Seoul Patrol: South Koreans Hooked on Lacrosse
South Korean defender EunAh Choi revels in the nation's World Cup debut Thursday against Ireland.
© Pellerins Photography
PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- The national anthem is an emotional moment for many players at the World Cup.
Gina Oliver, the tough-as-nails American defender, cried when The Star-Spangled Banner played before the game against England. More than being named to the team or putting on the uniform for the first time, that quiet moment of reflection with the swelling music in your ears and the rippling flag before your eyes seems to drive home the fact that you are representing your whole country.
That realization was especially poignant for the South Korean team, which is playing in international competition for the first time. Just being in Prague is an accomplishment for a program that got its formal membership into the then-IWCLA in 2007.
"We were dreaming of this for two years," said attacker JinA Bae. "We're actually representing our country even if we're not yet the best players in the world. This is a 'Chapter 1' moment in Korean lacrosse history and we were honored to be a part of it."
Bae, a South Korean citizen, discovered lacrosse when she went to boarding school at St. James School (Md.) and Lawrenceville Prep (N.J.). The former tennis player was intrigued by the fast-moving game. South Korea is a thoroughly Westernized country, and there's little in the States or in Europe that you can't find in Seoul. Lacrosse was an exception.
"When I first learned to catch, it was so special to me. I never thought I could get used to it," said Bae, 20.
Bae returned to South Korea after her sophomore year at Lawrenceville and threw herself into working with the Korean Lacrosse Association. According to the World Cup's official program, the KLA currently has 800 members, the vast majority of which are men. But the women's game is growing, expanding from four to six teams in 2008.
"We try to carry sticks around wherever we go to be seen as much as possible," said Bae, who currently attends Yale and plays on the Bulldogs' club lacrosse team.
Defender EunAh Choi, is Team Korea's Ironwoman. A dedicated athlete with the highest fitness level on the team, Choi has been playing lacrosse for just two years. She saw a game and was mesmerized.
"Lacrosse is an amazing sport and we feel we should spread it," said Choi, via Bae's translation.
Choi is a physical education major at Kyung Hee University and has zeroed in on the best way to expand the game: starting elementary and middle school programs. Lacrosse is currently concentrated in college and high school club programs.
"We also need more coaching help," said Choi, 19.
South Korea currently relies on clinics with Japanese players and well-traveled enthusiasts like Bae to learn the game.
(People interested in helping the KLA should visit the organization's website at www.lacrosse.or.kr.)
South Korea got off to a slow start at its first international tournament, losing 22-0 to Ireland in its opening game. But that doesn't discourage either Choi or Bae about the future of the game in their country.
"It's a very warm environment [at the tournament]. Seeking the amazing stick skills, it gives us something to aim for," said Choi.
While patriotism runs deep for everyone at the World Cup, the South Koreans are also aware that they are serving as goodwill ambassadors for their nation at a time when the eyes of the world are nervously fixed on the Korean peninsula and the growing nuclear threat from Kim Jong Il's totalitarian regime in North Korea.
Bae, an ethics, politics and economics major at Yale, envisions a future when Korea will play -- and win -- under a unified flag.
"I want to work on reunification. When the time comes, we'll have the whole country represented," said Bae.