For Olympic athletes, scars are a different kind of medal

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For Olympic athletes, scars are a different kind of medal


From left: The “dumpling ear” of wrestler Kim Hyeon-woo; handball player Kim On-a’s knee after surgery; archer Kim Woo-jin’s callused hand and shooter Jin Jong-oh’s scarred shoulder. Olympians consider these scars badges of honor. [KANG JUNG-HYUN]

Athletes earn Olympic medals through blood, sweat and tears. This means many Olympians bear scars reminding them of the arduous journey to the podium and giving them motivation to keep pushing forward. Many athletes take pride in these scars, often considering them badges of honor.

Olympic Greco-Roman Wrestler Kim Hyeon-woo has a deformed left ear. The condition, known in Korea as “dumpling ear” and elsewhere as “cauliflower ear” after its swollen shape, is the result of hours of abrasion from the floor or opponents during practices and matches.

“This is like a medal for me,” said Kim when asked about his ear.

“I began wrestling when I was a seventh grader and my ear got deformed after only one year,” he said. “It was painful at first but the more chafed it was on the floor, the harder it became. I cannot wear earphones so I have to use headsets, which is somewhat uncomfortable. But I make myself a promise every time I look at my ear in the mirror that I will stand atop the podium in Rio.”

For archer Kim Woo-jin, the calluses and blisters on his right hand show the sheer amount of time he has spent practicing. An archer usually uses the index, middle and ring fingers to pull the bowstring, usually placing the most pressure on the index finger. As a result, an archer’s index finger is often noticeably twisted and callused.

“I was embarrassed to shake people’s hands because of the callus on my right finger,” said Kim. “But I am used to it now.”

“I put huge amounts of Vaseline on my right hand before I go to bed every night and wear several layers of gloves to soften the callus,” added Kim, proudly opening his right hand. “I sometimes use sandpaper to remove the callus”

Archer Ki Bo-bae also showed off her right hand, which was covered with blisters that she described as “scars of honor.”

Taekwondo athlete Kim So-hui cannot straighten her left thumb.

“I tried to block a kick by an opponent about five years ago during a match,” said Kim when asked about her finger. “It hurts even now but without this finger, I wouldn’t be on the national team today.”

Korean women’s national field hockey team captain Han Hye-lyoung has small but noticeable scar along her right eyelid.

“During an international match in New Zealand three years ago, I was struck by a hockey ball,” said Han about her scar. “It bled profusely. I had four stitches, but I never told anyone at home.”

Jin Jong-oh, who’s got three Olympics gold on his shelf, has a scar on his right shoulder from a surgery he needed in college to repair damage. For a shooter, who has to keep a gun raised and steady, it was a possibly career-ending injury. The surgery allowed Jin to continue competing, but left him with a five-centimeter-long (1.9-inch-long) pin stuck in his shoulder.

“I still have the pain so I cannot practice for an extended period of time without resting,” said Jin. “But I believe shooting is about concentration channeled on a single shot, rather than spread throughout 60-some shots. The injury enabled me to concentrate better on each of my shots.”

Women’s handball team player Kim On-a has had operations on each knee. Most recently, Kim tore the patellofemoral ligament on her right knee during a match against Spain in 2012 London Olympics, and the surgery to repair the damage involved placing a screw in her knee. The following year, that screw started to cause inflammation and necessitated another surgery. She now has one screw and two pins in her knees.

“The two surgeries and rehabilitations wore me out and I considered retirement repeatedly,” said Kim. “But I am proud of myself for enduring all that.”

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