No medal, but hopes high for Son Yeon-jae

South Korean rhythmic gymnast Son Yeon-jae wields the ribbon at Wembley Arena in London, Saturday (KST). Son is the nation’s first rhythmic gymnast to advance to the all-round final but finished shy of a medal place in fifth. (Photo : The Korea Times)

Eighteen years old and standing 158 centimeters tall, South Korean rhythmic gymnast Son Yeon-jae had the country’s expectations for a possible Olympic medal on her shoulders.

But it was the clubs, her weakest discipline, which dashed her medal hopes in London.

Son finished fifth in the individual all-around final at Wembley Arena with a combined 111.475 points. She earned 28.050 points in the hoop, 28.325 with the ball and 28.350 for the ribbon. But she dropped both clubs during her routine and scored 26.750 to come ninth among the 10 finalists in that event. She finished only 0.225 point behind bronze medallist, Liubov Charkashyna of Belarus.

Defending Oympic champion Evgeniya Kanaeva of Russia took the gold with 116.000 points while compatriot Daria Dmitrieva claimed silver on 114.500.

Despite the fact that Son failed to make the podium, her performance and winning smile has the country pinning high hopes on the Sejong High School student for the next Olympics.

Son later said she gave up hopes of a medal when she failed to catch the clubs.

“I was disappointed with my clubs routine but I am still happy to finish fifth in the final,” she said. “I just thought maybe it wasn’t my time to win a medal.”

She was flanked by Russian coach Elena Nifiodiva, who also coached South Korean rhythmic gymnast Shin Soo-ji, who qualified for the Beijing Summer Games. Nifiodiva has been coaching Son since the young gymnast headed to Russia to train last January. Lee Kyung-hee, a former North Korean rhythmic gymnastics hero who defected to the South in 2007 is also an exclusive coach for the South’s gymnastics team.

Before the London Games, Son enjoyed semi-celebrity status akin to 2010 Vancouver Olympic gold medallist figure skater Kim Yu-na for her performances as well as her beauty. She has appeared in several prominent commercials, prompting criticism that there is more focus on her appearance than ability.

But Son has largely quelled such skepticism and has expressed the firm goal of winning a medal at the next Olympics.

“I can’t believe I’ve actually come in fifth at an Olympics,” she said. “This has given me the confidence that I can compete at this level. I want to be able to enjoy myself more from now on.” <The Korea Times/Kim Ji-soo>

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