By Ara Jo.
In a large athletic field at Masan Girls High School in Changwon, a bustling industrial city, about 350km southeast of Seoul, South Korea, a girl walks across to the main building for the first time without knowing what she is about to let herself get into. She is on her way to take the entrance exam. At least she thinks she is, nothing particularly exciting there. But, that day was the beginning of a long journey that led to her one day becoming a member of the Korean National Sepaktakraw team and the gym at school becoming her second home.
The girl was Yu Young-Sim, now 28. When she was 16 years old. “Like most other people, I had never heard of sepaktakraw until then,” she says, “But the coach took a look at me and said I had all the physical attributes to be good at it. And fortunately or unfortunately, he was a persuasive man. Before I knew it, I became a member of the high school sepaktakraw team. It was during the winter in 1999.”
Although sepaktakraw is unfamiliar to most people, it works on a simple concept. “Sepak” is the Malay word for “kick” and “Takraw” is the Thai word for a woven ball. It is in many ways similar to volleyball except players are only allowed to use their feet to play the game, which is why in some countries people refer to it as “Foot Volleyball”. Each team consists of three players; a server, often called “Tekong” who begins each session by serving a ball, a striker who attacks and a feeder who defends.
“It’s a very unpopular sport,” Yu Young-Sim says, “No one really knows what it is. But that was why I took up this sport. My parents encouraged me, saying I could even be a member of the national team if I work hard. My two sisters, who were athletes themselves, were also very supportive.”
Sepaktakraw originated from South East Asia, where it is still extremely popular, and many other countries including the US and Canada have official associations for the sport. The Korea Sepaktakraw Association was established in 1988 and since then the national team has been participating in international competitions. Last year, it shone brightly while winning a silver medal, beating the very successful Malaysian team at the Guangzhou Asian Games.
As in any sport, excelling is never easy. Yu Young-Sim says: “It requires difficult technical skills such as agility and good reflexes – for example, good strikers are often originally Taekwondo athletes because they are quick, fast and flexible, which is a prerequisite to becoming a good striker.” Without any Taekwondo background, Miss Yu became a server. “Incidentally, the team was short of servers, so I had to start playing in big games when I was only a sophomore (second year) in high school. Both physically and mentally, I was not ready so I made many mistakes. But looking back, I think I was lucky to have a chance to gain more experience than others.”
In 2003, when Miss Yu was in her first year at college, she became a member of the Korean National Sepaktakraw team. It was the fruit of her long-time strenuous labours. “I was really, really happy,” she says, “I thought someday I could become a national player but I didn’t know the day would really come. I mean, it’s still amazing that I could do something on behalf of my country. And my parents were so proud of me too. I think they put up some kind of large advertising panel in my hometown with something like ‘Yu Young-Sim became a national sepaktakraw player!’ written on it. It was sort of embarrassing but I was happy to make them happy.” Her friends, who were not too enthusiastic about sepaktakraw, also wholeheartedly congratulated her. “They seemed to finally acknowledge my decision to be a serious sepaktakraw player.”
In 2005, for the first time in her life, she participated in the King’s Cup, an international football competition held annually in Thailand. “It was my first visit to Thailand so everything was new and exciting,” she says, “And I’d been dreaming about it for so long and had this beautiful mental image of Bangkok, based on what other players told me. But for some reason, that particular year, the place for the game was moved to a really remote, undeveloped area. Honestly, it was really disappointing! We were hustled out there from the airport by a three-wheel taxi that made a strange, rattling noise.”
Reminiscing, she goes on, “All players from around the world were invited to a dinner party. I thought, ‘right, this is the way it should be at an international competition. A dinner party with expensive and exotic food in a luxury hotel.’ But when I got there, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The place was an old gym and utterly run down. There were a few tables and rusty chairs here and there and guess what was offered? About a dozen sacks of mangosteens! Do you know what that is? It’s a kind of tropical fruit. That was it, all of the banquet!” She stops, laughing and continues. “I think that night I had all the mangosteens that I would ever eat for the rest of my life. It was disappointing beyond measure but at the same time it was so funny. And the thing about mangosteens is they stain your fingers purple and it’s very difficult to wash out. So the next day, during the game, we all had fun looking at each others purple hands.”
Miss Yu did well in that competition, in fact so well she was named as one of the top three sepaktakraw players in the world. She smiles shyly and says: “I could have done better. But I think it was okay for the first time.”
In 2006 Doha Asian Games, the Korean female sepaktakraw team played well enough to win a bronze medal. She says, “It was my first medal from the Asian Games and my parents were so happy.” However, again, there was not too much attention or interest from the media towards this splendid achievement. She says: “Sepaktakraw is not just in people’s minds, let alone the media. The semi-final game wasn’t even broadcast.”
One might wonder what the future holds for Korean sepaktakraw. Will it become more popular as time goes by? Miss Yu says: “The Korean men’s sepaktakraw team won a silver medal at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games, which redefined the seemingly perpetual two-way tug-of-war between Thailand and Malaysia, and it might be a catalyst for change. For example, figure-skating had long been unpopular in Korea but thanks to Kim Yu-Na, the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic gold medalist, it became one of the most popular sports. All of a sudden, there are not enough ice-rinks for figure skaters. So I think it is quite possible that sepaktakraw too will become well-known among sport fans when Korea becomes a dominant power in sepaktakraw. We might see things change at the 2012 King’s Cup and the 2014 Incheon Asian Games.”
Despite the promising future, she is now retired. Why? She answers: “It became physically very, very challenging as I got older. I’m not old yet, but you know, I reached my late twenties. So I have been thinking about doing something else and now I’m trying to become a rehabilitation therapist. I’m also hoping to attend graduate school later on for a better education.” But the unpopularity of the sport did not affect her decision. She says, “I wouldn’t have started in the first place if I had cared about whether it’s popular or not. It’s just my personal decision and I’m still in love with sepaktakraw. No matter how popular or unpopular anything you do is, you can’t do it for long if you don’t love it. And I really love sepaktakraw. I think it’s a very pure sport. It takes place in a very small court and we play with only two other team members. That’s why psychology plays an important role. In fact, in Thailand where the sport originates, coaches often put more emphasis on training their players’ mental strength through yoga and meditation than on physical training. It’s a mental sport as well as being very athletic.”
Although she has retired, sepaktakraw still takes an important place in her life. “I will never forget the days I spent playing this sport and the team mates who are even closer to me than my own family,” she says, “The memories are my driving force. Of course, I’m afraid sometimes, being out of the world of sepaktakraw, which was my comfort zone for almost half of my life, but I have this engine full of happy memories that keeps me going.”
Her voice has a unique pacifying power, something she acquired from the long devotion to her chosen sport. When asked if she has any personal observation to add for the benefit of young readers, she pauses for a second and answers, “Do what you love. You will love it.”