Sol­dier who lost legs aims for Par­a­lympic gold

The Korea Times - - PEOPLE -

Pulling with smooth, steady strokes along a row­ing course on an ar­ti­fi­cial lake, South Ko­rean Par­a­lympic hope­ful Ha Jae-hun is the pic­ture of calm de­ter­mi­na­tion, but it has taken him four years and 21 rounds of surgery to find this peace.

Ha lost his legs when he stepped on a land­mine just in­side the De­mil­i­ta­rized Zone (DMZ) along the bor­der with North Korea. He was just 21.

The South Ko­rean staff sergeant had vol­un­teered to lead an early morn­ing pa­trol af­ter a col­league was as­signed to train­ing. That made him the first to go through an en­try gate into the DMZ, sig­nalling to the seven oth­ers on the pa­trol to wait, as he stepped for­ward.

The next thing Ha re­mem­bered was be­ing thrown to the ground in un­speak­able pain, both his legs stripped to the bone. The other sol­diers were also wounded, though less se­verely.

Ha is now hop­ing to turn the row­ing skills he picked up in re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion into a place at the Par­a­lympics at next year’s sum­mer games.

“I just felt so re­laxed when I went out on the wa­ter in a boat for the first time,” Ha said dur­ing his train­ing ses­sion. “I have to be care­ful and stay fo­cused on the river, which doesn’t al­low for other thoughts, and keeps me at ease.”

The in­ci­dent on that fate­ful Au­gust morn­ing has for­ever changed Ha’s life. He now re­lies on pros­thetic legs, which he said he was so glad to learn to use as he could fi­nally walk again, al­beit “like a baby tak­ing his very first steps”.

Apart from the phys­i­cal pain, Ha said he also had to fight to quell feel­ings of ha­tred for North Korea, which South Korea blames for plant­ing the land­mine he stepped on.

“I wouldn’t say I don’t get mad at North Korea,” he said. “But just as I was a sol­dier my­self, those who laid the mines must have fol­lowed an order. So some­times I won­der what’s the point of blam­ing them.”

Ha left the mil­i­tary in Jan­uary and joined a na­tional para row­ing team, win­ning a series of na­tional and global com­pe­ti­tions. He is hope­ful but re­al­is­tic about his chances as a new­comer, and aims to earn a spot at the Tokyo games and to even­tu­ally win a gold medal in France in 2024.

“It was my first race last year. I had no skills, noth­ing but phys­i­cal power, but I won. It was ab­so­lutely thrilling, I was like, ‘this is it’“Ha said.

Ha’s phys­i­cal strength and willpower, as well as the dis­ci­pline gained from his time in the mil­i­tary, fu­elled his rapid as­cent in the en­durance sport, said Lim Myung-woong, the na­tional team coach who en­cour­aged his tran­si­tion.

Ha likes to wear shorts to put his black pros­thetic legs on show, part of his ef­forts to help change so­cial at­ti­tudes to­wards peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. (Reuters)


For­mer South Ko­rean Army sergeant, first class, Ha Jae-hun, who lost both his legs in 2015 when he stepped on a North Ko­rean land­mine while on a pa­trol in the de­mil­i­ta­rized zone (DMZ), puts on his ar­ti­fi­cial legs af­ter a prac­tice ses­sion at Mis­ari Row­ing Sta­dium in Hanam, Gyeonggi Prov­ince, in this Sept. 24 file photo.

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