Planning a way back to the top
At the Asiad, An found himself once again facing off against his longtime rival, Japan’s Shohei Ono. Not for the first time in his career, An walked away from the fight with a loss - he gave away half a point in extra time to lose the gold medal. Although it seemed like An had successfully counted Ono’s move, the judge gave a half-point to Ono as An’s elbow touched the mat. The Korean coaches appealed the decision but were rebuffed, leaving the world No. 7 with a silver medal.
“It was hard to take the decision, but I had to accept it,” An said. “I set a goal to defeat Ono, [but I lost again] so I’m disappointed.”
An, a third-generation Japanese-Korean, joined the Korean national judo team in 2014. Although he was scouted by the Japanese judo team, he declined the offer and joined Korea instead. Throughout his career, An has faced Ono on five separate occasions and has lost every fight. Two years ago at the Rio Olympics, An’s goal was to defeat Ono and win gold, but he was eliminated in the round of 16 and never got to face his rival. After the match, An apologized and returned to Korea.
“If I didn’t change my mindset from two years ago, I would have stopped training and just stayed in my room like it was the end of the world,” An said. “But it’s different now.”
Below are edited excerpts from an interview with An.
A. I changed the way I think. When I got eliminated in the earlier round at the Rio Olympics, I didn’t do anything for three months because, when I competed in international events before the Olympics, I always finished within the top three. So the Olympics was the first time I finished without a medal. It was a really big shock.
How did you get over the trauma of the Olympics?
I continued training, but it took me a year to get myself out of the “Olympic shock.” I regained my confidence by finishing third at the World Championship last year. [After finishing third,] I started to feel like I wasted too much time locking myself in the past although I couldn’t change anything about it.
How did you change your mindset?
From October last year, I took half a year off rehabilitating my ankle in Japan. I met a lot of my friends, and one of them told me that he writes down a plan whenever he wants to do something. I thought that’s what I need to do as well, because normally I tend to focus only on short-term goals. That way, I felt like a loss won’t ruin my mental game too much. From that point onward, I started making a monthly plan for the next three years, until the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Is everything working out as you planned?
Interestingly, yes. At the Paris Grand Slam 2018 in February, which was my return event after the injury, my goal was a podium finish, and I finished third. At the Antalya Grand Prix 2018 [in Turkey] in April, I finished second, and at the Hohhot Grand Prix 2018 [in China] in May, I won, just as planned.
What position did you plan to finish in at the Asian Games?
First place. So my plan didn’t work out. In the end, I think it’s all mental. Since I’ve found my way of taking care of my mental game, I’m not too disappointed.
Why did you cry at the podium?
Right after the match, I didn’t have many thoughts going through my head, and I was confused. But once I received the silver medal at the podium, I started thinking that I really did finish second and I had to accept this.
It’s hard for the athletes to take a loss. What did you do after the match?
I watched the clip of my match non-stop for the next two days. At the Olympics, I was very emotional [watching the clips]. This time, there was a controversy regarding the judge’s decision. I could have been emotional watching the clips again, but instead I focused on watching the technical parts of the match. Toward the end, I saw myself grabbing Ono’s waist. When I’m on defense, I normally don’t grab the opponent’s waist so I think there was a technical problem in my match. I’ll have to work on it.
How did you feel about the final result?
I don’t think I fell over, but I accept the decision. If I was Ono, I also would have appealed for a half-point. I may have lost the decision but I didn’t lose the match.
At this event, your aggressive play grabbed more attention than your strong mentality. Was that intentional?
I worked really hard preparing [for the Asian Games]. I didn’t want to hear comments like “he’s weak in big tournaments.” So I tried to be more aggressive. My technical skills changed compared to two years ago [at the Rio Olympics].
You’ve gotten a lot stronger physically. Did you make improvements?
I didn’t try too hard. In Korea, athletes train a lot, and this is important. But I believe that it’s more important to condition myself. Since Korean athletes are so used to overtraining, I felt bad for taking a break. But we all have our own training schedules, so I started to care less about how others thought of me and just train according to my schedule. I’m thankful for men’s team coach Keum Ho-yeon for trusting me.
How did you find a training schedule that suits you?
I read a lot of books, and I tested them to see if they really helped me. I studied my sleeping schedule a lot. I now sleep for seven and a half hours a day. I adopted this schedule after reading a book by Nick Littlehales, the leading elite sport sleep coach.
At the Asian Games, “Team An Chang-rim” received a lot of attention. What exactly was the team?
For the first time in Korean judo history, I brought my own personal trainers to an international event. My trainer treated me in Japan. In Japan, judokas like Ono have their own team of trainers. Thankfully, I was able to create my own team of trainers from the support of OK Savings Bank. I’m very thankful and want to respond to their support by playing better.
What’s your next goal?
My next goal is to become a world champion. I started judo to become the best judoka in the world. The Asian Games was important, but I really want to win the World Championship, which starts in about two weeks. I’m confident.
Your head-to-head record against Ono is at five losses. How do you feel about that?
I don’t care. At the 2012 London Olympics, Wang Ki-chun lost his semifinal match to Mansur Isaev of Russia, who he had never lost to until the Olympics. Isaev advanced to the final and ended up winning gold. But at the time, Ki-chun told me Isaev is the winner, although Ki-chun had a dominant head-to-head record against Isaev. I just need to win at the Olympics. So I really want Ono to compete at the Tokyo Olympics.
BY PIH JU-YOUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]