Kim Hyeonwoo: The man who put Korean wrestling back on the map

The Greco-Roman wrestler ended Korea's eight-year wait for Olympic gold at London 2012, and now has a score to settle after early exit at 2019 World Championships.

Kim Hyeonwoo is the man who restored pride to Korean wrestling.

However before the Greco-Roman fighter joined the senior national team, the sport was in dire straights.

At the Beijing 2008 Olympics, Korea's wrestling team failed to win a single gold medal for the first time since 1972.

This was considered a travesty for a country that was [and still is] in the top-10 most successful Olympic wrestling nations ever.

Kim Hyeonwoo was Korea's flag bearer at the Rio 2016 Olympics Closing Ceremony.
Kim Hyeonwoo was Korea's flag bearer at the Rio 2016 Olympics Closing Ceremony.Kim Hyeonwoo was Korea's flag bearer at the Rio 2016 Olympics Closing Ceremony.

A new Olympic champion

But just when things were at their lowest, new hope arrived in the form of Kim.

The fresh-faced, 21-year-old wrestler first turned heads when he won 2010 Asian Championships gold in the Greco-Roman 66kg category.

While Korea was proud of its new champion, it was too soon to tell whether the kid nicknamed 'Mowgli' was the real deal.

The answer would come two years later.

Kim traveled to the London 2012 Olympics as one of three Korean medal hopefuls, with the first two failing to make the podium.

That meant the hopes of a nation fell on the Wonju native's shoulders, and he didn't disappoint.

With an eye swollen shut and a broken thumb, the he beat reigning Olympic champion Steeve Guenot, before defeating Hungarian star Tamas Lorincz in the 66kg final.

Korea's new champion had returned his nation to wrestling's top table.

Kim Hyeonwoo waves the Korean flag after winning Greco-Roman 66kg Olympic gold at London 2012.
Kim Hyeonwoo waves the Korean flag after winning Greco-Roman 66kg Olympic gold at London 2012.Kim Hyeonwoo waves the Korean flag after winning Greco-Roman 66kg Olympic gold at London 2012.

Kim's first United World Wrestling title

Sometimes when an athlete complete's their life-long dream of winning Olympic gold, they can lose motivation to continue.

This was certainly not the case for Kim, as he went in search of new challenges in different weight divisions.

At the 2013 World Championships in Budapest Kim took the 74kg crown, defeating recently-crowned Olympic champion Roman Vlasov in the process.

“I think the reason I was able to beat Vlasov is because I watched Vlasov and studied him" - Kim Hyeonwoo to reporters at the 2013 World Championships.

"I think, even though I was inferior in strength, I was able to excel in stamina in the second half of the match.”

A wrestling Grand Slam

At his new weight, Kim went on to secure further gold medals at the 2014 Asian Games and the 2015 Asian Championships.

This meant he had become the third Korean wrestler to complete a 'Grand Slam' - winning all four major international titles including the Asian Games, Asian Championships, World Championships and Olympics.

The only other Korean wrestlers to achieve this feat are Park Jang-soon and Sim Kown-ho.

Russia's Vlasov gained revenge on Kim at the Rio 2016 Olympics, eliminating the Korean at the 75kg round-of-16 stage.

Unperturbed, Kim rebounded with victories over China's Yang Bin and Božo Starčević of Croatia to win the bronze medal, and was rewarded with the honour of holding Korea's flag at the Closing Ceremony.

Back to best ahead of Tokyo 2020

In 2018, at the age of 29 and recovering from a knee injury, it looked like Kim may be starting to lose his touch.

After finishing third at the 2018 World Wrestling Championships in Budapest, he then relinquished his Asian Games title, collecting another bronze in Jakarta.

But Kim was to prove all his doubters wrong.

The next year Kim clinched his first continental title for four years, with an emphatic 8-0 victory over India's Singh Gurpreet in the Asian Wrestling Championships 2019 in Xi'an, China.

This victory, combined with three podium performances out of three in the 2019 Ranking Series, ensured Kim was the only non-European top seed at the 2019 World Wrestling Championships in Nur-Sultan. But in Kazakhstan Kim was surprisingly ousted by Mohammadali Gerei in the round-of-32.

That means he will have to qualify for Tokyo next year but after another Olympic Games devoid of any wrestling gold medals at Rio 2016, Korea will be confident, just quietly, that their talisman can rescue them again and capture another Olympic medal at Tokyo 2020.

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