Diminutive Nam a giant of fencingFencer Nam Hyun-hee’s life has been about fighting all kinds of prejudices, and that was why the 33-year-old couldn’t stop crying when she won a gold medal in women’s fleuret team fencing last week at Goyang Gymnasium, northern Gyeonggi.
It was Korea’s fourth straight gold medal in team fleuret in the Asian Games, a span in which Nam has been a true team leader. In her four Asian Games appearances, she won a total of seven medals, six of them gold.
Nam started fencing in 1994 when she was 13. She is only 157 centimeters (5-foot-1), but was strong enough to qualify for all five-round national team selection matches in 1999. Nonetheless, the country’s fencing insiders decided to replace Nam, thinking she was too short and wouldn’t be able to compete against the robust foreign fencers in international competitions.
Then she won a silver medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
In order to overcome such prejudices, she never stopped practicing and the cartilage in her knees has been damaged time after time.
Many top European fencers stand at about 180 centimeters, but Nam is “proud of being short,” saying her favorite nickname is “peanut fencer” because her height motivated her to be a better athlete. She always wants to stand on the top podium at medal ceremonies, she says, because she usually is the shortest athlete at competitions.
Ilgan Sports, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, sat down for a frank conversation with Korea’s shortest fencer.
Q. You have spent 20 years as a fencer, and you must have worried about your height.
A. I actually didn’t have any trouble when I started fencing in 1994, but rule changes kept favoring taller athletes. I won a competition organized by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism 15 months after I started fencing. I remember I beat all of those ninth graders, and when I was in ninth grade, I had no rival.
In high school, I won a national athletic competition in my first year [10th grade], and I swept many medals when I was in 11th and 12th grade. But I heard that people kept saying, “She only goes for the local events because she is too short.” I considered taking injections that would help me grow more.
When did you first join the national team?
It was 1999, when I was a high school senior. I passed all the qualification rounds, but the team decided on someone else because they worried I wouldn’t win a match when a world championship was held in Korea. I was so mad at the time because I thought I was much better than those veteran fencers, who were mostly 28 or 29 years old.
So, did you avoid watching the event?
Well, I decided to stay close to the competition as a volunteer worker who provided water and some snacks to VIP guests and referees. I was able to watch how the world’s top-ranked fencers performed with my own eyes.
I eventually was selected to the national team in 2001, then won an Asian championship, then my first Asian Games gold medal in 2002 in Busan.
How did you overcome your height difficulties?
There are no secrets. I had to play harder and practice twice as much as others did. La fente, for instance, is an attack technique that forces a fencer to stretch one leg toward an opponent, and I worked on that millions of times to find the perfect time to attack because I always had to face opponents who were taller than me with longer arms. Because of the practice, my left sacrum is about 2.5 times bigger than normal and I still feel pain there.
You married cyclist Gong Hyo-seok in 2011 and had a beautiful baby daughter in April 2013. No female fencer in the country has returned to the piste after becoming a mother. Many people thought you might retire, but you came back. What were the reasons?
I saw all of my former teammates quit fencing after becoming mothers, but I saw many foreign players stay after giving birth. So, I wanted to be the first female fencer in Korea to be like that.
When did you start preparing for your comeback?
I focused on raising my daughter only for the first 10 months after she was born, then started improving my stamina and the muscles on my lower body. I wasn’t even able to run more than 10 minutes at that time, so I programmed a very - and I mean very - strong three-month training program from September last year to December, then eventually regained the physical condition I had before the pregnancy.
I heard you have been suffering from a knee injury for a long time. Is it completely recovered?
I had to remove about 90 cubic centimeters [90 milliliters] of water from my knee before the Asian Games and had a series of injections to improve my muscle condition. That was a very tough time and almost made me declare my retirement, but many people around me, including my physician, Kim Mi-hyun, helped me so much.
What is your next goal?
I was the champion in July’s Asian championships and won a title in Incheon. Now I’m dreaming of the 2016 Olympics.
BY KIM MIN-KYU, KWON SANG-SOO [email@example.com]