In table tennis, like father, like daughter
Now, he’s training his daughter to become the country’s next table tennis star.
In Korean sports, there have been plenty of father-son duos - Lee Jong-bum and his son Lee Jung-hoo of the Nexen Heroes; Hur Jae, head coach of the national basketball team, and his sons Hur Woong and Hur Hoon. But there has never been a father-daughter pair.
Yoo Ye-rin is only in fourth grade, but she is considered a hopeful in Korean table tennis, dominating the singles event in her age division. At the national elementary school championship in North Gyeongsang on April 10, she won the event with a backhand drive stroke that is normally achieved by sixth and seventh graders.
The championship is the oldest table tennis event for elementary school students in the country and has a long history of exposing new talent. Ryu Seung-min, who won gold at the 2004 Summer Olympics in men’s singles, and Kim Kyung-ah, a bronze medalist in women’s singles at the 2004 Games, were both discovered from the championship.
“I was nervous playing in the finals, but I’m happy that I won,” Yoo Ye-rin said after the match.
Her father was elated, too. “I was happier than when I won gold at the Olympics,” he said.
Once or twice a week, the Yoos train together by playing against each other. “It feels good when I successfully hit a backhand drive,” the daughter said. Her father quipped, “If I want to return her ball in 10 years, I need to stay healthy.”
Yoo Nam-kyu never intended for his daughter to become a competitive table tennis player. He was well aware of the tough training needed to get to the Olympics and didn’t want her to go through the same.
But from a young age, Yoo Ye-rin demonstrated a knack for athletics. In kindergarten, she skied, figure skated and ran in races. When she hit 5, Yoo Nam-kyu decided to start teaching her table tennis.
“I tied a table tennis ball to the ceiling of our house with an elastic band and told her to hit it with a tennis racket just for fun,” the father recalled. “But as soon as she got on the step, she was hitting the ball with her own rhythm. That’s when I realized maybe I could teach her table tennis.”
After a long discussion with his wife, Yoo Nam-kyu enrolled their daughter in a competitive table tennis program at an elementary school in February 2015, when Yoo Ye-rin was 6.
“I was going to let her compete for three years, and if she didn’t play well, I was going to make her quit,” Yoo Nam-kyu recalled.
It didn’t take long for Yoo Ye-rin to defy her father’s expectations.
At a national competition in March 2016, she finished runner-up in the first-to-second-grade division and won the singles event at the Kyobo Dream Cup in July 2017.
“It is very tiring for a first and second grader to train for an hour,” Yoo Nam-kyu said. “But Ye-rin seems fine even after two to three hours of training.”
Yoo Ye-rin is currently ranked first in her age division in Korea.
From watching videos of her father play during the 1980s and ’90s, Yoo Ye-rin is aware that he won a gold medal at the Olympics but doesn’t fully understand her father’s legacy in the sport. Rather, she jokes about the perm he had when he was younger.
Still, as a table tennis player, Yoo Ye-rin looks up to her father. “When we go to restaurants, there are people asking for his autograph,” she said. “It’s really cool sometimes.”
For Yoo Nam-kyu, the family ties bring a little concern. “Once she gets to middle school, she’ll get the label of ‘Yoo Nam-kyu’s daughter,’” he said. “To block out such comments, she needs to be stronger, but for now, I want her to enjoy table tennis. I always tell her that for now, it’s O.K. to not win.”
But Yoo Ye-rin has other ambitions. “I heard my dad won Olympic gold when he was 20 years old,” she said. “I’ll be 20 in 10 years, and just like my dad, I want to win a gold medal at the Olympics when I’m 20.”
BY KIM JI-HAN [firstname.lastname@example.org]
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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