Two-time Swiss Open champion Yoo Yeon Seong is sitting out the first European tour of the 2013 badminton calendar. He spoke to Badzine about his experience as one of the latest recruits to Korea’s military team.
Interview by Don Hearn. Photos: Badmintonphoto and Don Hearn
It was almost exactly three years ago that Yoo Yeon Seong really announced his arrival in the top echelon of men’s doubles when he and then partner Ko Sung Hyun beat three All England champions in as many days to claim top honours at the Swiss Open, their first Superseries title.
After a disappointing outing at the London Olympics, where Ko and Yoo were the fourth seeds, and where a medal of any colour would have spared him his present status, Yoo entered into a temporary partnership with Shin Baek Cheol and won his first Superseries Premier title in their first tournament together.
In December, Yoo and Jang Ye Na had firmly established themselves as Korea’s top mixed pair and they were on the verge of entering the world’s top ten when Jang was injured just two weeks before Yoo began his compulsory military service on Christmas Eve.
With basic training completed, Yoo and three other elite players – including his Suwon team-mates Park Wan Ho and Rho Ye Wook, as well as singles star Son Wan Ho – were back to badminton training. Yoo spoke to Badzine as he and his fellow recruits prepared for their first tournament as part of the Sangmu team, a special outfit where young men carrying out their military service compete with all of Korea’s top pro teams.
Badzine: Now that you have been a soldier for a couple of months, how does the actual experience compare with your expectations?
Yoo Yeon Seong: It’s very different being with the Sangmu team now and when we were actually on base as soldiers. My military service started with a month of basic training and I think that was good for my mental strength.
On one hand it was hard to be kept away from training for so long but it was a good learning experience. We had a lot of difficulties and it taught me patience and communication and I feel more confident that I can succeed even if I have a lot to get through, both in sport and in society generally.
Badzine: You were taken off the national team roster when you began your term as a soldier. Is that just a temporary state? Do you expect to return to the national team soon?
Yoo: At this point, nothing is certain. For now, I’m just going to train hard where I am, to the best of my ability, and if they do end up calling me back to the national team, I’ll do my best to play whatever role they give me.
The coaches did tell me to keep training hard, even if there has been no actual call back. Of course, I would like to rejoin the national team and there is a lot I still want to accomplish. For example, I’d like to achieve a world #1 ranking and I want to get another shot at winning an Olympic medal, though before that, I’d like to win gold at the Asian Games in Korea next year.
Badzine: You and Jang Ye Na were Korea’s top-ranked pair in mixed doubles and in December you were just one match away from entering the top ten in mixed for the first time in your career. Is reaching a certain level in mixed doubles a particular goal of yours at this point?
Yoo: I’d like the chance to prove myself in both mixed and men’s doubles but I’m willing to go with whatever discipline I’m able to achieve the best results in. Right now, Korean mixed doubles is in a rather weakened state so if I were given the opportunity to help fill that void, I’d definitely be willing to go for it.
The head coach did mention I might be called upon to focus on mixed and I’m definitely here to do what my country requires of me.
Badzine: Many players speak of how draining it can be to devote so many years of your life to full-time badminton training. Did the temporary switch to army training in any way give you a welcome break or a chance to rejuvenate?
Yoo: In my eighteen years as a badminton player, I’ve never gone for a whole month without playing, as I did in basic training, so I was a little apprehensive beforehand. But coming back to badminton, I think I’ve found I have a hunger that is stronger than before and I also find the sport more fun than I did, so it has been a sort of renewal and it is again clear to me that I am suited to the life of a badminton player.
Badzine: Training as an elite athlete in a sport like badminton must already be physically very strenuous. Just how gruelling is military training by comparison?
Yoo: Of course, the on court training in badminton is exhausting but you also have a lot of rest time to recover. In army training, you only eat and sleep when they tell you to so it is difficult in that way.
Also, with badminton, I’m only responsible for my playing and the fitness of my own body but in the army, you have to perform as a unit so it is a different challenge.
Badzine: How do you feel going into the Spring Championships with your new team?
Yoo: Especially since this is my first tournament with the army team, I really hope we can record a win. Also, a few of us are really hoping to perform well enough that we could be called back to the national team so there is that extra incentive. We have had a reasonable amount of training time since basic training so I think we can win it.
Badzine: With tournaments like the All England and the Swiss Open going on now, does it make you anxious to not be part of the action?
Yoo: Of course, I’ve participated in the All England and the other tournaments so many times and I wish I could have played in them this year. I’ve also never won the All England so it is tough to have to miss it but it isn’t as if I won’t get another chance. I have to think of this period as my preparation for the next time.