[CURVEBALL INTERVIEW] Cho Gu-ham puts everything on the line for Korean judo
Cho Gu-ham may be destined to save the struggling Korean judo team.
He's certainly got the name for the job. In Chinese characters, Cho means "the country," while Gu-ham means "to save" in Korean. The judo element is Cho's own addition.
Despite being best known for taekwondo, Korea has long been a serious contender in the world of judo, competing with Japan for the top spot in the lower weight classes. When it comes to heavyweight judo, European judokas normally dominate.
Team Korea has always been able to rely on judo to provide at least one gold medal at the Olympics, but at the 2016 Rio Summer Games the squad failed to come through, picking up two silvers and a bronze but no gold. As a result, the team is desperate to come back stronger than ever at the Tokyo Olympics.
Rather than relying on the middleweight judokas, which has always been Korea's approach, Cho is hoping to breathe new life into the team from the half heavyweight category, where Korea hasn't picked up an Olympic medal since 2004.
Cho is currently the only Korean to top the International Judo Federation (IJF) World Ranking, in men's half heavyweight, for judokas weighing between 90 and 100 kilograms (198 to 220 pounds). Having been eliminated in the third round at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Cho is ready to redeem himself.
Standing at 1.78 meters (5 feet, 8 inches) tall, Cho is shorter than most judokas in his weight category. That hasn't stopped him reaching the very top of his game.
The right school
As a child, Cho wasn't that interested in sports. When he was in fourth grade of elementary school, his family moved house and Cho started at a new school. That school had a judo team.
“At the time, I didn't know what judo was,” Cho says. “Our school had a judo team, and I was comparatively bigger than others of my age, so our judo coach at the school persuaded my parents, and that's how I started.”
Cho's parents weren't keen on the idea. His father had been an athlete competing in ssireum, traditional Korean wrestling, and knew just how difficult it was to turn pro. It took a long time to convince him that was the best career path for Cho.
“I don’t really remember, but apparently I asked them if I could do it,” Cho says. “So my coach followed my father around for months to persuade him.”
After attending elementary school in Chuncheon, Gangwon, Cho went to middle and high school in Cheongju, North Chungcheong, a city famous for judo.
“The city is very famous for judo,” Cho says. “The school I graduated from is like an elite school for judo.”
Once he graduated from high school, Cho attended Yong In University and now is a part of a Suwon judo team as well as the national squad. To get to this point, Cho had to struggle a lot — he once made headlines for going on an extreme diet where he lost about 30 kilograms in five weeks.
In 2013, Cho moved from the heavyweight to the half heavyweight class, a process that involved losing about 30 kilograms to make it under the threshold for the lower weight category.
“After I made my debut on the senior stage, I really wanted to win gold,” Cho says. “But every time I went out to compete, I would get eliminated in the preliminary round, or if I played really well then I would win bronze or silver. I realized that winning gold was really difficult in heavyweight.”
As he felt that he was physically limited in the heavyweight category, Cho decided that he might have more of a competitive edge if he moved down a weight class.
“I felt like if I competed under the same conditions then I would be able to win gold,” Cho says. “So I made up my mind and decided to try and do something that no other judokas had tried at the time. I was really young and a little afraid because if this change in weight division ended up failing, I could've been in a situation where I had to quit judo completely.”
It was a tough decision for Cho as, at the time, he also represented Korea in the men's heavyweight division. A lot of people advised Cho not to try and change his weight division because he was young and competing well.
“But unlike them, at the time, I thought that I should challenge myself while I’m a year younger and can make something happen,” Cho says. “After I decided to change my weight division my goal was the 2014 Asian Games. But to compete at the Asian Games I had to win the qualifier and I only had five weeks to prepare.”
By the time he realized the qualifier was only five weeks away, Cho also realized that he had to drop 30 kilograms. Incredibly, Cho did manage to lose the weight with the help of his coach and a team of nutritionists and doctors.
“Thanks to them, I was able to lose all that weight,” Cho says.
Even after he lost the weight, some people still thought he was making a mistake. Rather than being discouraged by all the negatives, Cho felt more motivated to prove everyone wrong, working harder than ever to prove he could make it.
Cho went on to pick up a bronze medal in the half heavyweight division at the 2014 Asian Games.
Meat and potatoes
Maintaining a weight class means judokas spend a lot of time dieting and training.
“Just because you're losing weight doesn't mean that you get exempted from training,” Cho says. “When you lose weight you have to reduce the amount of food you eat and do more additional training, following the normal training. So those five weeks felt like five years for me.”
During his famous five-week diet, Cho says that it wasn't the food that made him go crazy. Instead he says that it was the pressure to lose weight that gave him such a hard time. Over those five weeks, Cho says that he didn't eat a single bowl of rice.
“In my room, I ordered a cooker online to cook potatoes,” Cho says, “When I'm out at the training center, I just eat meat.”
Although Cho says that there wasn't any specific food that he wanted to eat, the real challenge was when he came out of the national training center on the weekends.
“When you're at the national training center, you are completely blocked from the outside world,” Cho says. “You don’t have any temptations. But when I went outside there was a lot of street food, and when I went to the restaurant it was really difficult to overcome the temptations. So I would say another challenge was getting through the weekend.”
Just like boxing or taekwondo, judo is competed by weight division. In men's judo there are seven different weight divisions, and judokas can't be even a few grams outside of their target weight class.
Judokas get weighed a day before each competition.
“If you go over even by 500 grams, you can't compete the next day,” Cho says. “You get disqualified. For example, for me, I compete in the men's 100 kilograms. This means that I need to weigh more than 90 kilograms but have to be below 100 kilograms.”
Due to this, a few days before each tournament, judokas keep a close eye on their weight. That doesn't mean they have to stay at that weight at all times, but they do have to be able to get back within those limits whenever they're going to compete.
“If I keep my weight at 100 kilograms, there are some disadvantages,” Cho says. “I normally weigh about 105 kilograms, but I lose weight ahead of each tournament.”
A world of goliaths
Although Korea has had some success in the half heavyweight category in the past, its not traditionally an area where the team expects to medal. In that sense, competing in the category takes some of the pressure off Cho.
“If there were a lot of famous judokas [in this division], I would’ve had a lot more pressure,” Cho says. “By competing in this unfamiliar category I found my motivation from the fact that I am making history.”
By winning gold at the World Championships in 2018, Cho found another motivation to work harder — the dream of Olympic gold.
Becoming the world's best in his division has been an uphill struggle for Cho — quite literally, as nearly all of his competitors are at least six feet tall.
But this height disadvantage is, Cho says, what makes the sport fun. The thrill of throwing someone considerably bigger than him across the mat is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the sport.
“The biggest charm of judo is that there is never an absolute dominant judoka,” Cho says. “And the match can end within 0.5 seconds or less. I think the thrill that comes from that makes it fun.”
While this is the charm, at the same time, Cho says this is also his weakness.
“In judo if you're smaller you're at a disadvantage because once you get grabbed by the opponent, you lose. If you're small you can get grabbed easily because the bigger judoka has a longer reach.”
To overcome his weakness, Cho improved his speed and moves more than others to tire them out quickly, which he considers his strength.
“Since my strengths require a lot of training and conditioning, I am well aware they can disappear at any time as soon as I slack off,” Cho says. So I'm working hard not to lose my edge.”
Raw fish, then fight
Cho isn't one to go in for superstitions, but he has developed an especially unusual pre-match routine.
“I have to eat sashimi,” Cho says. “I know it can be really bad and you can have stomach problems, but weirdly, I lose matches when I don’t eat sashimi. That’s why it became my routine.”
Cho says that this routine started back when he won his first national championship. As he liked sashimi since he was little, that routine has continued until now. He says that there’s a belief in his head that if he eats sashimi a day before the tournament, he will win gold. In fact, even when he has competed in countries where raw fish is uncommon, Cho found a way.
“One time, there was an international event in Mongolia,” Cho says. “Since the country is not surrounded by the ocean they import sashimi once a week. Thankfully, the day before my tournament was the day the fish arrived. So I got to eat sashimi and compete the next day.”
Cho won the match and got to experience something that not many people do — eating raw fish in the middle of Mongolia. Even his teammates couldn't believe he managed to pull it off.
Cho's strange sashimi habit is the only thing he has time for. He says a mantra isn't an option as he doesn't have time to think about anything — a judo bout can end in just 0.5 seconds. Instead, the only inspiration Cho needs is his coaches shouting at him from the sidelines.
“When I seem tired they shout that I should focus,” Cho says.
Also, since the coaches can see the opponent's weakness from outside of the mat, when they seem tired they tell Cho the right time to pick up the offensive. He mostly listens to his coaches, but the only thought that he has when competing is that he can win, nothing else.
On top of the world
Cho is now the world No. 1 judoka in men's 100 kilograms, but aside from that, he says that just having a title after his name feels great.
“Earning a title feels really great,” Cho says. “After winning the 2018 World Championships, the title that I earned was world champion. When you become a world champion, in the next event when your name is announced, they add world champion in front of my name. So they introduce me as World Champion Cho Gu-ham.”
World No. 1 follows the same form, and Cho will now be announced as World No. 1 and former World Champion Cho Gu-ham, although since he earned the accolade during the coronavirus pandemic, Cho has yet to hear that particular entrance.
“I check the International Federation's website regularly, at least once a day,” Cho says. “Before the rankings changed in May, I was ranked second. So I've been asking myself when I can become the world number one. But one day, as the points got updated, I became the top ranked judoka in the world.”
At the time, as the former number one lost points while Cho’s remained the same, he was able to move up a spot to the top. The world ranking hasn’t changed since then. But as judo wasn't an exception from the coronavirus pandemic, Cho is another one of the players looking for new motivation.
“Due to Covid-19, the Olympics got delayed by a year,” Cho says. “Honestly, it's really hard to continue training because you need to have a goal. Even when I want to rest, I push myself by saying that I shouldn't because that's not how the world number one should act.”
Cho believes that to really become the top judoka, he has to win Olympic gold. That thought allows him not to slack off and instead, keep on pushing. He says the the ranking is just the start.
“If I retain the top spot even after I win gold at the Olympics, then that's when I'm going to tell everyone about my achievement,” Cho says.
While he has two international titles, Cho has another in Korea: a spot on the national team. That's one title he's still very proud of.
“I am always proud to be a member of the Korean national team,” Cho says. “I get emotional even by hearing the term ‘Korean national team.’ I think it's a great word and a great position to be in.”
Cho has a clear goal in his head as to what he has to do moving forward and who he wants to be.
“Since I've chosen to become a judoka,” Cho says, “my goal is to be remembered as a famous, good and cool judoka. I want to be an influential judoka. So later when I retire, I want to help other judokas, who have the potential but can’t play due to financial issues, to develop. To do so, I need to work harder and become more famous to do that.”
While Cho’s long-term goal is to help other judokas, first he wants to “compete as long as possible.”
“Originally my short-term goal was to compete at the Olympics and get good results,” Cho says. “But since it got delayed by a year, and if it is being held next year, then anything can happen. I could compete in an event before the Olympics or not do that at all and just compete at the Olympics. And that shouldn't happen, but if the Olympics does get canceled, my short-term goal right now is to maintain my physical condition so I can compete at my best in the event.”
BY KANG YOO-RIM [email@example.com]
More in Interview
[CURVEBALL INTERVIEW] Cho Gu-ham puts everything on the line for Korean judo
[CURVEBALL INTERVIEW] Kim Hyo-joo wants more golf and less thinking, please
[CURVEBALL INTERVIEW] Lee Dae-hoon: The 28-year-old with 27 gold medals
[CURVEBALL INTERVIEW] Oh Sang-uk finds he's perfect when he's imperfect
KBO secretary general says the league will never be the same again