Citius, Altius, Fortius ( “Faster, Higher, Stronger”)
Maybe, like me, as you watched the glorious spectacle that was the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, you had questions like these: What goes into becoming an elite athlete? Once athletes retire, how do the next chapters in their lives play out? What role does culture play in shaping athletes?
Who better to tell us than Kyung-Ae Lee, an Olympian from South Korea? At 18 Kyung-Ae was selected for her national volleyball team and competed in the 1972 Munich Olympics (the team finished just off the podium); the next year her team was third in the World Cup in Uruguay. She remained a national team member until just before the Montreal Olympics.
Honours have come from far and near: her national team number was retired; in 2016 she was inducted into our local Sports Hall of Fame.
Fortunately, Kyung-Ae is easy to track down. For the past 22 years she has been here in Lindsay. From 7:30 am to 10-11 pm, year-round, she can be found in the convenience store she runs, Kent Mini Mart. (One feature of Korean culture is, clearly, a willingness to put in some long hours.)
When I drop in she sets aside her bookkeeping and between customers shares her story.
The Making of an Olympic Athlete
Kyung-Ae grew up in South Korea’s capital, Seoul, one of six children in a close-knit family. Her parents were both born in North Korea. (Her father’s dream was to be able to visit North Korea again at some point. Political tensions between North and South will help shape the story).
When she was in Grade 5 Kyung-Ae fell in love with volleyball. She remembers the exact moment. She was leaving school. The sun was setting and a white volleyball was being set aloft by some grade 6 students. An indelible image.
Coincidentally, a few days later, a volleyball coach came to her classroom and selected boys and girls to come to a gym for testing. From a group of about 60. 12 remained after the screening. She was one of them.
Initially, her father disapproved.
“He thought only poor people play sports,” Kyung-Ae tells me. “Maybe because the school supports and pays everything.” And he worried when she twisted an ankle playing.
When he saw how determined Kyung-Ae was, he eventually relented, even buying her her own volleyball. But there was one condition: “If not top don’t play.”
Through secondary school she devoted herself to volleyball.
The training imposed by coaches was rigorous. She remembers one coach who would, a few times a year, assemble the team at 2-3 am for a two-hour run to the peak of Mt. Namsan and back.
But, she made even greater demands on herself. Not as tall as some teammates and wanting to play the key position of left side main spiker, she was determined to out-work them. Each day she would wake early and put in an hour of practice before the team arrived. She would skip, do weights, and work on her vertical jump.
After school and a team practice she would have dinner then serve, bump and volley against the side of her home until dark (fortunately, the family had an understanding neighbour).
At a provincial tournament she saw the South Korean team uniform for the ‘68 Mexico Olympics. Another life-changing moment. “I dream. I want to wear Korean flag uniform.”
So, if there’s a recipe for athletic excellence, for Kyung-Ae, it was something like this: love of a sport + natural ability + supportive parent with high standards + hard work and determination = sports success at the highest level.
The Close of One Chapter
After what was an emotional high-point — defeating Japan at a Montreal Pre-Olympic tournament — came an abrupt end to her national team career. Her father, ever protective, had been increasingly anxious about political tensions in Korea. The decision was made to emigrate to Paraguay in South America. It was a country that welcomed immigrants and had a sizeable Korean population.
Volleyball wasn’t over for her. While working as a flight attendant she played for a team sponsored by the airline. And after five years, she was invited by Volleyball Canada to coach and play in Scarborough. A complete tear of an Achilles tendon six months after her arrival in Canada brought her competitive playing to an end.
The Next Chapters
With the close of the volleyball chapter, two inextricably entwined themes came to the fore: family and religion.
Kyung-Ae’s paternal grandfather had been a deacon and elder in North Korea. Her younger brother is a minister and Kyung-Ae and both of her sisters married ministers. And Kyung-Ae herself trained to become a certified minister in the Korean Assembly of God.
It was while in New York studying theology that Kyung-Ae was connected to the man who became her husband. (He was studying at the time to become a minister in Germany).
They married, in Montreal, and began their own family.
After her husband passed away, Kyung-Ae brought her two sons, David and Joshua, to Peterborough briefly before coming here to Lindsay.
Why Montreal, Peterborough and Lindsay? Family connections in each of those communities. She came to Lindsay because a younger brother had opened a business here and helped her get established. (He owns Mr. Convenience, at the eastern end of Kent St.)
Almost all of her extended family are here in Canada, the exceptions being a sister who returned to Korea and a brother in the U.S.
Through the miracle of modern telecommunications, Kyung-Ae remains closely connected to the family. There are frequent calls to her sons. There are frequent calls to her sons. (David, now 31, is in Alberta, working in Human Resources for a mining company. Joshua, now 29, is Client Service Manager for a security company in Toronto and in his spare time plays rugby — a passion he picked up at LCVI)).
Skype allows her to join in church services that bring together Koreans from Toronto, Minden and Lindsay.
“Through internet the world is wide open,” says Kyung-Ae. So she can also stay connected to Korean popular culture, k-drama for example.
She’s fascinated by cultural changes in the country where she grew up: “I like to see changes in fashion and what young people and people my own age are thinking.” Even the language is changing. “There are more short words, slang words,” she observes.
Meanwhile she’s made connections to neighbours, too, particularly an older man — the same age as her father would be — whom she first met after he noticed a problem with her door and came over and fixed it.
And, of course, for a former athlete, there’s still interest in sports and physical activity.
For a while, she swam at the Lindsay Recreation Complex. But when her brother bought some new golf clubs and passed along his old set to her, Kyung-Ae decided to give it a try. She took lessons in Scarborough (I’m betting she was very coachable). She has not only an eagle but a hole-in-one to her credit.
If you’re up really early, you might find Kyung-Ae at the Lindsay Golf and Country Club, putting in 9 holes before opening up the store at 7:30 am.