20-year-old hopes to bring home the gold

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20-year-old hopes to bring home the gold


Gymnast Yang Hak-seon poses on the vault at the Taeneung National Training Center in Seoul on April 13. By Choi Seung-shik

With the start of the London Olympics just 100 days away, the Korean gymnastics team is hoping to win its first-ever gold medal.

In past Olympics, Korean gymnasts have been favored to win it all. Star gymnasts like Yeo Hong-chul, Lee Joo-hyung and Yang Tae-young have all tried for victory at the Summer Games, but all misfired with misfortune. In the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Yeo was at his top level, but a small mistake in his landing forced him to settle for silver.

The highlight was in the 2004 Athens Olympics when Yang Tae-young competed against Paul Hamm of the United States for the all-around gold medal, but finished with bronze after a scoring error from judges.

The gymnast, who is now 32 years old, was wrongly docked a 10th of a point on his performance on the parallel bars. The International Gymnastics Federation even acknowledged the error and suspended the judges, but the “stolen” golden medal was never given back to him.

But putting all this history behind, another Yang, Yang Hak-seon, is aiming to begin a new chapter in Korean gymnastics. The 20-year-old, who specializes in the vault, claimed the gold medal at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, and won at the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Tokyo last year.

Yang is currently No. 4 in the world rankings, but pundits say the ranking does not represent his real level as he didn’t compete in many international events to prevent injuries and hide his skills from opponents.

As his top competitor Thomas Bouhail of France is uncertain to compete in London due to injury, the expectation for Yang to take Korea’s first-ever Olympic gold is higher than ever.

Yang is just 160 centimeters (5 feet, 2 inches) tall and his shy-looking face forces many to think he is a passive guy, but his characteristics are actually quite the opposite. With a Gwangju dialect, he spoke about his goals:

“I will claim the gold medal in the London Olympics and meet the expectations of Korean fans,” Yang said to the JoongAng Ilbo at the Taeneung National Training Center in Seoul on April 8.

Yang began gymnastics when he was in his third year of elementary school after going to the gym with his older brother. Although his brother gave up gymnastics after a short while, Yang didn’t give up and went on to focus on the vault after going to Gwangju Physical Education High School.

Yang’s coaching staff said the gymnast’s biggest weapon is that he is always confident and has nerves of steel. For the London Olympics, Yang, a sophomore at the Korea National Sports University, said he is ready to overcome Yeo.

“When I first succeeded in Yeo’s technique, ‘Yeo2’ [two and a half turns in the air], I was really happy,” Yang said. “But I will make people think of me as the best in the vault, not Yeo.”

Yang’s confidence may come from his new technique that is named after him. The technique, frequently called “Yang1,” is a handspring front triple twist in the air and has a difficulty value of 7.4, the highest among any of his other skills.

He also can perform “Yang2,” which adds half a turn to Yang1. In London, Yang said he will only focus on “Yang1,” because he doesn’t want to make a mistake in the landing.

If he wins, Yang said he will celebrate with a dance at the North Greenwich Arena. The gymnast said he sometimes practices break dancing and shuffle dances in his room and is ready to show his other skills to the world.

But he’ll have to put his dance routine on hold for now. His mind is set on bringing home Korea’s first gold medal in gymnastics.

By Chung Jong-hoon [kjoo@joongang.co.kr]
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