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(Yonhap Feature) Male archers bring youthful exuberance to Olympics

All News 09:00 July 25, 2016

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, July 25 (Yonhap) -- Archery is a perennial Olympic goldmine for South Korea, and each edition of the Summer Games brings with it a huge amount of pressure on the athletes to live up to lofty expectations.

In the men's team event, South Korea had won three straight Olympic titles before settling for bronze in 2012. This year's 20-something trio -- Kim Woo-jin, Ku Bon-chan and Lee Seung-yun -- will be counted on to start a new streak at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics next month, but if the three are feeling any burden, they've done a good job of hiding it.

If anything, they will bring a healthy dose of youthful exuberance to the competition often fraught with challenges and obstacles.

Each of the three fits into a different high school stereotype, and yet these three distinct personalities have managed to build a strong camaraderie in their lead-up to the Olympics.

Kim is the oldest of the bunch at 24 and is also the top dog at world No. 1. He is like that serious student who never fails to finish at the top of his class. As articulate with his words as he's accurate with his arrows, Kim is also someone who demands excellence and commands respect from his peers.

Ku, 23, is the class clown and a prankster who seems to enjoy the limelight. He can make people laugh, but he can also make opponents cry. For all the practical jokes he pulls on his teammates, Ku is world No. 2.

Lee is the youngest member of the team at 21. The world No. 6 is the equivalent of the quiet student who sits in the back of the classroom to avoid attention. He prefers to go about his own business, and he'd rather not do with any spotlight that will surely come with an Olympic medal.

Kim is the leader of the unit, and not just because of his seniority. He's mature beyond his age, hardened by a roller coaster ride that has taken him to the pinnacle of the sport and also to the brink of obscurity. His cherubic face belies a determined competitor on a mission to prove himself.

Kim climbed to world No. 1 a month before his 19th birthday in 2011, and had two world titles and two Asian Games gold medals by the end of that year.

The one-time phenom, though, failed to make the Olympic team in 2012, and has had to conquer self-doubt to get back on his feet again.

Now that he's finally going to the Olympics, Kim said there's no place he'd rather be.

"On earlier national teams, we had some older guys, and the good thing about having teammates around my age is it's much easier to talk to each other," Kim said on the sidelines of a recent practice at the National Training Center in Seoul. "We've really opened up to each other. We can talk just about everything. It's helped build trust within the team, and I think it'll be a huge asset in the team event."

Ku provides some comic relief, flanked by two teammates who fall on the more serious side. The self-proclaimed eternal optimist also said he has never had a bad day while prepping for his first Olympics.

"I've been enjoying each and every day," said Ku, wearing what seems to be a permanent grin on his face. "I always try to have fun."

Ku's "what-me-worry" attitude may seem detrimental to competing in the sport that requires a great degree of concentration, and Ku himself admitted he has no idea how he's able to bear down and maintain his focus when it counts the most.

"When I picked up archery in fifth grade, my parents told me I couldn't last a week because I could never stay calm," Ku recalled. "But here I am now. And I honestly don't know if I necessarily have strong concentration. I just train like everyone else."

Ku's boundless optimism has also helped him become more immune to pressure than others. He said he won't be bothered outside factors -- such as jetlag or possible crowd noise -- because everyone else will be in the same situation.

"All three of us are first-time Olympians, but I don't think it will be that big of an issue," Ku said. "I am sure other countries will have archers competing in their first Olympics. Once the competition begins, everyone will be nervous all the same."

Lee also said he likely won't have too many butterflies in his stomach even in the heat of the moment. The reticent one, who may come across as aloof and standoffish, said he just isn't the type to get rattled.

"Obviously, the Olympics bring more pressure than other events," he said. "Other than that, there isn't anything particularly difficult (about the preparation)."

Lee is such a cool customer that he doesn't even have routines or superstitious rituals that many other athletes follow before competitions.

At least part of the reason for that may be his disdain for publicity -- Lee doesn't want to draw attention to himself with any odd antics.

"I just don't like attention," he said. Then without a hint of a smile, Lee added, "Even if I win an Olympic medal, I hope people won't take any interest in me."

Even on the prospect that two South Koreans can meet in the gold medal match, Lee simply shrugged and said, "If it happens, it happens. We don't really talk about it."

Ku, however, was more than willing to discuss that possibility. At the Archery World Cup in Antalya, Turkey, in June -- the Koreans' final international event before Rio -- Ku lost to Lee in the final.

Ku said the loss still gnawed at him, and even through Ku's typical smile, a twinge of frustration was palpable.

"I've got a secret weapon in case we meet again in the main event," Ku said, in reference to the Olympics. "I'll wear a scowl on my face if that happens."

Kim is more concerned about focusing on himself and making most of the precious opportunity.

"If I keep doing my best like I've always done, then I should come away with good results," he said. "I lost out on the Olympics four years ago, but I've been given a second chance. I am looking forward to getting on that stage and putting on the performance of my life."


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