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From national team player to international referee: Korea’s Kang Joo-Hee

Kang Joo-Hee became Korea's first female international referee in 2002
Koszalin, Poland, August 14, 2014 - Korea’s international referee Kang Joo-Hee is one of a kind. She is one of four referees appointed for the 2014 FIVB World Grand Prix Group 2 Finals taking place in Koszalin on Friday and Saturday and has an impressive resume to share. Kang became Korea’s first female international referee back in 2002, but she has a lot more to tell.

Kang Joo-Hee was a member of Korea’s junior and senior national volleyball teams. After joining the junior national team at the age of 15, she played for both the junior and senior selections during a season, before moving up to the elite division. She retired from the sport soon afterwards, however, when she was just 21. “After that, I did not know exactly what to do, but I was sure I needed to do something for my future. In Korea, elite athletes focus exclusively on their sport from a very young age and there is little time, if any at all, left for their education. However, without an education you do not stand a chance of getting a job in a very competitive Korean society, so I made up my mind and decided that I would focus on my studies.”

Kang says she always wanted to be a teacher and after retiring from competitive sport, this eventually became her primary goal. She enrolled at the Catholic University of Daegu and went on to complete a major in sports psychology, also spending a couple of years in Japan at the renowned University of Tsukuba. Her transition, however, was not always without its difficulties: “Korean athletes concentrate all of their efforts on their sport, you train from early in the morning until late in the evening, and so I had to make up for that deficit when I resumed my studies. I have to admit that I have been very lucky. I have always found the right people along the way. In the beginning, it was my father who wanted me to take up volleyball and assisted me to make sure I followed the right rules for my nutrition and conditioning. After that, my teachers, and especially a professor I met during my stay in Japan, helped me achieve the new goals I had set for my life.”

Kang is currently one of three female international referees from Korea, with another candidate set to join the group in the near future. Even though she had always dreamed of becoming a teacher, Kang also realised she still wanted to be involved in the sport she was so fond of. “I thought I could be a coach or an assistant coach, but you know, they also have to join the trainings, they have to hit the ball very hard many times and with all the injuries I had to cope with during my career, that wasn’t going to be an option. So in the end I switched to refereeing and in 2002 attended an International Referee Candidates Course in Syria. That was the moment when my second life in volleyball began.”

Korea remains a patriarchal society, which is reflected in the country's sports too. “It was not that easy, especially at the beginning, because most of our volleyball coaches are men and they did not show much trust in a female referee. Right now I am only refereeing at matches involving women’s teams. In Korea it was decided to split the referees into two groups, with those involved in the women’s national league focusing only on that competition. This makes things a little easier for me and my colleagues. On the other hand, having studied sports psychology and being a former volleyball player, I know what I have to do to cope with the pressure. And actually, I do not feel that much pressure; just that little bit that drives you to deliver a good performance.”

Volleyball is not the number one sport in Korea, but it has gained popularity with the help of superstar Kim Yeon-Koung, who was named MVP of the Olympic tournament at London 2012. “She is an idol for me as well as for everyone in Korea who loves volleyball. She is not only Korea’s best volleyball player right now, but also the best volleyball player in the world. She is a role model for everyone to look up to. She is very determined, strong-willed, has charisma, and is a real leader on the court. She combines technical skills with a personality which really stands apart from others.”

Kang Joo-Hee sounds as determined as Korea’s volleyball superstar, who is currently leading her team in the FIVB Volleyball World Grand Prix. For her, it may be that Kim - who has been playing in Turkey for a number of years already - can be one of the factors which takes volleyball to the next level in Korea: “Our national league counts only seven men’s and six women’s teams respectively. However, we attract many elite foreign players: they can get good contracts, the season is relatively short, and if they achieve good results they receive an extra bonus from the management of their clubs. This makes Korea a good place to spend one or more seasons and the arrival of foreign players of course helps our youngsters develop their skills.”

Kang is one of three female referees at the World Grand Prix Group 2 Finals in Koszalin, together with Brazil’s Angela Grass and Poland’s reserve referee Agnieszka Michlic. The FIVB is determined to help female referees make it to the top and play a key role in the future development of the sport. In about 12 years, Kang’s example has been followed by another four Korean ladies. She is a trend-setter and embodies the modernisation and changes of Korean society. As she says: “You do not change the foundations of a society overnight, but we definitely feel that people show more trust in us and I do hope that we can inspire more women to follow in our footsteps.”


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