After Rio, volleyball hero adjusts to normal life

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After Rio, volleyball hero adjusts to normal life

At this year’s Rio Olympics, Korea’s effort to take home its first volleyball medal in four decades was cut short. But the effort put forth by Kim Yeon-koung, the team’s captain and the highest-paid volleyball player in the world, as well as the rest of the women’s volleyball team, was more than enough to earn a hero’s welcome. Now back in Korea for time being before departing to Turkey, where she plays for Fenerbahce, Kim spent some time meeting the upcoming volleyball talents who hope to succeed Kim one day in the near future.

As soon as she entered the gymnasium of Suwon Computer Science Girls High School, her alma mater, the student players inside the gym went wild. Kim simply smiled and waved. Rather a distant response to such an enthusiastic welcome, but young players seemed to love that about Kim, who cheered for her even louder. She oversaw their practice session for the day on Aug. 28. Her message to the future of Korean volleyball was simple and straightforward: anything is possible. Kim sat down with the JoongAng Ilbo afterwards to discuss the Olympics, volleyball and her life.

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“I have mixed feelings about the Olympics,” said Kim. “I felt relieved and regretful at the same time. But after a while, I felt more of the former than latter. But every time I watch the Games, disappointment comes back. I watched the final match and the bronze medal match on television. The final [gold medal] match between China and Serbia was unexpected and this got me thinking about the London Games. I realized how tough it is to advance to the final four at the Olympics. We should have taken a medal from London.”

After the team was knocked out of the tournament, Park Jeong-ah came under fire for making numerous errors against the Netherlands during the quarterfinals match. One could hardly welcome all the criticism and negative comments that came Park’s way. But Kim begged to differ and said any type of attention should be a welcome sign for young players. “Everyone knows who Jeong-ah is now,” Kim said. “Park’s position [wing spiker] is not an easy position to play. The same went for Han Song-yi once in the past but she ended up leading the team in the 2014 Asian Games to win gold. Park is essentially going through the same thing. She can endure this.”

But it wasn’t just Park that attracted media attention. During the first match against Japan, which Korea won by 3-1, Kim was caught by the camera yelling expletives in Korean after she made mistakes. “My mom told me later not to swear,” said Kim, smiling. “I got really self-conscious and started to look where the cameras are.”

She added, “What pleased me about the Olympics was that we received so much attention before as well as after the Games. Something we did not have before.”

As was insinuated by Kim’s comment, women’s volleyball in Korea previously lacked any proper attention or support, despite the fact that it has one of the best teams in the world. Indeed, after the Olympics, Korea is now ranked 10th according to the International Volleyball Federation.

After the Games, this inadequate support garnered some attention. Subsequently, the poor treatment that the team received by the Korea Volleyball Association (KVA) was unearthed, eventually provoking public outrage. It was discovered that the KVA did not send any staff to Brazil other than manager, coach and analyst. Without an interpreter, it was the team’s captain Kim, with an extended career of playing overseas, who had to translate for them. “I wish I could have focused more on the games,” Kim said after the loss against the Dutch team, showing her disappointment about the lack of support. Public anger culminated when an old photo of the women’s volleyball team celebrating their win from the 2014 Incheon Asian Games showed them eating kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew), a rather modest dish for a team that had just made history by claiming gold at a renowned international event.

“We had a get-together this time after we came home,” said Kim. “Seo Byung-moon, the newly appointed President of the KVA, promised us that things will be different. We discussed what needs to be improved. He was quite dumbfounded by our requests because what we asked for were basics of the basics.”

She added, “We mentioned the matter regarding the team’s participation in competitions. We are in the top category, unlike the men’s team, which receives much more investment and support than us. But still, we rarely participate in international competitions. We also don’t have proper uniforms, tracksuits and equipment. Head coach Lee Jung-chul backed us up. Without proper investment and support, we will end up with similar or worse results at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Things have to change.”

When asked about her plan after retirement, Kim did not hesitate to answer. “I want to coach,” she said. “Coaching a team is a privilege and I would like to teach my know-how and share the experience I accumulated over the years while playing in domestic and overseas leagues.”

But off the court, Kim is just like other women her age. She is a fan of movie actors such as Jo In-sung, whom she actually got to meet after the Rio Games. “I had lunch with him on Aug. 26,” she said, with a big grin on her face. “He knew I was his fan.”

BY YU BYEONG-MIN, KIM HYO-KYUNG [choi.hyungjo@joongang.co.kr]
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