[CURVEBALL INTERVIEW] Kang Chae-young shoots her way to the top of the world
Korea has long dominated the world of archery, with a combined 23 Olympic gold medals putting it on top of the world by quite some distance. Despite that continued success, 24-year-old Kang Chae-young is the only Korean currently ranked No. 1 in an individual event, women's recurve.
There are two different events in modern competitive archery, recurve and compound, and both are competed in individually and as teams. In terms of the team events, Korea tops the tables in men's, women's and mixed recurve and men's compound, and sits in the top five for women's and mixed compound. But in terms of individual events, Kang is the only Korean at the top of her sport.
Looking at the all-time medal table in archery at the Summer Olympics, Korea has won a total of 23 gold, nine silver and seven bronze, dominantly ranked at the top. In terms of the number of gold medals, Korea is well ahead of the second-ranked United States, who only has 14. At the 2016 Games, Korea won every gold medal available.
But over the four years since the last Olympics, the team has gone through a generation change. Neither of the two individual gold medalists from the Rio Games — Ku Bon-chan in the men's individual and Chang Hye-jin in the women's individual — are competitively ranked anymore. A new generation, led by Kang, is now battling their way back to the top of the sport.
Despite Korea's dominance in the sport, exactly how people get into archery remains a bit of a mystery. There are some cafes around where people can fire off a few arrows for fun with friends, but how you go about starting the sport competitively is a completely different story.
For Kang, it started with a bit of luck. She had never heard of archery until she was in the second grade, when she moved to a new elementary school.
“That school had an archery team,” Kang says. “After I found out about archery, I just thought it was cool.”
It wasn't long before Kang got an opportunity to try it out.
“When I was in the third grade, our gym teacher asked us to raise our hands if we were interested in trying archery,” Kang says. “So I raised my hand and started. I guess I started without any thoughts or hesitation.”
Kang quickly found out that archery isn't all fun and games. As learning the basic posture is one of the most important things for young archers to learn, Kang says she spent months practicing her stance and drawing the bow — without ever actually firing an arrow. The boredom drove her to the edge of quitting multiple times, but her father persuaded her to see it through.
“When I asked my dad if I can learn archery, he told me that I can only do it if I’m going to pursue this as my career,” Kang says. “He said that if I’m going to quit midway through, then I shouldn’t do it. That’s how I kept on playing.”
While her father pushed her to play competitively, Kang says that her mom gave her some freedom and just told her to try it out if she wants to.
Kang chose to compete in recurve rather than compound because in elementary archery teams, recurve is more common. At her school, they only had a recurve team.
“Looking at the elementary schools now, most of them only have recurve teams,” Kang says. “At that time, I didn’t even know about compound.”
Kang says that the very first time she found out about compound archery was in high school, when she got to compete at the Asian Games. Until then, since she only trained at school, she thought recurve was the only type of archery.
Pulled back in
Throughout Kang's childhood she often thought about quitting, but even when she took a break from the sport, her parents persuaded her to pick up her bow again. Her return to archery was more due to parental pressure than a love of the game.
“Rather than thinking about archery, to be honest with you, I think it was my parents,” Kang says. “By that time, when I told my mom that I didn’t want to play archery anymore, she also told me to keep on doing it. And my teacher at the time kept on telling me to continue.”
It's not surprising Kang sometimes thought about quitting. Archery may seem easy, but according to Yang Chang-hoon, the head coach of the Hyundai Mobis Archery Team, it requires a lot of strength training as athletes are expected to be able to compete for a week or more at some tournaments.
As they compete in the morning and in the afternoon, archers need to have the energy to stand still, keep their posture and fire arrows consistently from the very first shot of the day to the late afternoon.
Gradually, Kang got over the incessant urge to quit and discovered the fun of archery, which is the thrill that she gets when she hits the bullseye.
Kang first joined the national team while she was attending Kyung Hee University, quickly making her name in international events.
Like any competitive sport where Korea excels, earning a spot on the Korean archery team is not easy — in fact, some say its harder than winning medals at international events. According to Hyundai Mobis Archery Team coach Shin Woo-chul, the field starts with 120 archers.
“The very first thing is to pick out 120 archers from around the country,” Shin says. “When archers compete in middle school, high school, college and amateur national championships, there’s a minimum score that they need to be considered as one of the 120 archers. That’s how the preliminary qualifier starts.”
After the preliminary round, the top 64 archers head to the first round, competing for three to four days to whittle down the field to 32. Once that’s done, the 32 archers head back home, train and come back for a second round, where they once again compete for about four days and cut it down to 16.
“As they continue the rounds, it’ll come down to the final eight archers,” Shin says. “Those eight are the national team for that year. But within the eight archers, they would go through another round for a week or so to select the three archers that compete at the Olympics. Rather than a qualifier, this is more like a warm-up match.”
For Kang, the real challenge after she joined the national team was making that cut for the Olympics. This year, Kang managed to secure her spot with her consistency. Although there are times when she worries about the rankings, as one mistake can lead her to fall out of the top three, Kang says that she really tries not to think about it.
“There are times when I think about it,” Kang says. “But when I think about the result while I’m competing, I can’t focus on the present situation. So I try not to. Once I start thinking ‘I guess I’ll finish in this place by the end of today,’ then I completely ruin my concentration.”
Kang competes in all three recurve events — individual, team and mixed — and of the three, she says her favorite is the team event. For the mixed event, the top male and female finisher in the national team evaluation get to compete.
“It’s something that we all have to work together at as a team,” Kang says. “Of the three, I feel more confident in the team event. I would say they all feel similar, but in the team event, the three archers get their minds together to perform as one. So when we play well, it’s really fun.”
Missing the cut
Kang may be on top of the world now, but her career hasn't always been plain sailing. She says that her slump came after the 2016 Rio Olympics, when she failed to earn one of the three Olympic spots.
“After the evaluation matches were done, I completely lost confidence,” Kang says. “But since I had to compete as an archer, I competed at the Summer Universiade.”
The Summer Universiade is an international multi-sports event that is organized for university athletes by the International University Sports Federation. When she competed at the 2017 Universiade, which was the event right after the Rio Olympics, Kang says that she still wasn’t able to regain her confidence.
But it was her coach that helped her bounce back.
“Since I had expectations for myself, I was feeling pressure,” Kang says. “I thought that I had to play well because I lost a spot at the Olympics by finishing fourth. So I told my coach at that time that I felt very overwhelmed, insecure and that I was having a hard time mentally. Then, the coach told me to not think about anything and shoot however I want — and by doing so, I did well. After that, I got to play better.”
Listening to her coach, Kang managed to win gold in the individual and team events at the 2017 Summer Universiade. She went on to help Team Korea pick up gold in both the team and mixed events at the 2017 World Championships. Kang also won gold at the 2018 Asian Games in the team event, while picking up a bronze in the individual event.
With a growing list of gold medals to her name, Kang finally reached the top spot.
“When I look back, I think my slump was motivation for me to be better,” Kang says.
Top of her game
Having reached the No. 1 spot in women’s recurve individual on May 13, 2019, Kang never looked back. But maintaining that position has come with its own pressures and stresses.
“[When I first became No. 1] it felt really good,” Kang says. “But right after it, since I knew that it’s harder to maintain the No. 1 spot, I think I felt the pressure. I think pressure comes even without me noticing it. When I think about that, I feel like maybe the players trying to reach the top spot feel a little less pressure.”
When it comes to relieving pressure or stress, Kang works out.
“I do some personal training so I don’t think about it,” Kang says. “To prepare for myself to overcome the pressure, I work out and train, and that helps me relieve stress.”
As archery requires athletes to put a huge amount of concentration into each of their shots, Kang says that there are a lot of thoughts going through her head.
“Since I get more and more thoughts going through my head,” Kang says, “to minimize that, I try to think more about my posture and my routine. And if I do have a mantra, I keep telling myself that I can do it with each and every shot.”
In terms of her pregame routine and superstitions, Kang says that she doesn’t have one because she'd be too nervous about not doing it properly and causing herself to play badly.
The only routine she has before she competes is telling herself “she can do it.” Aside from that, Kang has her motto, which is, “If I keep telling myself that I can do it, then one day, I’ll do it.”
“Even right before when I go into compete, if I have too many thoughts, then I won’t be able to focus on my posture,” Kang says. “So I only think about my posture, routine for the posture and tell myself to shoot with confidence.”
Although archery doesn’t specifically require archers to be big, strength does help a little bit, just like in any other sport. Standing at 1.69 meters (5 feet, 6.5 inches) and weighing 64 kilograms (141 pounds), Kang says her strength is positivity. Well, that and being able to heft arrows that are heavier than most other female archers use.
“Since the arrow I use is stronger than other female archers,” Kang says, “my arrow gets less affected by the wind when I shoot. To maintain my strength to use that arrow, I do a lot of weight training.”
Kang has competed in countless tournaments throughout her career, but she still gets nervous. But thanks to her experience competing in a lot of international tournaments, Kang says she gets less nervous at domestic events.
“Rather than a specific point in the game, I think it’s more like I get more nervous in the actual tournament than the preliminary round,” Kang says. “In international events, the preliminary round doesn’t matter. It all comes down to the actual event, in individual, mixed and team events. So when I compete in the preliminary round in Korea, I don’t get nervous. When I get into the actual rounds for the mixed, individual and team events, that’s when I get nervous.”
Kang may have reached the top spot in the world, but she says she'd only give herself a score of five out of 10.
“Well, I competed well in the majority of the World Cup events but in the main events, I still haven’t won an individual gold,” Kang says. “So I would say that’s a big one. But the biggest one of all is that I still haven’t competed at the Olympics. Although I competed at the Asian Games and the World Championships, if you haven't competed at the Olympics, I don't think you're any better than all the other archers.”
Unsurprisingly, the Olympics is always on Kang's mind.
“My short-term goal is to earn a spot at the Olympics and win all three golds [individual, mixed and the team event],” Kang says. “My long-term goal would be to compete for Korea even after I turn 30. But a bigger long-term goal would be to achieve a grand slam.”
BY KANG YOO-RIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]