Se Ri Pak

In the years Before Se Ri Pak, professional women’s golf in Korea was essentially non-existent. In the years After Se Ri Pak, women’s golf exploded.

Se Ri Pak, the 38-year old golfer from Daejeon, South Korea, recently announced her retirement. “I learned a lot and I’m trying to share all my skills and all these dreams,” she said. “So that’s where I plan to be the next step of my life. I just want to make dreams come true.”

Pak is already making dreams come true. In fact, one could say, she was the dream for young Koreans, and by extension young Asian women, in the game of golf. When golf returns to the Olympics since its last appearance in 1904, 60 of the best golfers in the world will compete, with a limit of the top four from each country. In the current 2016 Olympic rankings for female golfers, South Koreans make up an amazing four of the top 7 golfers who qualify for Rio. And if you look even closer, 9 of the top 15 are Asian.

“I remember watching [Pak] on TV,” said Christina Kim, a South Korean-American golfer. “She wasn’t blond or blue-eyed, and we were of the same blood…. You say to yourself, ‘If she can do it, why can’t I?'”

In the book, The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown, Daniel Coyle wrote about Kim, Korean golfers and Se Ri Pak, and called the explosion of talent in Korea an “ignition”. You could be dedicated to developing a skill by practicing consistently and earnestly. But you don’t burn for excellence. You don’t understand what it means to drive yourself to perfection. You never portray your desire as a willingness to die to be the very best.

Until a Hero emerges.

Se Ri Pak 1998.jpg

In South Korea, Se Ri Pak emerged. When she hit the professional stage, Korean women were ignited! Coyle writes,

For South Korea’s golfers, it was the afternoon of May 18, 1998, when a twenty-year old named Se Ri Pak won the McDonald’s LPGA Championship and became a national icon. (As one Seoul newspaper put it, “‘Se Ri Pak is not the female Tiger Woods; Tiger Woods is the male Se Ri Pak.”) Before her, no South Korean had succeeded in golf. Flash-forward to ten years later, and Pak’s countrywomen had essentially colonized the LPGA Tour, with forty-five players who collectively won about one-third of the events.

As Coyle explains, ignition is “an awakening”, “lightning flashes of image and emotion”, “the set of signals and subconscious forces that create our identity; the moments that lead us to say that is who I want to be.”

“I am, indeed, a king, because I know how to rule myself.” – Pietro Aretino

There’s a powerful message in the Under Armour “Rule Yourself” campaign. Being the best is hard work!

The most recent iteration of the Rule Yourself campaign features the greatest swimmer of all time, Michael Phelps, who hopes to add to his record number of gold medals at the Rio Olympics later this year. But as the commercial is trying to convey, Phelps’ achievements didn’t come only because he has natural talent, but because he applied an unnatural effort, sacrificed, and then achieved.

A few weeks ago, Under Armour released a commercial featuring members of the US women’s gymnastics team, also putting on display the rigorous training regimen of athletes competed to reach the highest levels of excellence.

There was a time people would say there is genius in the world, that the Mozarts and Tiger Woods of the world were born with talent. They were the chosen ones. There may very well be genetic advantages that can be parsed out. But a more likely explanation is that they worked hard at their craft. And in fact, research has shown that the greatest of the great, in any discipline, have often applied at least 10,000 hours of practice.

outliersOne of the populizers of this hypothesis is the acclaimed journalist, Malcolm Gladwell, who has developed a knack for featuring the best of the best in his stories. In the book, Outliers: The Story of Success, he writes extensively about the 10,000 hour rule, and quotes author and neurologist, Daniel Levitin to explain.

“The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything,” writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin. “In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”

Ten thousand hours.

It is as large a number as it seems. If 10 years is 3650 days, and thus 87,000 hours, then to get to 10,000 hours over ten years, you would have to spend nearly 3 hours a day training or practicing. Imagine a 20-year-old woman who makes the Olympic Games. From the age of 10, she’s spending finding time on the rink once or twice day, with longer days on the weekends…for ten years. This doesn’t include the travel time for her and her parents, the pain, the emotional highs and lows, the struggle to maintain school attendance and grades, and an even more heightened sense of self and insecurity as she struggles in her quest through puberty and her teens.

They make it look easy. But it isn’t. For first, you must rule yourself.

Donald and Ivana Trump
Donald and Ivana Trump

The US presidential nomination process is a source of anxiety and entertainment for people outside the United States. This year is no exception, particularly with the rise of Donald Trump. While Trump has built an amazingly robust brand that represents, to his fans and supporters, success, straight talk and no-nonsense bias for action, he is also seen by others as arrogant, uninformed and dishonest.

Ah, but this blog is about the Olympics. So what’s the angle?

In April, 1977, Trump married a Czech model named Ivana Zelníčková in New York City. They met in Montreal at the 1976 Olympic Games, where Ivana was a successful model. Trump was immediately enamored of Ivana, and as was his wont, would boast. “By the age of six, (Ivana) was winning medals, and in 1972 she was an alternate on the Czechoslovakian ski team at the Sapporo Winter Olympics,” wrote Trump in his book Trump: The Art of the Deal. Apparently, he talked about his super model, super athlete wife in this manner countless times.

Ivana Trump_ Spy Magazine

But as written in this profile piece on Ivana in the May, 1989 edition of Spy Magazine, Ivana’s story was a tad embellished by The Don, as she admitted to calling him in the article.

Just to be clear, it doesn’t appear that Ivana was saying that she was an alternate on the Czech Olympic squad. Trump was the one waxing poetic about his beautiful bride.

Is Trump exuding success or dishonesty? I’ll leave that to you.

Flying Dutchmen 1964_Olympic_Report2_800_rdax_60

They came in 18th overall in the Flying Dutchman (FD) competition, but they came in first in the hearts of the Japanese.

Stig Lennart Käll and his younger brother Lars Gunnar Käll were sailing in the third race of seven in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics FD-class competition when they saw another boat ahead of them capsize, and of the two crew members floating in the middle of the Sagami Bay. Making a fairly quick decision, the Käll brothers steered their way towards the sailor in the water and plucked Australian Ian Charles Winter out of the water. Then they proceeded to the capsized Australian boat, Diablo, to rescue the second member of that crew, John Gregory Dawe, pulling him into the Swedish boat, Hayama.

Swedish yacht saves Austrlian yacht

According to the Japan Times on October 21, 1964, the exploits of the Swedish FD crew were publicized nationally in the Japanese press, sparking a barrage of gifts to be sent by grateful well-wishers to the sailing Olympic Village in Oiso, not far from the Enoshima Harbor where the sailing competition was taking place.

Their behavior also led to the creation of the Fair Play Prize. The first winners of this prize – the Käll brothers.

The Swedes still placed 12th out of 20 in that particular race. Seven others, including the Australian boat, did not finish the race. Of the six other races in the competition, this had by far the highest number of boats that could not finish. And yet, the Swedish brothers not only finished, they beat out one other boat – this despite taking time to rescue the Australians, and taking on considerable extra weight with the two new crewmen.

Stig Kall
Stig Lennart Käll
Iolanda Balas in Tokyo_Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Service
From the book, XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964 Asahi Shinbum

One of the most dominant female athletes in history passed away this week. Iolanda Balaș was not only the first Romanian woman to win an Olympic gold medal, she was the sole world record holder of the high jump for over thirteen years, setting a new record 12 times in that span from June 1958 to July 1961.

Balaș won her first gold medal during that period at the Rome Olympics in 1960. She had not missed a jump in the entire competition, and so had extra jumps. After winning the competition at 1.73 meters, she went after the Olympic record. Leaping 1.77, 1.81 and 1.85 meters, she broke the Olympic record three times before calling it quits.

At Tokyo in 1964, Balaș did it again, not missing a jump, and winning the gold medal at the height of 1.82 meters. Again, with bullets to spare, she took a shot at the Olympic record and broke it twice, first at 1.86 meters, and then finally at 1.90. She reached this incredible height, apparently, despite a torn tendon.

Balaș was 79.

Watch her emerge victorious in Rome in this video.

memorial to 1980 US Boxing team to Poland'
Memorial to the US Boxing team who perished in Warsaw, Poland on March 14, 1980


On this day, March 14, 36 years ago, LOT Airlines 7 took off in New York City and crashed on the runway at a Warsaw, Poland domestic airport. Eighty-seven people, all passengers and crew, including 22 members of the US boxing team, died.

Possibility of a US boycott of the Moscow Olympics was in the air, but at that time members of this team were still hoping to make the Olympic team. One passenger, Lemuel Steeples of St Louis, was considered a strong medal contender for the 1980 Summer Games. On the whole though, many of these boxers were still in a developmental stage, these international competitions an opportunity to get them experience.

As then chairman of the AAU national boxing committee, Bob Surkein said in this New York Times article, “These were youngsters who never had a thing in life. All we can offer them is an international trip. They get the trip and something like this happens. They were just babies. I don’t know how we’re going to come out of it.”

As all plane crash stories inevitably have, there are people who for whatever reason were supposed to be on a doomed flight, but weren’t. One week before the LOT 7 plane crash, boxer Bobby Czyz was injured in a car accident, and thus did not go with the team to Poland.

Czyz (pronounced “chez”), who is of Polish ancestry and was born in Orange, New Jersey, went on to be a world light heavyweight and cruiserweight champion. After losing to heavyweight champion, Evander Holyfield, Czyz retired and became a successful television boxing analyst.

Czyz vs Holyfield
October 5, 1996 fight between Czyz and Holyfield


A few years ago, Czyz was interviewed by Boxing News 24 where he provided a very emotional reply to a question about how he felt when he heard about the LOT 7 crash.

“When I found out the plane crashed I’ll tell you exactly what I felt and what I thought. My father was a very brutal man. He was a tough disciplinarian. He called the house from his office and he said ‘Bob, remember that trip to Poland?’ I thought he was gonna rip into me because I’d gotten in a car accident. He said ‘Listen, they’re all dead. The plane crashed at 100% fatality’. When I say to you, a chill ran up my spine, I can’t even tell you, the feeling was so strange, I was physically shaking.”

Bobby then brings the factors of fate and religion into the situation. “It’s unimaginable that you were slated to be dead and that is an uncomfortable feeling, I was supposed to be dead. It’s never left me, certainly the severity of the moment has never changed but as time goes by, you don’t think about it as much. Whoever took my place is gone and I was literally slated to die.”

He continued “I’m not a religious person, my mom is very old school Catholic and when the plane crashed, she said to me, and I quote ‘Son, don’t you believe in God now? He let you get in a car accident and he saved your life.’ You mean he killed all of those people to make a point to me? That’s just bad Math. To this day, she still believes that’s what happened.”

memorial to 1980 US Boxing team to Poland 2Four years later, a statue dedicated to the US Boxing Team that perished in Warsaw was placed on the training grounds of the US Olympic team in Colorado Springs, Colorado. On that memorials are inscribed all the members of the team who died that day:

Kelvin D. Anderson, Elliott Chavis, Gary Tyrone Clayton, Walter Harris, Byron Lindsay, Andrea McCoy, Paul Palomino, Byron Payton, George Pimental, Chuck Robinson, David Rodriguez, Lemuel Steeples, Jerome Stewart, Lonnie Young, Joseph F. Bland, Colonel Bernard Callahan, John Radison, Junior Robles, Dr. Ray Wesson, Delores Wesson, and the coach Thomas “Sarge” Johnson

Ikuko Yoda_Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha 1
Ikuko Yoda, from the magazine Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha
Ikuko Yoda (依田郁子) did not make the team to go to the Rome Olympic Games in 1960. So she went to Lake Sagami near Mt Fuji, took a large amount of sleeping pills, and attempted to end her life. However, she did not succeed.

Running the hurdles had become her life, and competing and winning in the Olympics was perhaps a way to make her complete. Recovering from the pain of Rome, she may have seen redemption in Tokyo, and recovered enough from her suicide attempt to begin training again. Over that 4-year period, Yoda set and re-set the Japan record for the 80-meter hurdles 12 times, becoming a powerful track and field hope for Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

During the Tokyo Games, photographers tracked her every move. The famed director, Kon Ichikawa, had his movie cameras focused on Yoda more than other competitors for the film, Tokyo Olympiad. And Yoda ran excellently, easily making the cut in the first round of heats, running a personal best 10.7 seconds. In the semis, she again ran the course in 10.7 seconds and made it to the final 8.

In one of the closest finals in any Olympic foot race ever, Karin Balzer of Germany and Teresa Cieply of Poland finished the 8-meter race in 10.5 seconds, although Balzer was declared the winner. Pam Kilborn of Australia finished third with a time of 10.6 seconds. With a time of 10.7 seconds, Yoda finished fifth.

No doubt, this was a fantastic time and finish. In fact, she’s still the only Japanese female to enter the finals of any individual short-distance race in the history of international competition.

But she could not outrun her demons.

Ikuko Yoda_Asahi Graf_Oct 23
Ikuko Yoda, from the magazine Asahi Graf_Oct 23
After the 1964 Olympics, Yoda married. She had children. And as she entered her forties, she began to suffer from health issues. In 1983 she entered the hospital for knee and heart issues. And on October 14 of that year, nearly 19 years to the day when she fought but came in fifth in the 80-meter hurdles at the Tokyo Games, she hung herself in her own home.

She left no note. But she suffered from depression, and apparently had problems reconciling her images of perfection in whatever she was doing, and the reality around her. Here is how Robin Kietlinski, the author of Japanese Women and Sport explained it.

In spite of the paper-thin difference separating Yoda’s finishing time from those of the three medal winners, she had an incredibly difficult time handling the fact that she had trained so hard and did not come away with a medal. She was frequently described as a perfectionist (kanzenshugisha, kanpekishugisha) who could not bear when things did not go exactly as she planned. At a press conference immediately following the conclusion of the Tokyo Olympics, Yoda caused quite a stir when she reported that ‘I do not want to go through the pain of racing a second time. I will be retiring now. I do not even want to look at a track again.’ Shortly thereafter, she married a professor at the Tokyo University of Education (now Tsukuba University) and fully devoted herself to being a good housewife and later a caring mother to her children. According to her husband, she was as much a perfectionist when it came to running the household as she had been during her running career.