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A pretty, tough competitor

By SUN XIAOCHEN in Hangzhou | China Daily | Updated: 2023-10-05 09:24
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Woo Hee-jun in action during a kabaddi match in Hangzhou. HAGPP

ROK beauty pageant finalist and army lieutenant promotes female strength as a kabaddi raider

A one-time Miss Korea pageant finalist, a former Republic of Korea special operations lieutenant and a current kabaddi "raider" competing at the 19th Asian Games — 29-year-old Woo Hee-jun has truly embodied many shades of feminity.

"I think kabaddi, for me, is like a path and obviously the top priority for my life," said Woo, who picked up the niche sport during a trip to India in 2013.

"I've been playing kabaddi for so many years and, during this journey, I joined the army, and I went for the Miss Korea pageant in 2019, as a great experience.

"But I just came back to kabaddi because it means a lot to me compared with other challenges," she said after the ROK began its Asiad campaign with a 43-23 defeat to Thailand at Xiaoshan Guali Sports Centre on Monday.

Woo's tall and slender athletic build, and her early experience as a junior hurdler and subsequent military training, all make her an elite attacker in the contact sport. The offense requires a single athlete to charge against several defenders to tag at least one opponent and retreat to safety. The defense, for its part, works to trap and stop the raider.

Woo believes the sport's intensity and agility make it ideal for mass promotion for public fitness.

Her experience of being judged largely by appearance to reach the finals at the 2019 Miss Korea selection has prompted her to work toward shifting women's beauty standards to focus on grit, fitness and confidence.

This goal is well supported by her three-year service as a lieutenant with the Army Special Operations Command and her current total commitment to one of the Asian Games' roughest team contact sports.

"Beauty pageants have a lot of stereotypes and limitations around the world," said Woo, whose friends persuaded her to sign up for the 2019 edition of Miss Korea when she was studying at the University of Ulsan.

While this pushed her toward promoting kabaddi as a manifestation of women's tougher side during her pageant run, she found she still had to do makeup and pose. The judges, however, took her ability to handle the rougher side of things into account, and she finished as a runner-up among 49 finalists.

"Maybe some of the candidates, just went out there believing it's all about appearances, but I don't think (it is)," said Woo, who was deployed to Lebanon in 2021 as an interpreter for the ROK army's International Peace Support Group.

"Beauty has a lot of different meanings. For me, it means that you can speak your mind, and be confident to go out and have a positive influence on people."

Indeed, the ROK women's team's kabaddi performance at the Asian Games offers a unique opportunity to encourage more youngsters in their homeland to take up the sport.

The ROK endured a third straight pool-stage loss to Chinese Taipei (35-24) on Wednesday.

Consequently, Woo's team missed out on the semifinals, where each of the two groups' top two teams will battle it out for final berths o Friday.

Still, Woo, who led the ROK to a fifth-place finish at the previous Asiad in 2018, believed the exposure that her colorful background has brought to the game will garner attention for the sport back home.

"That's why I came back to the team," said Woo, who applied to be discharged from the army last summer to focus on training for the Games.

"Back home, we don't have much support, and we don't have a lot of teams compared to India and Iran.

"But a lot of people have started to know about kabaddi, partially because of my past experiences. I think from now on, more Koreans and people from other nations will become interested in kabaddi. It's going to change a lot in Korea."

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