Son prepares to leap into the history books

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Son prepares to leap into the history books

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The Olympics in Rio has only three days to go until the grand closing ceremony. With the end of the Rio Games on the horizon, rhythmic gymnast Son Yeon-jae will mark the finale of this year’s Games for Team Korea starting today, Korea time.

Son, who surprised the world by finishing fifth during the 2012 London Games, have been honing her skills these past four years, hoping to be the first Asian gymnast to medal in rhythmic gymnastics. Since the sport became an official medal event in the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, all the medals have gone to either Russian or Eastern European athletes.

And indeed, Son has been charting an upward trajectory, consistently topping her personal record this year, including most recently on July 10 at the 2016 Kazan World Cup, where she scored a total of 74.900 points.

But still, she has much to overcome before reaching that podium. Russia’s Margarita Mamun and Yana Kudryavtseva, currently tied at No. 1, are the most dominant rhythmic gymnasts in the world.

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Mamun, a 20-year-old gymnast out of Moscow, has 27 gold medals already from various different competitions including the World Championships, European Games and Summer Universiade. But Mamun is yet to grab any Olympic medal and hopes this Summer Games will be a first for her. Like Mamun, Kudryavtseva is also a Moscow native and at 18 years of age, she has 26 golds on her shelf. Since Kudryavtseva made her full senior debut in 2013, the two Russians have been at the top in every rhythmic gymnastics event they attended.

But the two Russians are not the main obstacles Son must overcome. Ganna Rizatdinova of Ukraine will be Son’s main opponent as they will realistically aim for bronze at this year’s Games.

Standing over 1.70 meters tall (five feet seven inches), the three gymnasts have the right physique for the sport. An athlete with long arms and legs as well as a slim waist will enjoy a natural advantage in the sport.

Unlike her European counterparts, Son was an unknown in the world of rhythmic gymnastics until recently. Standing at 1.65 meters, she is at a physical disadvantage, but what she lacks in stature she more than makes up for with tenacity.

Son started rhythmic gymnastics when she was only five in order to lose weight. She had a talent for the sport, it turned out, but her family was not affluent enough to support her. In Korea, where rhythmic gymnastics was unknown until recently, it was expensive to retain proper training and equipment. Son’s mother had to make Son’s costumes herself.

In stark contrast to this, athletes such as Kudryavtseva and Rizatdinova were born into settings that helped them become world class gymnasts.

Kudryavtseva’s father is Aleksey Kudryavtsev, an Olympian swimmer who claimed gold in the 4x200 meter freestyle at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. With the support of her father, Kudryavtseva started rhythmic gymnastics at the age of four and had all the support she needed in the world.

Rizatdinova of Ukraine was born to a mother who was a rhythmic gymnastics coach for Ukraine. Rizatdinova followed an elite course and was trained by the best of the best, including her mother.

These European gymnasts are stars in their respective countries. Kudryavtseva has about 190,000 people following her on her social network page. Mamun has as many as 150,000 followers, while Rizatdinova has about 77,000 and even appeared on the Ukrainian edition of Vogue magazine.

To overcome her handicap as an Asian gymnast, Son endured excruciating training sessions. She went to Russia at the age of 17 and trained alongside Russian gymnasts, who looked down on the only Asian among the bunch. Son, however, was not going to let them intimidate her. Instead, she immersed herself, practicing day and night from six in the morning until midnight. As the legendary baseball player Babe Ruth once said, “it’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.”

Son never gave up and now, she is ranked fifth in the world, above numerous Russian and Eastern European gymnasts who once disregarded her as a contender.

Son’s trademark move is the fouette pivot, during which she spins while standing on one foot as the other is extended out to increase her momentum. Until last year, Son kept her standing leg bent, but she has improved by straightening that leg. She now spins nine to ten times during her pivot, earning up to 2 points.

“The Olympics is a big stage and everyone has been working hard for this,” Son said, determined to make the best of what is likely to be her last Olympics. “I have also worked hard to get where I am, so I would like to leave here without any regrets.”

Son will kickoff her medal quest tonight at 10 p.m., Korea time, at the preliminaries. The individual all-around finals will take place two days later on the morning of Sunday, Korea time. She will have to finish 10th or better in the qualifying round to advance to the final round.

BY PARK SO-YOUNG, CHOI HYUNG-JO [choi.hyungjo@joongang.co.kr]

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