Woo Hee-jun has been a beauty pageant queen and a first lieutenant in the South Korean army, but her first love will always be the ancient Indian sport of kabaddi. Woo has packed a lot of experience into her 29 years and now she is hoping to break more ground by helping her country win a kabaddi medal at the Asian Games. She first fell in love with the tag-meets-rugby sport after seeing children playing it on the streets during a trip to India. And despite being a former Miss Korea finalist who also served for three years in her country’s special forces, Woo says kabaddi is “the first priority in my life”.
“I think kabaddi for me is like a path,” she said after Korea started their campaign in Hangzhou with a 43-23 loss to Thailand yesterday. “I joined the army and I went for Miss Korea in 2019, but I came back to kabaddi because kabaddi means a lot to me when you compare it to other challenges.”
Kabaddi is a team contact sport that sees players raid into enemy territory and try to tag an opponent and return to safety. Raiders are only allowed to take one breath and must constantly chant “kabaddi, kabaddi” to prove they are not using more than one puff. The sport is popular in India, Pakistan and Iran but Korea managed to finish fifth at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta. Woo’s colourful background has attracted media attention in Korea and she is hoping to use the spotlight to promote kabaddi at home.
“It’s not like it’s super-popular like football or baseball or whatever but it’s getting more popular compared with previous times,” she said. “There is an increase in athletes and coaches and also good players in high schools and universities and different leagues as well, so I think it’s going to develop more.”
Woo says she is far more nervous before kabaddi games than she was when she entered Miss Korea in 2019. She says she applied for the competition “for the experience” and didn’t care so much about the result. “But for this Asian Games, I still have a significant goal, which is to get a medal,” she said.
She says beauty pageants “still have a lot of stereotypes” but found the experience a positive one. “Beauty, for me, is not only about appearance,” she said. “It has another meaning in that you have to say your thoughts and you have more confidence to go out and influence people in a good way.”
Woo was discharged from the Korean army to return to kabaddi, although she is thinking of enlisting again once the Asian Games are over. For now, she remains laser-focused on helping her team win a medal in Hangzhou. “We tried to do our best but the result was not much to our satisfaction,” she said after losing to Thailand. “But we do still have two more matches for the preliminaries so we still have some time. “We’re going to do our best in practice – we’re going to do better next time.”
Meanwhile, India will be gunning revenge against Iran, who shocked them for gold five years ago. But Iranian athletes and officials warned they will face a “tough” battle to wrest back the gold.
Iran won both the men’s and women’s golds at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta to stun India, where millions of television viewers watch glitzy and money-spinning professional kabaddi leagues modelled on cricket’s IPL. But Iran are confident they will retain supremacy if the countries meet again in a medal showdown in Hangzhou this week.
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