Alongside archery and taekwondo, judo has historically been one of South Korea's strongest bets at winning a medal in the Summer Olympics.
But, the South Korean national team judokas aren't just well known for their skills and strength, but for their top class sportsmanship, as well.
Meet Korea's Star Olympians: Tonight, we have the country's best judokas who already have their eyes set for Paris 2024 after having completed Tokyo 2020 with a podium finish.
Tokyo 2020 Silver medalist in the men's under one hundred kilogram weight class Cho Gu-ham and bronze medalist in the men's under sixty six kilo category, An Ba-ul.
Gu-ham, Ba-ul, welcome to the show. Pleasure to have you both here.
It's a bit late but Gu-ham, Ba-ul, congratulations on your Olympic achievements this year.
Why don't you show our viewers your medals?
Should I take it out of the case?
We're all so proud, indeed.
It's been a few weeks since you both got back from Tokyo. How have you been spending your time? Have you taken your summer vacation yet?
No, not yet. I'm undergoing medical treatment for an injury I sustained before the Olympics and just relaxing.
Ba-ul, what about you?
Same here. I also got injured before the Games and having to stay in confined spaces for so long due to COVID-19 took its toll as well. So I'm taking a break from training now and receiving treatment.
Gu-ham, you won the first medal in the under 100 kilogram category for Team Korea in 17 years. Your silver is the first since Jang Sung-ho's silver at Athens 2004 in that weight class.
How does it feel?
It's tough for Korean judokas to perform well in the heavier weight classes due to the difference in physical size compared to European competitors. I'm proud I was able to win a medal and I hope my achievement can inspire the next generation to do the same.
Was it your left cruciate ligament that you injured in 2016? I'm aware you weren't at your best at Rio, rupturing it three months before the Games began. How did you prepare for the Games this time leading up to Tokyo 2020?
Injuries are also part of the game. They're a reflection of the responsibility and skills of an athlete but I was careless in 2016 and just focused on winning a medal. This time around, though, I made sure I didn't suffer any severe injuries going into the Olympics by taking all things into consideration when training. That was the key to my success in Tokyo this year.
After losing in the final to Japan's Aaron Wolf, you lifted his arm in the air to congratulate the gold medalist. It's being quoted as a display of gracious sportsmanship. There must have been a lot of emotions running through. How were you feeling back then?
It had been a long, grueling match and claiming the gold medal was all I had in mind.
In fact, it was all that I had ever dreamed of, so losing was tough. But Wolf's tears of joy moved me.
I could tell how hard he had worked to get to that gold medal moment. Had it been me who won, I probably would've shed tears as well.
It sure was a long match even for us watching the game. What was it like for you on the mat?
I was so locked into my opponent that I couldn't keep track of the time, really. It was only after the game was over that I realized it had been a long match and that the game of my life had come to an end, just like that.
Ba-ul, were you watching Gu-ham's gold medal match, as well?
Yes. I was in the stands cheering.
Could you tell us what was going through your mind watching Gu-ham?
To be honest with you, I cried a bit because I knew how hard Gu-ham had worked to get there. It almost felt like I was with him on the mat, fighting together as one.
Finishing in second place at the Olympics is a great accomplishment but I've noticed Korean athletes tend to cry after winning a silver medal.
Not me. I'm happy. Incredibly happy. A gold medal finish would've been nice, of course, but my silver medal motivates me to aim for the next Olympics and perform even better at Paris 2024.
Wonderful. And Ba-ul, after winning silver in Rio five years ago, you've added an Olympic bronze medal to your list of achievements. You did it with a shoulder throw ippon against the world number one at the time.
That's right. I lost to Italy's Manuel Lombardo both times that we faced off before the Olympics.
So, I can't say I wasn't nervous heading into the bronze medal match. But I was determined not to leave any regrets on the mat and I think this mindset naturally led to a good result.
I remember seeing you weep after losing in the gold medal match in Rio. It broke my heart. You cried again this time.
The tears I shed in Tokyo are different from the ones I shed in Rio five years ago. They're opposites really. This year, my tears symbolized joy and a sense of achievement after all the hard work I put in for the Olympics. I was immensely happy.
It was nice to see you put on a big smile on the podium. Does your positive attitude mean you're eyeing first place in Paris?
It does. I have a silver and a bronze from the Olympics and a gold medal is all that's left for me to win. I'm going to do my best to take home the top prize in Paris in three years' time.
Gu-ham, in an interview after your second place finish, you also said your silver medal motivates you to aim higher. You're undergoing treatment now but you already have plans for the Paris Olympics, right?
Absolutely. I don't think I'll ever forget the moment I won an Olympic medal. I want to live through it once more. Next time, though, with a gold medal. It's what keeps me going.
Judo, by its very nature, requires close contact among athletes. Was competing at this Olympics different in any way considering the world is going through a pandemic?
Definitely. Even with COVID-19 spreading, we had to train, of course. But I came to realize just how precious normal training sessions are. In the isolated world we live in these days, it's now unimaginable to train in large groups without masks on. Things I previously took for granted now seem so far away. I'm so thankful to my training partners and fellow Olympians for helping me along my journey under these extraordinary circumstances. I miss the pre-pandemic days so much. I think Tokyo 2020 enabled us to look back at ourselves and appreciate our surroundings.
How about you, Ba-ul?
The one year delay brought on by the pandemic meant more time to prepare for some and a block in the road for others. I was one of those who benefited from the extra time. Training at an easier pace definitely helped me perform better.
Before we started recording, I noticed you neatly fix Ba-ul's clothes, Gu-ham. You two seem very close. What relationship do you share as fellow Olympians?
Ba-ul and I go way back. We were roommates as young judokas at the old Taereung National Training Center and relied on each other a lot during tough times. The tight bond we share now is the culmination of all the experiences we went through together growing up.
To know that Gu-ham is in my corner, rooting for me is an amazing feeling. His presence alone eases any fear I might feel heading into a match. He's such a trustworthy guy who I can rely on and I'm very grateful to have him as a teammate.
Does it come as a relief that you two aren't in the same weight class, competing against each other?
It does for me. When we train together, it's not easy for me to throw Ba-ul down on the mat despite vastly outweighing him. Sometimes, I'm the one who's taken down actually. What a relief he isn't competing in the under 100 kilos category
Ba-ul, you can really throw Gu-ham down?
I think he goes easy on me sometimes. We'll never be in the same weight class, though, so I've never given a thought about the possibility.
Lastly, what are your dreams moving forward, beyond Tokyo 2020? Starting with you, Gu-ham.
I dream of using judo as a vehicle to instill hope and dreams into people. I believe judo can go mainstream that way for everyone to practice as a hobby. In the end, I just want to live a happy life as a respected judoka.
Like Gu-ham, I also want to help judo grow as a sport and spread my love for it to others. And like I said, I dream of adding a gold medal to my silver and bronze at Paris 2024 as well.
An Ba-ul, the medal collector? Excellent.
Please remember that the entire team here at Arirang and I will be rooting for both of you; at Paris 2024 and beyond, until the day judo is enjoyed by everyone.
You know what? I think I'll give judo a try myself.
Thank you for coming guys.