Olympic medal contender Son Yeon-jae is aiming to rewrite the history of Korean women's gymnastics as she prepares for her first-ever Olympic competition at London's Wembley Arena on Thursday.
Her initial goal is to be included in the top 10 out of 24 contenders who will compete in the rhythmic gymnastics final, surpassing the previous record set by Shin Soo-ji (21), who finished 12th four years ago at the Beijing Games.
Son, who began rhythmic gymnastics at the age of five, captured the attention of sports officials by blitzing her way through domestic and regional tournaments. She swept the medals in national competitions and won bronze at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games. In 2011, Son began off-season training in Novogorsk, Russia, where Russian gymnasts including Yevgeniya Kanayeva also practice, and her skills have improved dramatically.
She ranked only 32nd at the 2010 World Championships in Moscow in 2010 with scores of between 24 and 25 points, but she finished 11th at last year's worlds by pulling her scores up to between 26 and 27 points, winning the ticket to represent Korea at the London Olympics. She boosted her overall score to 28 points this year after competing in five International Gymnastics Federation (FIC) World Cup tournaments.
Son ranked ninth at an FIC World Cup event in Minsk, Belarus, last month, which drew top gymnasts from around the world. The feat increased her chances of reaching the finals in London.
"Just having one of our athletes reach the finals to rank among the world's best, such as Kanayeva, is an incredible achievement for a country like Korea, which is not a traditional gymnastics powerhouse," said Kim Jee-hee, coach of the Korean national rhythmic gymnastics squad.
"Son was able to finish preparing for the Olympics without suffering any injuries and her condition is relatively good, so we should be able to achieve our goal."
After arriving in London on July 21, Son trained in Sheffield, three hours by car from London, along with the Russian gymnastics squad. She trained eight hours a day, away from the bustle of the capital. She headed to London on Monday, just three days before her first competition, and found a room in a hotel five minutes from Wembley Arena.
With the competition just around the corner, Son has been working harder than ever to maintain her weight. Rhythmic gymnasts have a body fat content of just five percent, whereas 20 percent is considered normal for a grown woman. They need to stay light in order to minimize the stress on their knees and ankles due to the jumps and twists, while a slim frame is essential for a more aesthetic performance.
Since arriving in the U.K., Son has been eating only yogurt and soup, eschewing even chicken breast fillets. She checks her weight twice a day and diets further if she sees even the slightest change. Measuring just 166 cm, Son maintains a body weight of 45 kg, which is considered optimal for her peak performance.