Gymnast Son Yeon-Jae finally shines for South Korea


South Korea’s Olympic heroes may have flopped under the weight of expectations at their home Asian Games, but rhythmic gymnast Son Yeon-Jae stood tall and confirmed her status as a world beater.

With a nation’s eyes fixed on her, the 20-year-old shrugged off the pressure and an online campaign of abuse to deliver a near-flawless performance before a packed crowd in Incheon’s Namdong Gymnasium.

The judges awarded Son outstanding execution marks, over 9.0 in three out of the four disciplines, as she took gold in the individual all-round event in majestic style from Chinese rival Deng Senyue.

Her ability to deliver when the stakes were highest stood in stark contrast to the likes of swimmer Park Tae-Hwan and vaulter Yang Hak-Seon.

With Olympic golds under their belt, both were expected to win easily in Incheon but both flunked, Yang taking silver and Park managing only a silver and five bronzes.

Their failures did nothing to lift flaccid enthusiasm for the Games, but Son’s captivating performance stirred the public, with South Korean newspapers hailing her as “Nymph” and “Queen”.

Son beamed and made heart signs to the crowd as she received her medal. But delivering on her promise of a home Asiad gold had been tough.

“It was incredibly hard behind the scenes. I just didn’t show it before the competition,” Son said. “But having a clear goal helped me pull through.”

– Korean grace, Russian steel –

Son’s victory came after an arduous flight back from last week’s world championships in Turkey, where she secured the best finish by an Asian gymnast in nearly 40 years with bronze in the hoop.

Four years of gruelling training in Russia, which has long dominated the graceful world of rhythmic gymnastics, have given her an inner steel beneath her model good looks.

“I learned a lot from training in Russia. There I had a mock competition with world-class gymnasts almost every day, and that’s how I learned what I need to do in competition to get high scores,” she said.

Moving so far from home was hard for the teenager, but Son kept her eyes on the prize — with a little help from mum.

“Since the beginning of this year, my mother has been coming and staying with me in Moscow, but I’ve been able to stand all the hardships because I have goals,” she said.

Son captivated fans with her joyous performance at the London Olympics as she finished fifth in the individual all-round event, and was voted South Korea’s 2012 athlete of the year.

– Online abuse –

Now Son is one of Korea’s highest-profile sports stars, her face plastered across TV and billboard adverts for a host of consumer electronics and home appliances.

The income has been crucial for Son, paying for her $20,000 a month training in Russia. While rhythmic gymnastics is a glamorous sport, it is not well-funded.

But her rise has had a darker side, with some hardcore fans of figure skating star Kim Yu-Na targeting Son with online abuse.

Gold medallist at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, Kim was once the darling of the South Korean public, but she retired this year — aged just 23 — and her star has waned as Son’s has risen.

Their supposed rivalry is a constant source of debate in South Korea, with the gymnast now seen as a bigger draw for advertisers, prompting some to take up cudgels for the skater.

Some of the jibes left their mark, but Son is determined to fight on.

“I have to admit there were times when I felt disheartened,” said Son. “But I feel it’s my part to do my best regardless of what people say.”

With an Asian Games gold and world bronze in the bag, the next target for Son is the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

That means a big step up to challenge the mighty Russians, who have won every Olympic gold in rhythmic gymnastics since 2000.

“Now that I’ve secured my number one position in Asia, I’ll try to do well on a bigger stage,” she said. “But right now I need to decompress. Then I’ll think about it in more concrete terms.”