Volleyball star finds meaning off court

Faced with a choice between his sport and his family, it was no contest for Olympic hopeful

by Kris Kosaka

As every top-level athlete knows, sacrifice underpins every training plan and for an Olympic athlete it becomes a way of life. For Sohn Jeong Wook, his goal of taking part in the Olympics was more important than country, but it didn’t override family.

For Sohn, family has always been more important than nationalism. A polyglot born in South Korea, raised in South America, and a naturalized Japanese, he sees the world as more alike than different.

“Everywhere in the world, anywhere you have 10 people, I can say at least two people will not be thinking the same way as me — but still, eight people will be with me. It doesn’t matter the country or the color or the language — my father always taught me, ‘See with your own eyes, and then decide.’ ” Sohn uses those eyes every day to see and interpret the world for Fuji TV, working as a translator for its international news program.

Sohn, born in 1969 in Seoul, first saw life just like most Korean boys did. Sohn’s father, however, was not any ordinary South Korean but Sohn Young Wan, a former Olympic athlete and renowned volleyball coach.

“My father is a hero in Korea,” Sohn says. His father’s job as a coach for Argentine’s national men’s volleyball team in 1975 moved the entire family to Buenos Aires. For young Sohn, it opened up a world of international opportunity.

“In the morning, we studied all in Spanish; in the afternoon, it was all English, as I attended a Catholic School. It was a very Latino school. Even though there were also diplomats’ children, there were more Argentine students,” he recalls.

In addition to Spanish and English, Sohn’s mother strictly enforced a “Korean only” policy at home for Sohn and his brother. “My mother became angry if we spoke Spanish. My parents really wanted us to remember our roots, to remember our own language.”

Sohn’s life also naturally included volleyball. “On days off from school, I went with my father to the national team training center, helping out there and watching. A lot of teams came from overseas, and we just had a very normal communication within this international environment.”

Sohn went on to play volleyball for the Argentine National Junior Team, completing his last two years of junior high school alone in Buenos Aires, after his father took a job with the Brazilian National Volleyball Team. High School reunited Sohn with his family in Belo Horizonte in southeastern Brazil, and by attending a local school, Sohn added Portuguese to his linguistic quiver.

With his cosmopolitan upbringing, it’s no surprise Sohn considered yet another country for college, and he was offered a scholarship to study in Japan.

“My parents recommended Japan and felt supported by my Japanese mentor, Matsudaira-san. My father and Yasutaka Matsudaira played against each other from 1958. My father was the Korean national team captain and Matsudaira-san was the captain of the Japan national team. I call him ‘Uncle Matsudaira.’ Always when I’m in trouble I talk to him or his wife, ‘Aunt Matsudaira.’ My father thought I would get a good education in Japan, and I was lucky to play volleyball in university.” But first, he had to learn yet another language.

Sohn entered Tokai University’s language school in April 1988. “I started with katakana, hiragana and kanji, and after the first month, I thought, ‘No way. I’m quitting this. Maybe four languages is enough, this fifth one is just too difficult.’ “

At that time, Sohn lived in the volleyball dorms with the other players, and by summer, he realized he was conversing naturally with other players. “I decided to work harder at studying, and try for the university entrance exam.” He passed, and Sohn played for Tokai University’s men’s volleyball team for four years.

Unsurprisingly, Sohn dreamed of the Olympics and after graduating from Tokai, he took a position at NEC Corp., playing for their club team.

He brought some Latino flavor to the Shonan coast, southwest of Tokyo: “I started playing beach volleyball in my third year of university. I had started playing in South America (where the sport has a strong tradition). It was a good chance for me, playing both indoor and beach volleyball.” Sohn found quick success with beach volleyball, often winning tournaments.

In 1994, Sohn married his Japanese sweetheart, Rina. With the Olympics as a firm goal, Sohn also decided to take Japanese citizenship — weighing the opportunity to represent Japan in beach volleyball.

“For me, a first-generation Korean, it is not very common for someone to take Japanese nationality. Koreans do not see it in such a good light — it’s like being a traitor. It was also not such a good image for my father, but he recognized, it is my life. He never pressured me about nationality, as I had played for both the junior and senior national teams in Argentina.”

The year he took Japanese citizenship, Sohn won the national tournament for beach volleyball. “I felt like I had my ticket to the Olympics.”

But his dream was cut short. With two young sons to support and another on the way, Sohn felt huge pressure to succeed at volleyball. Although Sohn’s bid for an Olympic spot was supported by Matsudaira and others in the federation, some members opposed having a player of foreign origin represent Japan.

“It’s not like soccer, where foreigners are an accepted part of a team. Beach volleyball is . . . such a small team, only two players — I learned later there were deliberate efforts made to ensure I did not win matches.” Sohn hesitates to use the word racism. “It’s the Olympics. You can’t blame the players, they will do anything they can to earn a spot themselves.”

Then fate had a spike of its own. “I was in Portugal in the middle of the World Volleyball Tour. We knew before I left that our third son, Kein, had been diagnosed with cataracts at only 6 months old and would have to have an operation. My wife called me suddenly and said, ‘Kein must have an operation now.’ There was nothing I could do, no flights to get home in time.”

Klein was later diagnosed with Rothmund-Thomson syndrome, a rare skin disorder affecting growth. Only about 300 cases worldwide have been reported.

It was a moment of reckoning for Sohn. He knew the sacrifice necessary to succeed in sports. His father had often advised the young Sohn and his brother: “Never go into coaching. It takes too much sacrifice.” Although volleyball had shaped his entire life, Sohn felt no regrets walking away.

“I realized, what am I doing? If I am playing volleyball, working hard to make a living for my family, and then I cannot be there when my family needs me the most — this is not correct. I felt a deliberate choice, between pursuing the Sydney Olympics or my family. I apologized to my partner on the tour and I instantly retired.”

Sohn took the job at Fuji TV, and he’s worked there ever since. “With me, they saved money,” Sohn says, smiling, “Four languages in one person.”

With the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the recent natural disasters in Haiti and Chile, Sohn has been especially busy, but he appreciates his work.

His new occupation allowed him to spend his days with his wife and Kein, and to see his older two boys when they came home from school. Sohn’s life of travel and sacrifice to make it in the world competitive sport narrowed to a focus on family and savoring his time.

Kein died in June 2008 at the age of 9 and Sohn is thankful for the time they had together. His two older sons play basketball to carry on the family’s sports tradition, and Sohn teaches them to “see with their own eyes,” too.

Sohn coaches his wife and her friends for “Mama-san volleyball” on weekends, and obviously relishes the chance to combine family with his first love. “I am very strict. At the first practice, 14 women showed up, and my wife received many teasing complaints about how strict I was. The next week, over 20 women came.”

For this former Olympic hopeful, Mama-san volleyball is enough — a connection to what is truly most important in life.