say you’d better go out on top, but I will leave on my own terms. I will quit when I think I am ready.”
At the Olympics or Asian Games, common are the feel-good stories of athletes in the so-called minor sports.
Kim bristled at the word “minor” because she feels the term is used to show which athletes get paid more. Son then chimed in with her view on the level of enthusiasm in the pros.
“Professional athletes earn enough on their teams to lead a comfortable life,” Son said. “But those of us in less popular sports only have the Olympics and the Asiads to play for. We train for years just for that one opportunity. It’s do-or-die for us. I don’t see quite the same passion among the pros.”
Kim said she doesn’t pay attention to salaries, because “it makes for a bad comparison, and if I did, I wouldn’t be able to focus on my own game.”
Speaking of focus, Kim has pre-game routines that are as different from Son’s as their background.
Because rifle shooting is more of a still discipline than clay shooting, Kim likes to keep things quiet and steady as she prepares for competitions.
“I listen to slow, soft music, and try to get as much sleep as possible,” Kim said. “I also avoid reading, watching television, or any activity that might consume me emotionally. The key is not to get too high or too low.”
On the other hand, Son, who has to move among different lanes during competitions, said her preparation is the “polar opposite” of Kim’s restrained routine.
“Before competitions, I do all the usual things that I’d do normally, like going shopping and hanging out with friends,” Son said. “I don’t stress over what I should or should not do to prepare mentally for a big event. I would only get more nervous that way.”
Still, they do share one thing in common: unfailing confidence.
“My coaches tell me not to look at others’ scores, but I always take my turns knowing where others are on the leaderboard,” Son said. “If I am trailing, it’s not just, ‘I think I can move ahead.’ I know I can do it.
“It’s easier learning beforehand where you stand compared to others than trying to hold yourself from watching the scores,” Kim said. “I believe in positive thinking. Whatever I have to shoot, I will go out there give my best shot until the end, and not worry about failing.”
by Yoo Jee-ho