Ki Bo Bae is the reigning women’s individual Olympic champion, winning the title in an unforgettable shoot-off with Aida Roman at London 2012. She also shot strong in 2013, taking team and mixed-team gold medals at the World Championships, but failed to make the national squad in 2014. After surviving three brutal selection tournaments this year, she’s finally back to frontline duties for Korea at world events once more.
So, what makes Ki Bo Bae so special?
1. She’s eyeing the biggest archery prize of all.
Two days after regaining her spot on the team, Ki Bo Bae confirmed she intends to compete for the Rio Olympics next year. She’s also putting up an even bigger challenge: to become the first archer to win back to back individual Olympic titles. Even the legendary Kim Soo Nyung and Yun Mi Jin failed to accomplish that feat.
“The people around me ask, ‘Haven’t you already accomplished everything?’ But I have a dream. Though players have achieved two gold medals in the Olympics, no one has attained two consecutive medals in individual competitions. I think, ‘I shouldn’t be so greedy,’ but that goal keeps leading me to shoot my bow. I want to leave accomplishments that surpass the legendary (Korean) seniors.”
2. She’s incredibly determined.
You need nerves of steel to survive the tough Korean archery system, but Ki Bo Bae has always brought more to the shooting line. As a junior, her school grades and archery scores plummeted after some early success. She shot her way out of it through 500 arrows a day all winter in sub-zero temperatures, accompanied by her coach, Kim Sung Eun. “There were many times I had to train and study all day until midnight, so I envied kids who had spare time once they finished their schedule. I never slacked off once in training. Even if I was in a slump, instead of reminding myself about it, I carried a positive mindset throughout. That really plays a big role.” Please note: This kind of thinking – and actions – creates archery champions.
3. She won that shoot-off.
Few will forget the London 2012 Olympic finals when she shot an 8 in the gold-medal shoot-off against Aida Roman of Mexico. Everyone held their breath as Roman also shot an 8, but her arrow was a bit farther out on the target. Ki won Olympic gold by a few millimeters. “In that situation, it was more of a mental fight than ability,” she said. “That ‘step up to the plate’ was probably the step of my life. At that time, rather than joy from winning the shoot-off, I thought, ‘I wouldn’t have come to this situation if I had tried harder before!’ But taking that step attracted national interest from people, and changed my life completely. That wasn’t the peak of my life because I still have more to do as a player, but that was a big turning point.”
4. She’s a huge star in Korea.
Ki Bo Bae can’t walk the street without being recognized, and the Korean media are not been shy about focusing on her looks. Articles often refer to her as “Beautiful Archer,” or note how much she looks like K-Pop singer Chae Yeon. Ki remains unimpressed: “As an athlete, skills are way more important than physical appearance. Frankly, I’m unhappy about the whole culture around it. It’s a nice thing to have, but why should an aspiring athlete feel it’s necessary to garner attention for something other than their talent?” Absolutely right!
5. She gives back.
She’s an ambassador for Wisdom For Change, an organization that helps refugees of natural disasters, and helps deliver winter fuel to the poor, as the Korean squad does every year in a tradition familiar to martial-arts dojos. She’s also the public face of her alma mater, Gwangju University. She made a famous promotional video for the school, which hosts the worldwide University Games this year. She’s also considering coaching. “Sometimes I wonder if I was really that small as a kid, and I watch in pity, looking at children handling the bow with their tiny hands. I went through the same progress when I was young. My goal is to give juniors as much help as possible so they won’t have to feel the same pain I once felt.”
6. She’s always game for a laugh.
An Olympic gold medal is a big deal in Korea, and Bo Bae has fielded several offers to do something silly in front of the cameras, like controlling fans with her mind, or pitching baseballs with a bow. Compared to that, sharpshooting on a game show almost looks tame. Ultimately, she knows what matters most: “Archery is something I have to do the rest of my life. I think of it as my companion.”
7. She’s multi-talented.
Apart from being a whizz at interior decorating, Bo Bae worked as an archery commentator for the national broadcaster KBS during the Asian Games last year. It turned out well in more ways than one: “The fact I couldn’t participate in the Asian Games last year was very disappointing indeed,” she said. “I had started losing my sense of identity and direction in archery, which eventually led me to this situation where I wasn’t able to attend the Asian Games (as an athlete). Doing my job as a commentator and watching the players win medals boosted my motivation. When I took a step back, I realized what I had to do.”
8. She’s got other ambitions.
“First, I want to teach archery to students at Gwangju University. I also have dreams about becoming an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member. I want to help Korea host the Olympic Games again (Seoul, South Korea, hosted them in 1988). By the time I become an IOC member, wouldn’t that be realistic and achievable enough? I’d like to help other athletes at the World Archery Federation, too. To do so, I’d have to study English first, right? I still have a lot of dreams. Ha ha!”
Want to shoot like Ki Bo Bae – or just rock her look? Start with a bow and some sharp archery accessories. Then take some archery lessons, and hit the practice range. Even if you don’t end up as an Olympic champion, you’ll love every minute you spend behind the bow.
The author sends thanks to Jessica Cho for her help with this piece.