Young Korean athletes come of age at Games

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Young Korean athletes come of age at Games


From left: Swimmer Kim Seo-yeong, fencer Oh Sang-uk, artistic gymnasts Yeo Seo-jeong and Kim Han-sol, baseball player Lee Jung-hoo and football player Lee Seung-woo. [YONHAP]

Korea may have failed to achieve its goal of finishing second in the medal standing at the 2018 Asian Games, but the generation of young athletes that did make it onto the podium suggest a bright future at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

For many young athletes, the Asian Games is a sort of proving ground in preparation for the Olympics, held two years later. Athletes get a chance to establish themselves on the international stage, train against seasoned opposition and find out exactly how they handle the pressures of representing Korea at a multisport event.

Some of Korea’s best athletes took their first step toward greatness at the Asian Games. Swimmer Park Tae-hwan made his name known through the Asian Games. At his first Asiad in 2006, Park won four titles, two years later, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Park continued his success by taking silver in the 200-meter freestyle and gold in the 400-meter freestyle, a huge result for a country that isn’t typically that strong in the water.

More recently, three gold medalists at the 2016 Rio Olympics - fencer Park Sang-young, archer Chang Hye-jin and taekwondo practitioner Kim So-hui - also won gold at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games.

Just like in previous years, the next generation of Korean Olympians burst onto the scene at the Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang.

Yeo Seo-jeong was the first surprise at the Asian Games, winning gold in women’s vault. Until last week, Yeo was better known as legendary gymnast Yeo Hong-chul’s youngest daughter. Yeo - Korea’s greatest male vaulter and a silver medalist at the 1996 Olympics - also flourished at the Asiad, winning two gold medals at the 1994 and 1998 Games.

At just 16 years old, Yeo Seo-jeong quickly became a serious contender in Korean gymnastics. Although she only made her senior debut in June, Yeo won gold at her first Asian Games.

“Seo-jeong is only standing at the starting line,” Yeo Hong-chul said. “She needs to keep on going until the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and until the next Asian Games, four years from now.”

It wasn’t just in women’s artistic gymnastics that Korea excelled. In the men’s events, Kim Han-sol successfully won gold in the men’s floor exercise and silver in men’s vault.

“I’ve seen Kim Han-sol since he was little, and he has shown great talent in vault and floor exercise,” Yeo Hong-chul said. “He is 24 years old [in Korean age] this year, and that’s when [gymnasts are] at their best. I also won Asian Games gold medal when I was 24 years old in 1994. He’ll be able to continue his career for the next seven to eight years. He has infinite potential.”

Although Kim had a close-to-perfect performance in men’s vault, he lost 0.3 points in his final score because he celebrated before greeting the judges. Due to this, Kim won silver by finishing 0.062 points behind Shek Wai Hong of Hong Kong.

“I had a big disappointment, but I’ll learn from this and get better results at the World Championship and at the Olympics,” Kim said after the competition.

In swimming, Korea finished with one gold from Kim Seo-yeong’s victory in women’s 200-meter individual medley. Kim finished her race with a time of two minutes and 8.34 seconds, setting a new Asian Games record.

Kim’s time was also good enough to set a new Korean record, beating her own existing time. As Kim has been slowly improving her record, Team Korea is hopeful that she will become the first female Korean swimmer to win gold at the Olympics.

While Yeo Hong-chul got to celebrate his daughter’s gold in women’s vault, becoming the first father-daughter pair win Asian Games gold, Korean baseball also saw its first father-son gold medalist duo, Lee Jong-beom and Lee Jung-hoo.

The Lee’s achievement was particularly remarkable as Lee Jong-beom can claim some credit for his son Lee Jung-hoo’s medal - the elder Lee was one of the national team’s coaches for the Asiad.

Through the Asian Games, the Korean baseball team found its leadoff for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The younger Lee competed in all six games at the Asiad as leadoff and finished with a 0.417 batting average with 10 hits.

Aside from Lee, the baseball team in general lowered the average age of its players to 27.1 years old.

In football, the young U-23 Korean squad set high expectations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Under captain Son Heung-min, Korea won gold at the Games and Lee Seung-woo left a strong impression, scoring four goals. Since Lee will be 22 years old in 2022, he is likely to be added to the U-23 roster at the Olympics and will lead the team’s offense once again.

While winning gold is a huge honor for all athletes, it brings another bonus for Korea’s male competitors - a military exemption. As many of Korea’s rising male athletes have earned an exemption through the Games, they have set high expectations for the 2020 Olympics as they will not have to take a break from their careers.

The Korean fencing team also found its rising star at the Asian Games, Oh Sang-uk. Although Oh failed to win gold in men’s sabre after losing to his teammate Gu Bon-gil, he successfully won gold in the team event, earning a military exemption.

Oh, who stands at 1.92 meters (six feet three inches), is already a familiar name in the world of fencing, where he is currently ranked fifth in the world ranking. In 2017, he successfully won gold in the individual event at the World Cup in Hungary and a Grand Prix event in Mexico. Oh was named the Korean Fencing Federation’s player of the year for 2017.

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