Korean gymnast rises from poverty

South Korean gymnast Yang Hak-seon bites his gold medal after topping the men’s vault at the North Greenwich Arena, Tuesday (KST). Yang became the nation’s first gymnast to win an Olympic title. (Photo : Yonhap)

Yang Hak-seon has continuously said that his dream was to build a house for his poor parents, currently living in a makeshift greenhouse, if he won gold at the London Olympics.

The 19-year-old gymnast triumphed in the men’s vault Tuesday (KST) and his dream is now a reality.

“I cannot actually believe what is happening to me at the moment,” said Yang, who became the nation’s first gymnast to win at the quadrennial event and the first to medal since Yeo Hong-chul’s silver in the men’s vault in 1996.

“This medal was an opportunity and I had to grab it.”

The gymnast’s four-member family lived in a shantytown in Gwangju before moving to the countryside in Gochang, North Jeolla Province in 2010, as serious injuries prevented his father from plastering at construction sites, while his mother battled back pain. Worse, poverty forced them to renovate a greenhouse as their shelter.

Ki Suk-hyang, left, and Yang Gwan-gwon, Yang Hak-seon’s parents, smile in front of their house in Gochang, North Jeolla Province, Tuesday. (Photo : Yonhap)

Yang sent the 800,000 won ($710) he receives as a national athlete to his family every month.

Despite these adversities, Yang stood atop the podium after nailing an excellent pair of vaults including one judged to be the most difficult of the competition, which is even called “Yang Hak-seon” after him.

The three-twist front somersault was invented by the Korean and he is the only gymnast to currently execute it in the world.

Although he was favored to win ahead of the final, the eight-man field challenged the defending world champion.

Russia’s Denis Ablyazin scored a total of 16.399 points from two attempts, while Ukraine’s Igor Radivilov averaged 16.316, which forced Yang to nail his signature move.

“As I was the last man to compete in the final, I planned to use the Yang Hak-seon when competitors posted more than 16.266 points,” he said.

Yang took two big steps forward when he landed his first vault but the 7.4 difficulty rating _ two 10ths of a point higher than the second best competitor ― was enough to earn him 16.466. Then, he performed a 7.0 difficulty vault in his second effort to score 16.600 to bring the nation an elusive Olympic title.

Right after landing the second vault, Yang embraced his coaching staff and took a victory lap even before his second score flashed up.

“In the first attempt, I was worried about the two steps forward but cancelled out the mistake by landing ice cold,” he said.

Ablyazin, who finished third in the floor exercise, took silver and Radivilov, bronze.

With the nation touched by the story of Yang’s family living in a shabby vinyl house, SM Group, a Gwangju-based construction company, promised to offer a new home to the family when construction of an apartment complex is completed next year. <The Korea Times/Kang Seung-woo>


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