Best Olympic Archers of All-Time: #3 Park Sung-Hyun

23 June 2016
World Archery’s list of the best Olympic archery athletes in history from Paris 1900 to London 2012.

Some pictures courtesy Yoshi Komatsu.

Each week in the lead up to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, we’ll be revealing another athlete on our list of the top 15 Olympic archers of all time. This week, it’s…

#3: PARK SUNG-HYUN

NOC: Korea 

Born: 1 January 1983, Incheon, South Korea 

Olympic caps: 2 (Athens 2004, Beijing 2008)

The Medals

Athens 2004 Olympic Games
Athens 2004 Olympic Games
Beijing 2008 Olympic Games
Beijing 2008 Olympic Games

The quote

“The Olympics… were the best memories of my life. Even when I look back at them now, they’re overwhelming, exciting, and unforgettable.” – Park Sung-Hyun

The Reason

Park Sung-Hyun is the greatest Olympic archer of the 21st century. She took three golds and a silver medal from just two Games, set standards that remain unmatched today and came within a single arrow of defending an Olympic individual title. 

She started archery aged 11.

“My teacher suggested it to me. I didn’t know anything about archery, but I thought it sounded fun and exciting,” she said. “I feel deep gratitude towards that teacher who has made me who I am today.”

Aged just 18, Park won the World Archery Championships in Beijing in 2001, and the world team title two years later. She was already being noted for her incredible form and an intimidatingly ice-cold approach to competition that she would maintain throughout her career.

“I think it’s important that you know how to control yourself. No matter how good your posture or your timing is, you can ruin the whole moment with just one mistake by tensing up too much or straining yourself with emotional issues,” she explained.

“At every tournament, all of the athletes become your competitor. But personally, I prefer not to think that way. During a match, I’m thinking that the only person I’m battling with is myself.”

Her Olympic debut came at Athens 2004, where she broke the world record in the ranking round with 682 – a record that was to last for another 11 years. She won all her matches by at least a 10-point margin to face compatriot Lee Sung Jin in the final. 

Despite trailing Lee by three points early on, she managed to tie the score with one arrow left. Lee shot an eight, and Park shot a 10. She had the individual gold, on her debut.

“I didn’t actually expect that I’d get a gold medal. All I could think of was how much hard effort I had put in to get there, and I was just so relieved that the match was over,” she said. “I was finally able to feel the excitement of winning – after being reassured that it had all ended!”

The team event came two days later. Park, Lee and Yun Mi-Jin faced off with China in the final at the Panathenaic Stadium.

The Koreans needed 27 points from their last three arrows to win, and all three were down to Park. She shot a nine, but then an eight. One of the Chinese team, Zhang Juan Juan, appeared to do a small victory dance as if they had already won. But Park coolly shot a 10 with the last to secure the gold medal.

“Do you know, if I had aimed for a 10, I’m sure I would not have got a 10? I resigned myself to the divine will, and then I calmed down,” Park said.

In an interview that year with the Korea Times, when asked who had made the biggest impression on her, Park mentioned Zhang, and said: “I hope we meet again in Beijing.”

Her words proved prophetic.

At Beijing in 2008, the team of Park, Joo Hyun Jung and Yun Ok Hee were particularly dominant, breaking two world records and destroying France by 29 points in the semifinal to again face China – again, featuring Zhang Juan Juan – for the gold. Once again, Park had to shoot the last arrow, but the Chinese threat had fallen away and she needed just a two to claim victory. It was a perfect 10.

Three gold medals - and a fourth beckoned. Seeded first in the individual competition, Park strolled untroubled through five matches to face Zhang in a rain-swept final.  But the Chinese archer had already defeated the other two Korean women, and was shooting the match of her life in front of a noisy home crowd.

Both were tied on 101 points with 11 arrows shot. Park shot first – and sent an eight down the field. The door was open, and Zhang’s nine was good enough. It was ‘just’ a silver.

“Looking back at it now, I feel like I could’ve done better.” she said, speaking in 2016. “It was the last Olympics of my life, and I was maybe too greedy about getting the gold medal. I ended up not being careful enough with my actions. But I trained my hardest, and have no regrets.”

In addition to her Olympic and World Archery Championship medals, Park won individual and team gold at the Asian Games, Asian Championships, and the Universiade. In 2004, she set the most famous of her many world records, and one that still stands 12 years later: 1405 points on the 1440 Round. No recurve archer, male or female, had gone over the 1400 mark before or has since.

(The 351 she scored on the 36-arrow 70-metre portion is also a world record!)

Park now focuses on coaching.

“My dream as an archer was to take over the whole world. But now that I’ve achieved my dreams as a gold medallist and a leader, my dream is to now train the next best player to take over the world,” she said. “And since Olympic archery still isn’t a very familiar sport in Korea, I’d like for it to become more approachable and fun for people who are interested in learning it.”

Married to fellow legend Park Kyung-Mo, she has three daughters – a team.

“I think you can pass on the genes,” she said, laughing: “But I want them to enjoy archery genuinely without feeling any pressure about it.”

She’s never quite ruled out a return to the sport though, and coyly admitted: “I still enjoy shooting very much. I might consider returning to professional archery in the future if people would like to watch.”

Park has, many times, paid tribute to her long-time coach, Seo Oh Seok.

“He taught me many things about sincerity, effort and how to genuinely enjoy archery. He dedicated his whole life to archery, and his passion for it is not comparable to any athletes out there. He was the biggest reason I was able to win gold. I still receive his advice and learn a lot from him,” Park said. “He made me realize that effort never betrays you in the end and that no one else can do it for you except yourself.”

Her final words were modest: “Really, I don’t think I’m that different than everyone else. I’m sure the other athletes were just as nervous as I was while preparing for an Olympics. If anything, I think I’ve had more luck than other people.”

“I was once told that Olympic gold medals are given to the chosen ones from heaven, so I don’t think I received them myself. So, I like to think of them as a gift I’ve received along with my coach, the staff and my loving family.”

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