South Korean wheelchair basketball team pushes on for late coach
Sa-Hyun Han’s last major competition with the team ensured their qualification for Tokyo 2020
10 Jan 2021
The late Sa-Hyun Han (front row, right) coached the team to Tokyo 2020 qualification at the 2019 regional Championships, ending a 20-year Paralympic drought
ⒸKorean Wheelchair Basketball Federation
By EJ Monica Kim and IPC
South Korea’s Seung-Hyun Cho tried to keep a positive perspective on the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic postponement. It gave his young wheelchair basketball team an extra year of preparation. However, it also meant they would have to play without their late head coach Sa-Hyun Han who passed away.
“If Tokyo 2020 were held in 2020, Han would have become the first South Korean to participate at the Paralympics as an athlete and coach,” Cho said. “We were very close to make that dream come true.”
Their beloved coach lost his battle to cancer on 26 September 2020, and it was a painful period for the national team.
“Last August the team last met him when he was just being placed on a ventilator,” said Cho, the team’s captain. “I hoped that he would be able to watch our performance from home in 2021.”
South Korea’s appearance at the upcoming Paralympic Games was a long time in the making. And now the team will perform with the memory and honour of their late coach in mind.
ENDING THE 20-PLUS YEAR DROUGHT
Han was part of the wheelchair basketball squad at the Sydney 2000 Paralympics, the country’s last Games appearance.
Their only other Paralympics was Seoul 1988, securing an automatic spot as hosts. They tried to return and came close for London 2012, but a heartbreak 78-77 loss to Japan at the 2011 Asia-Oceania Championships ended their campaign.
“I took a lot of responsibility for that defeat as I missed two crucial free throws in the last quarter,” reflected centre Dong-Heyon Kim, who decided to play abroad and became the first Korean to do so.
“In the end, it pushed myself to take on challenges in Italy, because I wanted to come back stronger for my team.”
South Korea had high expectations of reaching the Rio 2016 Paralympics. But a fourth-place finish at the 2015 World Championships spoiled their chances and forced the squad to rebuild for 2020. They lost veteran players due to retirement, but on the other hand were able to tap into fresh talents.
Their patience and perseverance paid off, as South Korea qualified for Tokyo 2020 with silver at the 2019 Asia-Oceania Championships in Pattaya, Thailand.
“I’m very proud that we did qualify for the Paralympics on our own for the first time,” Cho emphasised.
PERSEVERING THROUGH THE PANDEMIC
The-36-year-old captain said the more they train together, the more they can grow as a team.
“We always had difficulty rotating our squad due to a lack of players. Kim and I played alongside two other senior players for 35 minutes in a 40-minute match until 2018,” explained Cho. “Fortunately, young players keep improving, so it’s good that we will be able to increase their playing time.”
But doing so without Han is a whole other period challenge.
“Actually, I’ve never gone through this much rough time before during my basketball career,” the forward confessed. “We all have worked hard since Han began leading us in 2010. He even discontinued the treatment in order to go to Pattaya 2019 with us.”
Even if Han could not go to Tokyo, he ensured the squad’s ticket through Pattaya.