The 25-year-old captured her first World Taekwondo Championships gold medal on Friday in Muju, some 240 kilometers south of Seoul. In the women's under-57kg final at T1 Arena, Lee got past Hatice Kubra Ilgun of Turkey 7-5.
It was South Korea's competition-best fifth and final gold medal, as the signature event for the World Taekwondo Federation came to a close.
Lee had mostly been a forgotten practitioner in a division dominated by the likes of Jade Jones, the two-time reigning Olympic gold medalist from Britain, and Mayu Hamada of Japan, the 2015 world champion.
But here was Lee, ranked sixth in the world, taking down Hamada in the quarters and then Jones in the semis. After overcoming those two, Lee had little trouble against the 15th-ranked Ilgun.
After rolling through her competition, Lee was named the most valuable player in the women's competition. Lee's gold medal also clinched South Korea's overall title in the women's competition.
South Korea was tied with Turkey and Serbia with two gold medals, but led everyone in total medals thanks to one silver and three bronze medals.
South Korea also led the WTF's team points rankings on the women's side. Based on total medals and number of athletes represented, South Korea earned 63 points to beat Turkey by 10.
|Lee Ah-reum of South Korea celebrates her gold medal in the women's under-57kg at the World Taekwondo Federation World Taekwondo Championships at T1 Arena in Muju, North Jeolla Province, on June 30, 2017. (Yonhap)|
"There are so many strong athletes in this division that I didn't expect myself to finish first," Lee said. "It's really gratifying."
Lee won the 2014 Asian Games gold medal in South Korea's Incheon, and also won the Asian Championships gold that same year. But Lee stalled there and couldn't qualify for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics two years later.
And now with a world title in the bags, Lee said she is trying to soak up all the attention she could.
"I am actually pretty self-centered, and it just killed me when I wasn't getting any attention," Lee said. "It feels good to be standing before so many cameras now."
Lee credited some of her teammates with helping her along, but none played a bigger role than Hwang Kyung-seon, the only female practitioner ever to win three consecutive Olympic medals.
"She's my role model," Lee said of Hwang, who followed a bronze in 2004 with gold medals in 2008 and 2012. "I am getting all choked up just thinking of her. It was thanks to her that I was able to win the gold medal here."
After winning the Asian Games gold three years ago, Lee said she wanted to celebrate with a cold one or two. And the world title here also called for some adult beverages.
"I haven't had a sip for a long time because I was preparing for the worlds," she said with a smile. "I don't know if I can handle alcohol so well now, but I'd still like to have some today." (Yonhap)