Korean Athletes who inspired me at the Tokyo Olympics

Julia Lee, Writer

This year, the 2020 Olympics took place in Tokyo, Japan from July 23rd to August 8th. Due to Covid-19, the Summer Olympics, set to happen last year, had to be postponed. In Korea, some netizens were worried about the health and performance of their national athletes. However, Korean athletes managed to succeed, winning Korea twenty medals overall. While all of Korea’s athletes demonstrated great skill and sportsmanship, I would like to highlight three athletes who stood out to me, personally. 

As many know, Korea’s Women’s Volleyball team made it all the way to the semi-finals and ranked 4th overall. One outstanding player from the team is Kim Hee-jin, who played in the right position. This position is usually held by foreign players, however, Kim was the only player available for this season. Unfortunately, Kim underwent critical surgery where bone chips had to be removed from her left knee, just months before the Olympics. It was a great health risk to participate in the Olympics without proper rehabilitation, but she preserved and chose to go with her team anyway. Kim has “Never say never” written on her shoes, showcasing her optimism and perseverance regarding her position on the team. Her perseverance has inspired me to continue on when faced with adversity. 

Kim Hee-jin shoes with “Never Say Never!” written on them

Another outstanding volleyball player is Kim Yeon-koung, the captain of the team, who is widely regarded as one of the best volleyball players in the world. The 2020 Olympics were her final time attending as a player for Korea’s national volleyball team. Similar to Kim Hee-jin, she sustained a serious injury during the 2020 Women’s Asian Olympics Qualification Tournament as she tore her abdominal muscles. However, she took painkillers and used sports tape, and tried her best to play the game as she normally would. As a result, South Korea won the final tournament and qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. Unfortunately, this was not her last injury. During the Olympics, Kim suffered a minor injury when part of her skin ripped while taking off sports tape. Despite being hurt, Kim managed to play the games and motivate her fellow teammates during difficult matches. During a game with the Dominican Republic, where Korea was struggling to score points, Kim repeatedly chanted “Let’s do it! Let’s do it! Let’s do it! Do not regret!” to encourage her fellow teammates to persist. Kim Yeon-koung is an excellent role model to me not only due to her talent but also her skills as a captain, teammate, and motivator.

Kim Yeon-koung during a game against Japan where Korea pulled off a 3-2 set win

One last inspiring athlete is archer An San. South Korea is often regarded to be an ‘unbeatable’ country in archery— causing many Koreans to hold archers to higher expectations, subsequently placing immense pressure on archers like An San. Like all Olympic athletes, she had to practice for 14-16 hours a day, which helped her develop a strong and rigid mentality. This was perfectly demonstrated during her mixed game, where she made a Robin Hood arrow (when one arrow splits another arrow already on the target). The chances of making a Robin Hood arrow are rare, as it requires expert skill and focus. Her Robin Hood arrow is now exhibited at a museum run by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Moreover, her heart rate of 80-110 bpm (beats per minute) was incredibly low compared to her opponents, whose heart rates ranged from 140-160 bpm. Her low heart rate is an indication of her relaxed state while competing. In an interview, An San said that she treated her training sessions like real games, which made her real games feel like practice. When faced with immense pressure, she strongly recommends downplaying the pressure, staying calm, and enjoying the experience. This is an excellent tip for anxious people, like me. At the end of the Olympics, she successfully earned a total of three gold medals. She is also now ranked No. 1 in the World Ranking for Recurve Women. An’s ability to stay calm under pressure, and her astonishing devotion to the sport have inspired me to try my best at all that I do.

An San with the gold medal she won in the mixed team event

Qualifying for the Olympics is a grueling and competitive process. Volleyball players have to play in qualification games and archers have to compete in national championships. However, skill is not the only thing needed to qualify for the Olympics; without determination, ambition, and passion for their sport, athletes won’t make it far. 

While watching the Olympic games, I could feel the athletes’ desire to win through my television screen. I felt inspired to work as hard as the athletes I saw on my screen. I’ll continue to remind myself of phrases like “Never say never” and “Let’s do it! Let’s do it! Let’s do it! Do not regret!” whenever I want to give up on something. For the future, I’m looking forward to seeing Korea’s athletes at the 2024 Paris Olympics. While I’m incredibly sad about Kim Yeon-koung retiring from the national team, I cannot wait to see Kim Hee-jin and An San participate and how they will continue to inspire thousands.