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[Gwangju Swimming] Water polo stars hope sport will grow after 1st world championships victory

Sometimes, all it takes is one moment to spark wider interest in a sport. And South Korean men's water polo players are hoping that theirs came Tuesday with their first world championships victory.

South Korea defeated New Zealand 17-16 after four quarters of regulation and a penalty shootout at the FINA World Championships.

It was South Korea's first victory at the biennial competition.


"I hope our performance here will help grow water polo at the grassroots level," said captain Lee Seon-uk. "I think this victory will serve as the guiding light for the sport in the country.

Hopefully, we'll continue to take these small steps, and I think we demonstrated what we're capable of."

South Korea had lost its first four games before coming through with the historic win in the 15th place game. Gwon Yeong-gyun scored the tying goal with 32 seconds left in regulation and then got the clinching goal in the shootout.

Gwon echoed Lee's sentiment that he wanted to see the sport grow more, so that the future generation of players will be able to train in a more professional environment.

"We began preparing for the world championships when the talent pool was still shallow," said Gwon, 31. "If people take more interest in water polo, hopefully we'll receive more support from the national Olympic committee and the government. And I'd also like to see the changing of the guard and have some talented young guys step up to take charge of the program."

Goalkeeper Lee Jin-woo, 22, will be very much a part of that new generation. He stopped Nicholas Stankovich in the shootout to carry South Korea to the victory, and he spoke about how this tournament could be a stepping stone for men's water polo in the country.

"We played countries that will be good enough to make the semifinals at the world championships, and I think doing so made us so much better," Lee said. "Even though we only got in as the host country, we got our victory and accomplished our objective."

At a press conference after the match, coach Lee Seung-jae said that as there are currently no teams at elementary and middle schools, South Korea's shallow pool of talent will eventually dry up.

"We need to start creating teams at the youth level," Lee said.

"We should keep finding and developing young players and look ahead to 10 years down the road."

Next up for the men's team will be the Olympic qualification for Tokyo. Japan will get in as the host nation, and South Korea will be up against the likes of Kazakhstan and China for one other spot from of Asia. Kazakhstan defeated South Korea 17-4 in the first classification match in Gwangju on Sunday.

"We don't have the size or the physical strength to compete against the best in the world," Lee said. "We have to keep improving our lower body strength and become strong and durable enough to battle those teams from start to finish." (Yonhap)