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Nat'l team volleyball stars battling injuries with jam-packed, pre-Olympic calendar on horizon

(Yonhap)
(Yonhap)

When South Korea won the Asian Olympic women’s volleyball qualifying tournament earlier this month, some of its key players took the adage “taking one for the team” to a whole new level -- to the point where their injuries could have a negative effect on South Korea‘s medal hopes.

Captain Kim Yeon-koung played the qualifying event in Thailand from Jan. 7-12 with torn abdominal muscle, which will sideline her for at least another month. Kim took painkillers before the final against Thailand and scored a match-best 22 points to lead South Korea to a straight-set victory.

The win sent South Korea to the Olympics, but Kim will miss some time with her Turkish club Eczacibasi VitrA.

And it turns out Kim wasn’t the only one playing hurt. Lee Jae-yeong, who filled in admirably for Kim when the captain was limited during the preliminary stage and then sat out the semifinals, had nagging pains in her left knee and back. And after she returned home from the qualifying tournament, her right knee acted up. She‘ll miss at least three weeks in the domestic V-League.

Opposite hitter Kim Hee-jin, also a key attacker, has been ruled out for a month in the V-League with right calf issues.

Setter Lee Da-yeong, Lee Jae-yeong’s twin sister, is playing through pain in both ankles in the South Korean league.

Playing five matches in a six-day span in Thailand clearly took its toll on these players.

Clubs here are caught in a difficult spot. They‘ll need all the help they can get from these national team-caliber stars in their race for playoff spots. But if these banged-up players are rushed back into action, they’ll be at a risk for more injuries, which will in turn hurt the national team‘s chances in the Olympics this summer.

The league and national team schedules leading up to the July 26-Aug. 9 Olympic tournament won’t allow for much rest for these weary players.

The V-League‘s regular season ends on March 15, and the playoffs will wrap up on April 4, if the final goes the distance.

Then the Volleyball Nations League (VNL), an international tournament run by the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB), will start on May 19. South Korea will make stops in China, Belgium, Germany and Russia to play in four consecutive weeks. Then it will host Brazil, Turkey and the Netherlands in Week 5 action from June 16-18.

The Olympic women’s volleyball tournament begins on July 26.

Depending on their clubs‘ playoff status, national team mainstays in the V-League will have about a month or two of downtime between the end of the season and the start of the VNL.

And once the VNL ends, there will be another month or so before the beginning of the Olympics, though most of the supposed downtime will be spent on training for the big tournament.

South Korea may choose to assemble a “B” team for the early portion of the VNL to protect its stars. But national team head coach Stefano Lavarini will also need to test his Olympic-ready lineup before Tokyo and could see the latter stages of the VNL as the opportunity to do so.

The Korea Volleyball Association said the VNL team will likely be selected at the end of April or by the early May at the latest. (Yonhap)

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