[CURVEBALL INTERVIEW] He came to Korea for the rugby, waits for Olympics
Over the next few weeks, the Korea JoongAng Daily will meet with athletes from across the sporting world to discuss how they got their starts and earned their fame as well as their lives on and off the field.
This week’s interview is with Andre Jin Coquillard, member of the Korean national rugby sevens team.
Rugby may not be well-known in Korea, where American Football tends to be the better-known, full-contact ball game, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t Korean rugby teams competing on the international stage. For naturalized athlete Kim Jin, also known as Andre Jin Coquillard, the Korean rugby sevens team is a chance to not only play, but also to rediscover his roots.
Last year, the Korean men’s rugby sevens team earned a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics by defeating Hong Kong. It was the first time for Korean rugby to make it to the Olympics, but the news got little attention.
It makes sense for Korean fans to be unaware of rugby sevens at the Olympics. The sport was removed after the 1924 Games in Paris and was absent for 92 years. The 2016 Rio Olympics was its comeback, and the Tokyo Games will be its second edition.
Rugby sevens is one of three forms of rugby, along with rugby union - as seen in the Rugby World Cup - and the less-common rugby league. Sevens is a scaled-down form of rugby union and is played on the same size field, but with much faster play.
Rugby sevens has teams of seven players playing in seven-minute halves, rather than 15 players playing 40-minute halves. After the first half, the teams are given a one-minute break before heading straight back onto the field. Tries, conversions and penalties are scored in the same way as rugby union, and, like every other form of the game, sevens is a full-contact sport.
But the sport’s triumphant return to the Olympics is now threatened by the coronavirus pandemic. It was announced that the Tokyo Games will be postponed and be held in 2021, starting from July 23 to Aug. 8.
As Korea’s team was training for this summer, the postponement could be a huge blow to Kim and the rest of the sevens team. Kim is trying to be positive and focusing on the fact that the team has more time to prepare. Among the countries that have qualified, Korea is the lowest-ranked team at 17th.
“As athletes we live and die by our schedule and routine, so obviously there was uncertainty and disappointment when we first heard of the decision to delay the Olympics,” Kim said. “However, this could be a blessing in disguise for our team. We are the lowest-ranked and least experienced rugby team to qualify for the Olympics. This postponement gives us an extra year to prepare for the biggest tournament of our lives.”
Having left the Jincheon National Training Center on Thursday March 26, Kim and the national team athletes are getting a break. The training center is closed for the next three to five weeks because the Olympics were postponed. But training has to begin eventually - although they’re not sure where.
Settling to rugby
Born to an American father and Korean mother, Kim lived in Korea when he was little and moved around different countries in Asia due to his father’s business. Football has always been a passion, especially since he was living in Korea during the 2002 FIFA World Cup co-hosted in Korea and Japan.
“My first love is football, and my first dream of becoming a professional athlete was being the first naturalized Korean football player to represent Korea. But that didn’t pan out.” Kim told the Korea JoongAng Daily in an interview.
Rugby wasn’t of interest to Kim until he went to a boarding school in Vancouver, Canada. When he arrived at the school, he was given two options in terms of sports he could play: rugby or rowing.
“It was a very British-style school,” Kim recalls. “And it was either rowing or rugby.”
Rowing required waking up at 5 a.m., wearing one-piece spandex uniforms and being in ice-cold water in Canada. “I tried rowing once, and it wasn’t for me.”
Rugby was similar to basketball and football, both of which he enjoyed.
“The best part was you get to hit people,” Kim says. “Not that I’m an aggressive person. But that was an added element that I’ve never had before. So yeah, it became my sport from the first year of high school.”
Unlike in Korea, students in the West are encouraged to play multiple sports. The 1.95-meter-tall (6-foot-5) Kim could continue playing football and basketball, along with rugby.
He ended up focusing on rugby, as his school’s rugby team was stronger than its basketball or football teams.
“There was a little bit of a tug of war between the coaches and over my future,” Kim recalls. “So even though football was my first love, we weren’t very good, our high school.
“I was actually never the captain of the rugby team at school but captain of the basketball team,” he says, “which people find interesting here.”
Despite not being the captain of the rugby team, it was rugby that allowed him the opportunity to be a student-athlete at the University of California, Berkeley. He started living in the United States for the first time, even though he had a U.S. passport.
Unlike other student athletes, Kim didn’t have to decide whether to pursue a career as a professional rugby player. When he was approaching graduation in 2014, there weren’t any professional rugby teams. In Kim’s last year at university, he played for a semi-professional rugby club called the San Francisco Golden Gate. But after graduation, he knew he wouldn’t be able to balance 9-to-5 work with training two to three times a week.
“I played rugby because it started as a hobby,” Kim said. “I’m a big believer that if you’re going to do something, you should put 100 percent effort into it. So at that point, I knew I couldn’t balance work and rugby, because I couldn’t be the best rugby player and I couldn’t be the best businessman. I can’t multitask. So that’s when I gave up rugby.”
Following graduation, Kim headed to Shanghai to pursue a career in sports marketing.
“It’s event management,” Kim said. “I love sports, and the business of sports is fun and entertaining, We handled Formula 1, tennis’s Rolex Masters, part of the ATP Tour, Diamond League, Global Champions Tour, which is like horse show jumping. So we were just running those events for the city of Shanghai.”
In Shanghai, Kim continued to play rugby as a hobby. He found a club rugby team and played on weekends.
“I still loved the sport and was still young so the first thing I did actually when I got to Shanghai, even before I got to my job, was to go to Shanghai rugby club training,” Kim said. “The great thing about rugby is wherever you go in the world, there’s a rugby club, and you instantly have about 40 to 50 new friends. So they took me in, and I could continue playing rugby. But it wasn’t elite or varsity anymore. It was more like training once or twice a week.”
Back to rugby
A shot at returning to serious rugby came when Kim’s club team went on a tour to Hong Kong. Although Kim was no longer playing seriously, his skills caught the attention of coaches and associates of the Hong Kong team.
“Rugby’s more popular in Hong Kong,” Kim said. “And they were like, ‘Wow, you’re young, you’re a decent player. What about moving to Hong Kong? We could help you find a job and maybe, after a while living in Hong Kong, you can qualify to play for the Hong Kong national team.’”
Those Hong Kongers may be regretting their generous offer now.
“I’m Korean,” Kim says, “and I found out that Hong Kong’s biggest rival in Asia was Korea, rugby wise, skill level wise. So that actually lit a fire inside me, and I actually got in contact with the Korean Rugby Union. Up until then, I didn’t know that rugby existed in Korea.”
Kim earned his Korean citizenship through special naturalization in 2017, and since then, he’s been traveling on a Korean passport.
It may have been perfect timing. Just as he quit his job in Shanghai and started playing in Korea, a professional league in the United States called Major League Rugby was established in 2018. This led Kim to head back to the United States, where he joined the league by playing a season for the Seattle Seawolves. The Wolves were inaugural champions, and although Kim was given an offer to extend his contract, in the end, Kim chose to focus on Korea.
“What I found out more important to me was the Korean national team, and it was hard to go back and forth,” Kim said. “So I just didn’t re-sign there and committed to Korean rugby at the end of 2018.”
Kim may be the first-ever naturalized Korean rugby sevens player, but he may be following in his mother’s footsteps: to be a career pioneer. Kim’s mother was a famous Korean model named Kim Dong-su, who is currently a professor in modeling at Dongduk Women’s University. Kim’s mother was the first Korean model to walk the catwalks of Milan and Paris and played a significant role in expanding Korea’s modeling culture.
“She was kind of an outsider as well,” Kim says. “She went overseas and came back. Similar to me. Born here, looked different, went overseas and came back. What she did 34 years ago in modeling is something I want to do with rugby: to help the growth of rugby, just like she helped the growth of modeling. She is probably my biggest inspiration, and she’s my ‘momager,’ so to speak. She’s my Kris Jenner.”
For the Korean rugby sevens teams, as well as other rugby sevens teams around the world, the postponement of the Olympics will give them no choice but to come up with an entirely new plan. With the new date finally announced on Monday, the Korean team has already come up with an entire program for a yearlong postponement.
“As a vice captain I have been in a few meetings with our coaching staff and senior leadership group to discuss the next steps we must take,” Kim says. “We have already had to adjust our schedule multiple times this year because of administration decisions and the initial outbreak of Covid-19. Adaptability is essential in sports, and while we have had to throw the entire blueprint to prepare for Tokyo 2020 out the window, we are confident we will have a better plan in place for Tokyo 2021.”
Currently, Kim and the team have left the Jincheon National Training Center for a short break. They’re having a hard time finding a place to train. The Jincheon National Training Center was considered the safest place health wise: Athletes weren’t allowed to leave the facility and had to get tested for the virus, before they were allowed back in.
“The uncertainty of the future is daunting,” Kim says. “Even with the Olympics now delayed a year I would love to continue to be in a high-performance training environment where I can improve as an athlete. Playing rugby is not only my job but also my hobby. Rugby will now be taken away from me for at least three weeks, which could be longer if the Covid-19 situation does not improve in our country. Also the training center is about the safest place in Korea right now so I am a little bit afraid of potential exposure when I get back to Seoul.”
At the Olympics
As the very first Korean team in history to compete at the Olympics, the team is not determined to win medals but has set a goal of reaching the quarterfinals.
At the Olympics, a total of 12 teams compete in men’s rugby sevens and eight teams advance to the quarterfinals. They are divided into three groups of four. While the top two teams are guaranteed a spot in the quarterfinals, two of the best third-place teams are also given spots to the next stage.
“Rugby is such a fickle game,” Kim said. “One mistake, and you can beat a top-ranked team. So for us, getting to the quarterfinals, that’s our goal. Once we’re there, then we’ll go one game at a time and hopefully - I mean hopefully - a medal.”
Kim’s just happy to compete on the world’s biggest sports stage.
“It’s quite a cliche,” Kim said. “I know it’s not a Hollywood movie. But for me, it’s just to go on the world stage - and the biggest stage in the world - and compete and earn people’s respect and hope they will say, ‘Wow, that guy gave everything he had and Korea really competed.’”
BY KANG YOO-RIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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