A Rhythmic Gymnast's Struggle Against the Odds

Shin Soo-ji performs in the hoop competition at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Shin Soo-ji performs in the hoop competition at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The life of Korean rhythmic gymnasts outside the stadium tends to be far from glamorous. There are only two mattresses specially designed for rhythmic gymnasts in the entire nation, and many gymnasts are from modest families and their parents struggle to mobilize the resources to support them.  

Shin Soo-ji, the most conspicuous figure in Korean rhythmic gymnastics after finishing 12th in the individual all-around at the Beijing Olympics last year -- the best finish by any Korean rhythmic gymnast in history -- is no exception. Not many people know that the costume she wore in the hoop competition at the Olympics was a second-hand one. It had previously been worn by Irina Chaschina of the Russian national team at the Athens Olympics in 2004.

Shin and her mother bought the costume for 800 euro when they went to Russia for self-funded training in May 2007. Irina Viner, an influential figure in Russian rhythmic gymnastics who served as vice president at the Federation International of Gymnastics, recognized Shin's talent in training and offered to give her the costume at half the price of a new one.

Shin did not hesitate to get a second-handed costume, thinking that a beautifully designed outfit would help boost her score. She replaced the mark of a sponsor for the Russian team stitched on the left shoulder with a Korean flag, and produced the best result ever by a Korean rhythmic gymnast.  

Last year, Shin signed a management contract with Sema Sports Marketing, and a number of sponsorships since then have reduced the burden on her family. However, they are still struggling to make ends meet. Shin's father, an electrical technician at a U.S. Army base in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi Province, said, "Since 2007, when she started short-term training in Russia, it has cost around W100 million (US$1=W1,194) a year to support Soo-ji and cover costs to participate in international competitions. I've got three overdrawn bank accounts."

Sema Sports Marketing president Lee Seung-Hwan said, "Rhythmic gymnastics in Korea is a big challenge in itself. There needs to be a favorable training environment if we want to see more talented and ambitious athletes."

englishnews@chosun.com / Sep. 25, 2009 11:21 KST