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Taekwondo fighter ready to give it all in her first, last Olympics

2016/07/13 14:39

By Joo Kyung-don

SEOUL, July 12 (Yonhap) -- She has been the top taekwondo fighter for years in South Korea -- the birthplace of the martial art -- but until now, an Olympic berth has been elusive for Oh Hye-ri.

Oh is one of the five taekwondo practitioners who will represent South Korea at the Rio de Janeiro Summer Games. In Brazil, she will compete in the under-67kg class at Carioca Arena 3 on Aug. 19. For the 28-year-old, the Rio Games are likely to be her first and last Olympics.

"You don't know what's going to happen in the future, but I think it will be difficult for me to compete at future Olympics," Oh said Wednesday at the National Training Center in Seoul. "But I like taekwondo, and I want to fight as long as I can."

   In her 15-year taekwondo career, this is Oh's first appearance at a major multisport event. The only other experience she had previously was the 2009 Summer Universiade in Belgrade, Serbia, where she won silver. Oh doesn't even have an Asian Games appearance under her belt.

"I just want to have a small amount of tension at the Rio Games," she said. "I have fought in many bouts before, but at the Olympics, I want to have performances without regrets."

   Oh earned her spot based on the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) Olympic rankings in December 2015. For the Rio Games, each country is allowed a maximum of eight taekwondo competitors, four for each gender, based on the WTF Olympic rankings, but they must be among the top six in each weight category.

Oh was regarded one of the top prospects in her high school days, winning various domestic competitions. However, making the national team selection was a different story.

In the previous two Olympic trials, Oh failed to overcome veteran Hwang Kyung-seon, who already had the bronze medal from the 2004 Athens Games. Hwang eventually became the first South Korean women to win back-to-back gold medals after triumphing at the 2008 Beijing Games and the 2012 London Games.

"In the past, I've blamed myself, thinking 'why do I always fail?’" Oh said. "But now I'm confident to show good performances because I've prepared well. I will go to the Rio Games with a 'do-or-die' mantra."

   Oh said she recently got some advice from Hwang, and added that she wants to extend South Korea's gold medal run in the women's under-67kg following Hwang's achievement.

"Hwang told me to shake off the pressure and compete with confidence," she said. "Hwang also told me if I can perform the way I've done at the domestic events, I'll be fine."

   For Oh, injury was another enemy that blocked her from entering the mega sporting events. For the London Games qualification, Oh injured her left thigh just two weeks before the event and couldn't display her best skills. Ahead of the 2014 Incheon Asian Games, Oh tore her right ankle ligament and was also eliminated from the national team trials.

"I have yet to pick up an injury during my preparations for the Rio Games," she said. "I think my past experience of getting injured helped me this time. I know what I should do to avoid injury."

   In her maiden Summer Games, Oh, ranked No. 6, is confident of winning the gold medal. She said her experience at the World Taekwondo Championships and other international events is enough to help her take on world's top taekwondo fighters. Oh topped the 2015 worlds in Chelyabinsk, Russia, and in April, she triumphed at the German Open G1 tournament in Hamburg.

At the Rio Games, she will face Melissa Pagnotta of Canada in the first round and is expected to meet world No. 3 Chiachia Chuang of Taiwan in the quarterfinals. If Oh manages to reach the final in Rio, she could fight world No. 1 Haby Niare of France from the other side of the bracket.

"All of these fighters have an abundance of experience," she said. "So I will consider every match like a final."

   Park Kye-hee, the women's coach, said Oh is perfectly fit for the Olympics.

"If the Rio Games were held right now, she will take the gold medal," Park said. "If she can control the psychological side at the Rio Games, she will be fine."

   The South Korean taekwondo squad will depart for Brazil on July 29 and train at its base camp in Sao Paulo until Aug. 14. Oh said she is on the home stretch for the Summer Games.

"I have done what I can do here in South Korea," she said. "I'm ready to go and I'm confident of winning."


South Korean taekwondo practitioner Oh Hye-ri (L) practices her kick during a training session at National Training Center in Seoul on July 13, 2016. (Yonhap) South Korean taekwondo practitioner Oh Hye-ri (L) practices her kick during a training session at National Training Center in Seoul on July 13, 2016. (Yonhap)