[CURVEBALL INTERVIEW] Despite delays, Park Sang-young still believes he can do it
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 épée fencer Park Sang-young.
Four years ago at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Park Sang-young made headlines with his dramatic come-from-behind performance that won him gold in the men’s épée singles. Even more memorable than the victory was the pep-talk he gave himself which was caught on camera. He reminded himself, “you can do it,” and touched the nation’s heart.
Interestingly, Park says that fencing didn’t seem that attractive when he first watched it.
“When I saw it, I didn’t think it was attractive,” Park says. “As a young kid, when I watched it, it was just funny poses and unusual movements. I didn’t even think it looked cool. But after I took part in a fencing match, it was really fun. And it was that experience that attracted me.”
Park says that another charm of the sport is being on both sides of the sword — stabbing or getting stabbed by the opponent.
“I think both of them have their own charm,” Park says. “When I get stabbed, I kind of get angry?”
It only took a month of fencing for Park to decide that he wanted to pursue a career in the sport.
However, it wasn’t easy to take on this goal. While many professional athletes credit their interest in their chosen sports to their parents, for Park it was the opposite. His parents were against the idea of their son pursuing a career in fencing as the sport was relatively unknown at the time.
“My parents were very against it because they didn’t understand why I was playing a sport that they had never seen,” Park says. “Since they were so against it, I once left the house. Because as a young kid, I was just playing for fun and they didn’t want to let me. So I got mad. To persuade them, I wrote lists of why I had to fence.”
While Korean sports fans know of fencing thanks to the Olympics, not many could name the three different categories — épée , foil and sabre.
“Épée is the event that I compete in, and this event allows you to stab all parts of the body,” Park explains. “In foil and sabre, there are common laws in offense and defense, but in épée , there aren’t any. It’s an event where you can just stab anywhere on the body without any common law.”
While épée is popular because it has the most freedom, the real reason why Park chose the event was because it was the only one being played at his school.
“It is the most basic form of sword fighting,” Park says. “[And] to be honest, at my school, there was only épée .”
The national team
Park has seen success fencing from the very beginning of his career. After earning his spot on the national youth team, Park won the junior world championship. This was the first moment people began thinking of him as a prodigy as he became the first Korean fencer to win gold in the event. Even now, Park says the victory remains the most memorable of his career.
“This is my most memorable moment,” Park says. “I saw my potential at that time.”
Park continued his stride at the Asian Championship, and at the 2014 Asian Games, he helped Korea win the team event.
When he first joined the senior national team, he was the youngest fencer. All the other members were at least more than 10 years older than him. Although he now considers them as his brothers, back at the time, Park says that he called them all teachers.
On the day he earned his spot on the senior national team, he says that he and his coach were so happy that the two went back to their home town and fenced in the afternoon, despite all the tiredness he felt from competing in the qualifier.
Success and slump
Despite an outstanding junior career, once he became a senior, Park wasn’t an exception when it came to seeing a slump. Looking through his performance, Park says that he’s the type of player who has a big curve of highs and lows.
“It goes back and forth,” Park says.
Behind his lows, Park has a long history of injuries that led him to undergo three surgeries. It first started with a knee surgery five years ago. As it was only a year before the 2016 Olympics, it wasn’t an easy decision for Park, but he felt he didn’t really have a choice as he tore his ACL as well as another ligament.
“It was a year before the Olympics, and at the time I was ranked fourth in the world,” Park says. “So I heard a lot of people saying that ‘he can be better if he competes at the Olympics.’” I needed to earn ranking points, and to do so I had a hard time mentally and psychologically.”
“By that time, I was just honored for the opportunity to compete at the Olympics because I wasn’t at a level to compete but I got there with my own will,” Park says. “Even if I play badly, I just told myself to enjoy it, and I considered the Olympics as a play. It ended up being really fun. Honestly, I didn’t feel too much pressure.”
Such mindset may be the reason why a miracle happened at the Rio Olympics. Park not only advanced all the way to the finals, but his victory was such a dramatic one that everyone still remembers Park by his famous phrase, “I can do it.”
Competing in the final against Gaza Imre of Hungary, Park was losing 10-14, where Imre only needed to earn one more point to win gold. However, Park was seen telling himself “you can do it,” and with the magic phrase, he won four straight points and then won the final point for a dramatic victory.
Park says that he was happier about the fact that he’d beaten a strong opponent, rather than winning a gold medal. The moment of excitement and joy he felt from winning gold came a little later. Still, Park says that he dreams about that moment.
“It felt really good when I won a gold medal,” Park says. “But [at the time,] I didn’t feel the weight of the Olympic gold medal. I just felt that a lot of people, more than usual, were congratulating me, so I was just happy. But as time went by, I started to feel the weight and the responsibility.”
Such weight and responsibility led Park to another slump after the Olympics and saw him have an early exit at the 2017 World Championship. Park says that tournament is the one he’d like to erase from his record.
“A tournament I don’t want to remember is probably the most annoying one of all — it’s the 2017 World Championships after the Olympics,” Park says. “If I won that, I would’ve accomplished a grand slam, so in all the interviews for a year I said my goal was a grand slam in August. I went into the tournament as the top-ranked fencer but lost to the 64th ranked fencer. That was probably the most embarrassing moment in my career.”
But this was only the beginning. Park also failed to earn a spot on the national team in 2017. He says this was the hardest and the most stressful time of his career. Due to this, Park had to compete in tournaments by himself, rather than with the national team. He considers this time as the biggest slump in his career.
“I was unstable psychologically, but now it’s starting to get better,” Park says. “I just had an operation on a hernia. Throughout my career, I underwent three surgeries, but that can go up to four or five at any time and I would just have to quit unexpectedly. So I just tell myself to have fun.”
In 2017, when Park failed to get a spot on the national team, he had to compete by himself because a year after it, there was the Asian Games. Since he needed ranking points to earn a spot, he traveled and competed at his own expense. Thankfully, the results were better than he expected.
“I played well during that time,” Park says. “I competed in three events and won twice. I was very lonely, so I think [traveling in a] group is better.”
Individual and team events
As the highs and lows continue, Park says he still struggles when it comes to dealing with stress.
“I still get stressed, but I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable,” Park says. “I’ve heard a lot of people telling me that fencing is not everything in my life. And when you look at it, winning and losing isn’t something I can control. I’m just doing what I can do, and if I win, it’s great.”
Park, who competes in both the individual and team events, still goes through highs and lows, but when asked about which event he likes better, he says that both are very different.
“But nowadays, I find the team event more fun. In terms of individual matches, I need to compete completely by myself, so I need to think more and there are a lot of things to expect,” Park says. “Like if I can do this, I can win or lose. But the more people there are, it gets harder to predict. Even if I’m not confident on a team, if the other two fencers are confident, then anything can happen. So I think that’s what makes the team event fun.
Four years have passed since Park’s dramatic win at the Olympics, and he has set his sights on defending his title at the Tokyo Olympics, which was supposed to be held this year. However, due to the coronavirus outbreak, Park now has another year to prepare.
Although it’s disappointing that he has to wait another year, Park says there are some benefits.
“Since I was playing well this season, I was a little disappointed,” Park says. “Because I was at my low and was en route to getting back to my high, it was disappointing. But at the same time, I started to feel some compulsion. Actually, I think it’s a good thing that it’s being held next year because I was feeling under some pressure. When I’m at my low, like at my worst, I can’t do anything about it. But in a situation like now, when I’m slowly improving, I started to think, maybe? Defending champion?”
Park appears to be getting back on the right track with the latest International Fencing Federation (FIE) rankings in épée placing him at 8th in the world. He says his other goal is to “help Korea earn a spot in the team event.”
“In terms of my personal goal this year, although the Olympic qualifier has not been completed, I’m in the safe zone,” Park says. “But in terms of team, we’ve won a dramatic gold medal, so we’re at an advantage [but not completely safe]. So our goal is to qualify for the [team event].”
Both his short-term and long-term goals relate to the Olympics.
“Defending my Olympic title because it’s being held next August,” Park says. “I really want to do that.”
BY KANG YOO-RIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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