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'Be like Leo': S. Korean taekwondo champion inspired by Lionel Messi's World Cup title

By Yonhap

Published : Sept. 24, 2023 - 21:25

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(Yonhap) (Yonhap)

HANGZHOU, China (Yonhap) -- South Korean taekwondo practitioner Kang Wan-jin, who had the honor of winning the country's first gold of the 19th Asian Games in China on Sunday, drew his inspiration from an unlikely source.

Kang, crowned the champion of the men's individual poomsae event in Hangzhou, watched in awe as Argentine football hero Lionel Messi carried his country to the FIFA World Cup title last December. It was the first career World Cup title for Messi in what could have been his final appearance in the big tournament.

"When I watched Messi win the World Cup, I thought it'd be nice to become such an awe-inspiring person like him," Kang told reporters after winning his gold at Lin'an Sports Culture & Exhibition Centre. "I want to be like Messi. I've always had that dream."

While poomsae, the demonstration discipline of taekwondo, may never match football's global popularity, Kang has certainly achieved an exalted status in his event.

Before this Asiad gold, Kang won the 2022 world title in the individual event and the 2018 world championship in the team event. He was also the Asian championships winner last year. In 2018, he swept up titles at the Asian Games, Asian championships and world championships.

It hasn't always been smooth sailing for the 24-year-old, though. Kang ruptured the Achilles tendon in his left foot in January 2021, and the injury kept him out of action for 10 months.

"I was still traumatized by that injury," Kang said. "I think I'll be able to finally put that behind me after winning the gold medal here."

Kang said having the Asian Games pushed back by a year due to the pandemic ended up working in his favor.

"When the event got delayed, it gave me more motivation. I wanted to return to the top and prove to people that I still had it," Kang said. "I wanted to be as mentally tough as I could be."

After the gold medal-clinching victory, Kang shed tears for his mother, who he said put up with a lot of whining and complaining from his son during Kang's rehab.

"I hope this gold medal makes up for all the trouble I caused," Kang said. "She has done so much for me. I am really sorry that I was so cranky with her when I was hurt."

Kang beat modern pentathlete Jun Woong-tae by about 10 minutes for South Korea's first gold medal in Hangzhou.

"This feels extra special, because it's the first gold for Korea," Kang said.