Judokas set their sights on Olympic gold
That’s because judo has historically been Korea’s gold mine in the Olympics. Since the stellar performance of An Byeong-keun and Ha Hyung-joo in the 1984 Los Angeles Games, Korean judokas have brought home 11 gold medals in the last eight Olympics.
This year, the national judo team is hoping to continue its streak, when a new crop of young stars head to Rio de Janeiro in August.
Among them, An Chang-rim, who competes in the men’s 73-kilogram division, and Kim Jan-di, who plays in the women’s 57-kilogram division, are considered the top hopefuls to win gold.
An, whose grandparents moved to Japan from Korea, was born in Kyoto in 1994 and started judo when he entered elementary school. He was only an average player back then, but after enrolling at the University of Tsukuba, he underwent rigorous training and practice, eventually becoming the top judoka in Japan.
An was approached by the Japanese national team for naturalization, but since he wanted to represent Korea, he came to his grandfather’s homeland in 2013.
After transferring to Korea’s Yongin University in February 2014, An went on to achieve his goal of becoming a Korean national team member. In June that year, he topped the national team qualifiers to become the No. 1 judoka in the men’s 73-kilogram division.
“I still can’t forget the moment in the 2014 World Junior Judo Championships,” he said. “It was the first tournament that I won the gold medal with Korea national team uniform. My heart was pounding after I realized that I finally made it.”
Kim Jan-di, 24, also began judo when she was in elementary school, starting in the third grade. But unlike An, she almost immediately became a top prospect. At the age of 17, she was already representing Korea.
Kim has had no strong competitors in the country. Since 2008, she hasn’t missed winning her title at the National Sports Festival. However, it has been a different story when it comes to major international tournaments.
After winning silver at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, Kim again finished second in the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon. The constant runner-up finishes haven’t slowed her down.
“The experience of failure made me stronger,” Kim said. “If I became a champion at an early age, I should probably have given up my career by now.”
Korea’s national judo team head coach Seo Jung-bok last year told Kim that he would personally give her a gift if she earns a spot in the Olympics, hinting that he didn’t have big expectations for her.
However, Kim has been moving aggressively. Last year, she won three international tournaments and topped the first round of the national team qualifiers. Although there is still the second round in March, many believe Kim’s spot in Brazil is secure as she earned enough qualification points in the first round.
The Korean judo team finished third in overall medal count at the World Judo Championships last August, collecting two gold medals and three bronze medals. It was the first time since 2009 that the country made a top-three finish in the Worlds.
To keep the momentum going, the players and coaches are going through customized one-on-one training.
Kim is currently working on her shoulder throw techniques with coach Lee Won-hee, the gold medalist in the 2004 Athens Olympics.
“I’ve been working with Lee for the past three years,” Kim said. “He is my mentor.”
An’s coach is Song Dae-nam, a gold medalist in the 2012 London Olympics. Under Song’s guidance, An went on to win gold at the Summer Universiade last year in Gwangju, finishing all the games with ippon.
However, in the Worlds, An finished third after losing to Japanese rival Shohei Ono by ippoin in the semifinals. Among An’s five defeats in the international stage, three were against Ono.
“I have yet to beat Ono, but I’m confident that I can beat him in the Olympics,” An said.
The pressure is even more intense for Kim. No Korean female judoka since Cho Min-sun at the 1996 Summer Games has won the gold medal at the Olympics.
Kim knows her road to the top will not be easy, which is why she is working nine hours a day on the mat. Her lips are covered with bruises from trips and falls, and even head coach Seo is concerned about the injuries from her rigorous training. But Kim said that doesn’t bother her.
“I’m not afraid of getting injured,” she said. “I don’t want to have any regrets after the Olympics are over. Although it is physically challenging, I’m confident about winning the gold medal.”
Injury is no big concern for An, either. His left ear is already a “cauliflower ear,” swollen from years of falling on the mat.
For An, the Olympics will be an opportunity for him to show his true identity.
“Many people pay attention to me because I’m a Japanese-born Korean, but my blood has always been truly Korean,” he said. “I already achieved my dream by wearing the Korean national team uniform. Now, I will get rid of the pressure and show my skills freely at the Summer Games.”
BY KIM WON, JOO KYUNG-DON [firstname.lastname@example.org]