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In London, Korea’s Paralympic athletes go for gold

Aug 29, 2012
Beginning on August 29, another chapter in the excitement of the 2012 London Olympics will unfold with the opening of the twelve-day London Paralympics. For Team Korea, who will be sending 88 athletes to compete in a total of 14 events, the next week and a half will be a chance for some of the country’s brightest athletes to truly shine.

Star swimmer Min Byeong-eon

Twenty-seven-year-old Min Byeong-eon is afflicted with a rare incurable neurological disorder known as Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT), which causes progressive loss of muscle tissue and touch sensation across the body. Due to the nerve damage caused by genetic mutation, those affected by CMT experience increasing weakness in their hands and feet, together with changes in the physical appearance of their limbs.

Despite being unable to move his feet, Min has used his upper body strength to become one of the top swimmers in his classification group (ranked from 1 to 10 and determined by the degree to which physical impairments affect a swimmer’s ability to perform strokes, with class-10 swimmers showing lowest impact).

Korean Paralympic swimmer Min Byeong-eon currently holds the world record in the 50-meter backstroke. Min, who is afflicted with a rare genetic disorder known as Charcot-Marie Tooth disease (CMT), will be racing for a new world record at the 2012 London Paralympics.Korean Paralympic swimmer Min Byeong-eon currently holds the world record in the 50-meter backstroke. Min, who is afflicted with a rare genetic disorder known as Charcot-Marie Tooth disease (CMT), will be racing for a new world record at the 2012 London Paralympics (photo: Weekly Gonggam).


Min, who currently holds the world record of 43.67 seconds in the 50-meter backstroke, will be competing at the London Paralympics in three events: the 50-meter backstroke, the 50-meter breaststroke, and the 150-meter individual medley. Having come in a mere 0.49 seconds behind his Chinese competitor at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, Min will have an opportunity to show the full range of his skills at this year’s competition.

“My primary goal will be to surpass the world record I set at the Guangzhou Asian Games,” said Min in an interview with Weekly Gonggam Magazine at the Korea Sports Training Center d’ground in Icheon, Gyeonggi-do (Gyeonggi Province). “I wasn’t able to show my full abilities in 2008 because I was nervous. In London, though, I plan to compete with my mind at ease, so that no matter the color of my medal, my results will be equal to the effort I have put in.”

Min, whose symptoms first appeared while he was in primary school, says that he experienced few difficulties in his daily life up until middle school, even while running. Soon after, though, as his muscles continued to weaken, it became considerably more difficult for him to live a “normal” lifestyle.

“With CMT, it’s important to exercise in order to prevent accelerated onset of symptoms,” explained Min. “So, at age 22, I began swimming as part of my physical therapy. Only afterwards did I learn that people with disabilities can also participate in competitive swimming.”

He found the advantages of joining a swim team very quickly. “After joining a team for swimmers with disabilities and training with the other team members, I found myself exerting myself more than when I had been on my own, and my skills gradually improved,” he continued. Min’s consistent efforts culminated in his being selected in 2006 to join the national team, after which he competed at the 2006 Paralympic Swimming World Championships in South Africa, with astounding results.

Ji Kwang-min, captain of the Korean national boccia team, will compete with his team members for their seventh consecutive gold-medal title at the 2012 London Paralympics.

Ji Kwang-min, captain of the Korean national boccia team, will compete with his team members for their seventh consecutive gold-medal title at the 2012 London Paralympics (photo: Weekly Gonggam).

“After finishing my race, I discovered that I had set a new record,” recalled Min. “I had done so much better than I had expected. And after that, I just kept on swimming.”

“Min suffered due to a bad shoulder throughout the last year,” said Cho Sun-young, the coach for the national swimming team. “But he has prepared very well, and he will no doubt earn positive results at this Olympics.”

Boccia team captain Ji Kwang-min

At the d’ground boccia court, national boccia team captain Ji Kwang-min (31) leads his team members in a high-energy practice match. Currently first in world rankings, the six-time gold-medal-winning Korean national team, which has won Olympic gold since the 1988 Seoul Olympics, will be playing for its seventh consecutive title in London.

For Jin, who will be competing in both the individual and team events (in the BC1 category for athletes with cerebral palsy who can kick or throw the ball), the London Paralympics will be an opportunity for Jin to take home two titles.

“The individual event is important, of course, but I am currently concentrating my efforts on the team training,” said Jin, who is going into his seventh year as a boccia athlete. “I want to see all the athletes who have struggled and worked so hard come home with gold medals around their necks.”

Jin, who graduated from Eunkwang School, a school for students with physical disabilities located in Incheon, had originally studied to become a web server technician. A growing interest in sports, however, led Jin to approach Kim Jin-han, a physical education teacher at Eunkwang School who is today coach of the national boccia team. Boccia, a high-intensity and high-concentration sport specially created for wheelchair athletes with cerebral palsy and other related locomotor disabilities that do not allow for free motor control, proved to be a good fit for the young Jin.

“I want to achieve my gold medal dreams and be able to dedicate my success to my mother who passed away from cancer two years ago,” shared Ji. “We look forward to hearing Aegukga echoing under the London sky.”

Archery’s dynamic female trio

Kim Ran-sook, Ko Hee-sook, and Lee Hwa-sook together make up Korea’s winning wheelchair archery team. Dubbed the Sook Sisters for the shared syllable in their names, the trio has competed together for the past four years and most recently won gold in the recurve bows group event at the Guangzhou 2010 Asian Para Games.

“Hee-sook is good at sharp analysis, and Ran-sook’s strength is her calm execution,” said 46-year-old Lee Hwa-sook. “So I shoot first, followed by Hee-Sook, and then Ran-sook.”

Female archery trio Lee Hwa-sook (left), Ko Hee-sook (center), and Lee Hwa-sook (right) will be competing in the group wheelchair archery event at the 2012 London Paralympics. Called the Sook Sisters for the shared syllable in their names, the team recently won gold at the Guangzhou 2010 Asian Para Games.Female archery trio Lee Hwa-sook (left), Ko Hee-sook (center), and Lee Hwa-sook (right) will be competing in the group wheelchair archery event at the 2012 London Paralympics. Called the Sook Sisters for the shared syllable in their names, the team recently won gold at the Guangzhou 2010 Asian Para Games (photo: Weekly Gonggam).


“People ask me whether I feel pressure from being the last to shoot,” said Kim, who, with Ko, is 45 years old. “But two people have already gone before me, so I think, what is there to be afraid of? I just want to do my own best.”

The women agree that they have come to resemble one another over their years together, and that there are many times when they find themselves thinking the same thought. “The fact that we share similar goals has been the driving force that has helped us work together well for the past four years,” said Ko. “The people around us are often amazed, and even envious, when they see how well and how consistently we get along.”

“Because I grew up in a social environment that equated physical disabilities with incompetence, I always felt strongly the need to show that I wasn’t incompetent,” continued Ko. “That’s why I have always done my very best, in work and in sports. If I do my best and don’t succeed, then that’s that. But I encourage myself continuously to take joy in the fact that I did my best.”

“For me, it’s a tremendous joy to be able to show my children that their mother is doing her very best as an archer,” added Kim. “My oldest said to me once, ‘First place is great too, but what truly makes me happy is to know that you are doing your best.’ Whenever I go out to compete, I’ll remember these words in my heart.”

“While it would be beyond wonderful to win a medal, we always tell one another that even if we don’t win, we won’t be discouraged, and we won’t preoccupy ourselves with the outcome. We will simply take satisfaction in the fact that we did our very best.”

Adapted from Weekly Gonggam Magazine
Translated by Kwon Jungyun
Korea.net Staff Writer
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