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Lee Woo-seok aims to break his curse and hit the bull’s-eye

Jan 16,2020
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Lee Woo-seok poses for a photo at the Jincheon National Training Center in Jincheon, North Chungcheong, on Jan. 1. [KIM SUNG-TAE]
Archer Lee Woo-seok hopes to turn his tears of disappointment at the 2018 Asian Games into tears of joy at the Tokyo Olympics.

At last year’s Asian Games, Lee was considered one of the most unfortunate athletes in Team Korea after missing out on gold and an opportunity to be discharged from his mandatory military service, which he was serving at the time.

In the final of the recurve men’s singles, Lee faced off against his teammate Kim Woo-jin. Kim had already earned exemption from his military service by winning gold at the 2010 Asian Games, but this didn’t stop him for performing to the best of his abilities and defending his title. However, after his victory he chose to quietly celebrate, as he felt sorry for his countryman and competitor.

“At the time, I couldn’t think of anything,” Lee said. “I didn’t even know that Woo-jin didn’t celebrate. Since I was only thinking about the gold medal, I couldn’t manage my game well.”

Lee took the silver and headed back to the military and was discharged at the end of October last year. He used the disappointment of second place as a turning point in his career and an opportunity to strengthen his mind-set.

“I couldn’t compete at the Rio Olympics in 2016,” Lee said. “So I got in a slump. That’s why I decided to join the military in the beginning of 2018. If I got an early discharge, the slump could have repeated.”

The renewed motivation from the loss at the Asian Games spurred him on to win gold in the recurve mixed team event, partnering with Kang Chae-young, at the 2019 World Archery Championship in the Netherlands in June.

Having started archery in third grade at elementary school, Lee quickly earned his fame as a prodigy. In 2013, while in his first year in high school, he won five gold medals at the 2013 Korean National Sports Festival. From this success, Lee was quickly named Korea’s next star archer.

However, his expected success on the international stage was never realized. In 2014, he just missed out on a spot on the national team by finishing fifth in the final qualifier. As only the top four archers qualified for the Incheon Asian Games, Lee couldn’t compete.

The curse of finishing not quite close enough continued ahead of the Rio Olympics when he finished fourth. Only the top three got to compete.

“If I really was a prodigy, then I would have competed on big stages since high school,” Lee said. “I still have a long way to go. Since our archers are really good, I think I can be dropped [out of the national qualifier] anytime. I give it my best in any tryouts.”

On the Korean men’s archery team, there are veteran archers like Kim and Oh Jin-hyek, who both competed at the Olympics before. Lee is considered small in comparison to the pair, as he stands at 1.76 meters (5 feet, 9 inches) and weights 72 kilograms (159 pounds) while Kim and Oh are both 1.80 meters tall and weigh over 90 kilograms.

“Archery is a sport that requires us to stand still, but when we shoot outside, it’s good to be heavier so our bodies don’t shake as much,” Lee said. “I’m eating a lot and gaining muscle through weight training.”

He might be smaller in stature, but he makes up for this disadvantage with the length of his arms, which measure 62 centimeters. For his height, the standard length is between 58 to 59 centimeters.

“I may be short but since I have longer arms, I use the same arrows and bows as the ones used by bigger archers,” Lee said. “Also, I have the strength to pull the arrows more.”

As of now, Lee seems to be in a good position to compete at the Tokyo Olympics, but because Korea is a powerhouse in the sport, nothing is certain, as he knows only too well. He first needs to finish within the top eight at the third national team qualifier in March, and then compete in two tryout matches. Only the top three male and female archers will represent Korea at the Olympics. Although Lee is currently leading the qualifier, he can’t relax just yet.

“There’s only one goal this year, and that’s to focus on myself,” Lee said. “When I only thought about the medal, my matches didn’t turn out well. ”

BY PARK SO-YOUNG [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]