[Viewpoint] Two swimmers and a challengeJang Bogo and Yi Sun-sin are the most famous maritime figures in Korean history. Jang, of Unified Silla, annihilated pirates and rose to be king of the Yellow Sea. Admiral Yi, of the Joseon Dynasty, defeated the Japanese Navy and became the lord of the South Sea.
Although both of them dominated the sea, they did not truly become united with the water in the way that a swimmer does. Though it is difficult to know who was the first Korean swimmer, certainly the first to gain great fame was the late Cho Oh-ryun, who died last Tuesday.
While people of the Joseon Dynasty dressed in simple cotton clothes and farmed for a living, Westerners already had on swimming trunks and challenged the sea one-on-one.
But even for those Westerners it was difficult to cross a strait. Particularly difficult was the 34-kilometer (21-mile) Strait of Dover between England and France. Crossing it was both a dream and a nightmare for swimmers.
Many tried unsuccessfully to do so before 27-year-old Captain Matthew Webb finally made it across in 1875. It wasn’t easy, taking him 22 hours to reach the French coast.
For people living in the Joseon farming country, swimming across the sea was unthinkable. Besides, the Korea Strait, a sea passage to Japan, is wider than the Strait of Dover.
But in 1980, Cho succeeded in crossing the Korea Strait. While it took 161 years for Korea to introduce liberty and the democratic modern constitution after the United States Constitution was established, it took only 105 years for Koreans to cross a sea passage after Webb’s success.
And if that wasn’t enough, two years later, Cho went ahead and crossed the Strait of Dover himself. He was a Korean swimming pioneer.
Even though both Cho and Park Tae-hwan became star swimmers when they were 18, their life stories differ greatly.
Cho was born in a remote village in Haenam, South Jeolla, and moved to Seoul. Just to be able to swim, he shined shoes and worked in restaurants.
Park’s life was different. Born and raised in affluent southern Seoul, Park learned to swim without any worries about making a living. Cho wanted to swim even though he was poor, while Park learned to swim to cure his asthma.
Both were winners in their own time. Park won an Olympic Gold and Cho was once considered the best swimmer in Asia. That was in the 1970s, when the Asian Games were like an international event for Koreans.
Of course, Park is a great swimmer that the entire country is proud of. He was the first Korean to win worldwide events that once seemed insurmountable to Koreans.
However, we should not forget that when our country was still poor, Cho paved the way for Park. Cho represents the generation who led economic development with hard work, while Park is the fruit of that development.
Naturally, the two had different swimming styles.
Cho was a fast swimmer, but when he became older, he became the first Korean who crossed a sea. Crossing a strait or swimming around the Dokdo Islets tens of times is totally different from swimming back and forth hundreds of times in an indoor pool.
To tolerate the cold temperature of the sea, one must accumulate as much fat as much as possible, just like a bear that hibernates. Cho used to increase his weight whenever he crossed a sea. To fight waves, jellyfish and cold temperatures, one needs almost to become more of a seal than a human.
And in addition to technique and physical strength required to cross a sea, one needs a sense of purpose.
Always, the swimmer must ask himself the question: “Why on earth am I doing this?”
Cho must have had several answers. He perhaps wanted to test his limits, rise to stardom again or prove that he was still a good swimmer.
Whatever his answers, his challenge awakened a sense of history in Koreans. He swam around the Dokdo Islets 33 times in 2005.
Thirty-three was the number of those who signed the declaration of independence, and 2005 was the declaration’s 60th anniversary. Further, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of crossing the Korea Strait, Cho had prepared to do it again next year.
Professional golfer Tom Watson recently became the runner-up in the British Open at the age of 59, stunning and electrifying people around the world. If Cho had not passed away, he would have electrified the world next year at the age of 58.
It’s entirely up to Park whether he, like Cho, one day decides to challenge the sea. Personally, I would like to see him become fat as a seal and cross the Korea Strait. I would like to see him become a seal for all Koreans, instead of remaining as a lovely brother that people adore.
Today, Cho’s soul must be swimming across the ocean where Admiral Yi used to battle.
The writer is an editorial writer and senior political news reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jin