Gymnast Son Yeon-jae Shows True Olympic Spirit Amid Calamity

Son Yeon-jae Son Yeon-jae

Under-pressure Olympic medal contender Son Yeon-jae came unstuck at the start of her routine in the ribbon final at a rhythmic gymnastics World Cup event in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on Sunday, but kept a cool head and soldiered on against the odds.

When her ribbon tore as soon as her program began, Son could have abandoned her program and stepped off the mats gracefully, as by that point she had already thrown away any chance of seizing a medal. The Korean teen was well aware that performing with someone else’s ribbon would result in an instant DQ.

Nevertheless, that's exactly what she did, borrowing one from fellow gymnast Aliya Garayeva of Azerbaijan and completing her 90 second program. She showed herself to be a true competitor with the guts to see things through to the end, while also not wanting to disappoint her fans.

Son, who returned to Korea early Tuesday, said, "I will take this as a useful experience prior to the London Olympics [in July]."

Late last week at the gymnasts' official hotel in Tashkent, a pale and worn-out-looking Son admitted she was feeling the pressure as the Summer Games approach. "Life's very hard these days," she said, referring to her strict diet and training regimen. She practices for seven hours a day, eats a sparrow's breakfast and lunch and skips dinner. Her weight control plan is stricter than many of her rivals from Russia and Eastern Europe because of the way their bodies look, she said.

"Western gymnasts have longer limbs, so even if we weigh the same, they look slimmer. As such, I have to weigh less to look as good."

Having emerged as one of the biggest names in the world of rhythmic gymnastics, Son has to manage every gram of body weight. In the last 18 months, she has pulled her average score at the World Championships up from 24 to 28 points, and this season she became the first Korean to win two bronze medals at the World Cup series.

Having achieved feats even she could not have imagined, Son's belief in her Olympic prospects has also grown. "I want to be one of the final 10 who advance to the final, whatever it takes," she said. "Nobody can tell what will happen after that."

To survive in a field dominated by contestants from Russia and Eastern Europe, Son is pushing herself to new limits in training as she strives for perfection. Her practice shoes rarely last a week, and she has already broken three clubs this year.

"From a very young age, I learned that it is important to keep a smile on your face while performing in rhythmic gymnastics," she said. "It's often hard to keep it up throughout the routine, but when you succeed at technically challenging tricks, the smile tends to come naturally."

She has been training alone in Russia without her family, friends, a translator or personal assistant for the last two years. "I hope there comes a day when Korea gets recognized as a powerhouse in rhythmic gymnastics," she said. With a bit of luck, Son will help make that dream come closer to reality this summer.

englishnews@chosun.com / May 22, 2012 10:30 KST