Asian Games: 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 national superstar.

AFP| Last Updated: Oct 04, 2014, 11:42 AM IST
Asian Games: Son Yeon-Jae finally shines for South Korea

Incheon: 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 national superstar.

With a nation`s eyes fixed on her, the 20-year-old shrugged off the pressure 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 stands in stark contrast to the likes of swimmer Park Tae-Hwan and vaulter Yang Hak-Seon.

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

Their high-profile failures did nothing to lift flaccid local enthusiasm for the Games, but Son`s captivating performance stirred the public, with South Korean newspapers hailing her "Nymph" and "Queen".

Son beamed and made heart signs to the crowd as she received her medal on Thursday, but admitted 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 told reporters. "But having a clear goal helped me pull through."Son`s victory comes just days 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 to Russia and spending her formative years so far from home were 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 withstand 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.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, for while rhythmic gymnastics is a glamorous sport, it is not well-funded.

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

The gold medallist at the 2010 Vancouver 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.

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."