Before Rio no one paid attention to me, says Chang Hye Jin

Since her extraordinary double gold performance in Rio, Chang Hye Jin has become a huge star in Korea, capturing the attention of fans and media – and picking up a national Athlete of the Year award.

After arriving at the first Hyundai Archery World Cup stage of 2017 in Shanghai, China, the Olympic Champion topped the ranking round with a score of 673 – seven points more than she put up at the Olympics in Brazil – then ultimately made the recurve women’s final, where she lost to teammate and London 2012 Olympic Champion Ki Bo Bae.

Chang turned 29 years old the day she left Korea for China.

“We had cake in the aeroplane. It was my first time having cake while flying! It’s different from having it with family, but it’s meaningful with my teammates, too. It’s nice that I can celebrate my birthday surrounded by many people,” she said, during the competition.

In the month preceding the season, she topped several rounds of the notoriously-tough annual Korean selection trials; often described as the toughest recurve tournament in the world, and eventually finished third.

“Since I’ve been able to go to the big competitions like World Cups and the Olympics, I’ve gained some experience, which has helped me when I shoot in national team selections. It’s tough for everyone. But I’m kind of a veteran of the selection tournament now. And now that I won at the Olympics, I think, ‘well, I can do this, too!’,” she added.

Of the three Korean women in Rio, it’s fair to say she wasn’t favourite to win the individual title.

Despite her multiple golden team performances, Chang had just a single individual Hyundai Archery World Cup medal along with the 2015 Asian Championships gold in her major trophies cabinet. Most observers – and the bookmakers – had Ki Bo Bae or Choi Misun down to take the biggest prize.

But Hye Jin strolled through her bracket untroubled that week, pausing only to brush off a minor mistake in the key semifinal with Ki. It was a textbook lesson in sporting confidence.

“Even though I have memories of all the great moments in Brazil, it has to be the feeling I had when I stepped on the finals field to shoot for the individual title. I was 100% able to enjoy myself in the moment, and as a result was able to shoot 10s and win both the gold medals,” she said.

That wasn’t the only memory of Rio stuck in her mind: “I heard gun shots in Rio [near the Sambodromo]. I originally thought it was fireworks. But behind the archery range was a favela and a local person told me it was the sound of a gunshot. When I thought it was fireworks, I went ‘yay’, but after learning it was actually gunfire I was scared and thought, ‘a bullet won’t come this way, will it?’”

The recurve teams arrived back home to a media frenzy of awards and talk shows. Hye Jin even modelled in a widely-praised shoot for Korean Vogue magazine.

“I wasn’t really a model but they just picked a couple of athletes from Rio,” she explained.

“It was a totally new experience for me. They took me to a room and put make up on me for hours and hours, changed my clothes. It was fun posing for photos and if the opportunity arises, I’d love to do it again.”

Known for her lively Instagram feed – she now has two fan pages as well – Hye Jin clearly enjoys being in the spotlight. But has fame changed her at all?

“I’m not really sensitive about it; when it’s personal time or just spending time with others. But now, no matter where I go, there is a chance that someone will know who I am. As a result, I need to be careful of my actions and sometimes need to hide my own personality a little,” she said.

“Before Rio, no one paid any real attention to me so I wasn’t too worried and sort of just did whatever like, ‘woooooo’.” The crazy gesture she made saying this was exceptional. “But now, I’m more careful about what I put on the internet. People react negatively and leave angry comments if they think I said something wrong. So I’ve become a little more careful.”

Well-known for her strong faith, an audience of millions saw her praying after winning in Brazil.

“I’ve been reassured that with faith, anything is possible. After the Olympics, I had a lot more opportunities to talk to people, was able to go to churches and share my testimony with many people. It was really nice being able to use my own story to share my faith with others,” Chang said.

All the Korean gold medal winners from Rio have been deep in the media circus, and some even speculated that Ku Bonchan’s busy media and sponsor schedule was the reason why he failed to make the squad in 2017.

“I wasn’t able to train very well but as soon as the Olympics were done, we had the national championships, the new Hyundai competition, and the Korean National Sports Festival. Since we had those competitions, I didn’t really lose my form although I wasn’t able to train as much,” Hye Jin, who was named captain of the Korean recurve women’s team for the second year in a row, said of her own schedule.

“I’m the captain because I’m the oldest but all our archers shoot well and have a lot of experience. There’s nothing I really have to teach them but I try to maintain a good atmosphere inside the team.”

Needless to say, the big goal for the year is Mexico.

“Of course, all four of us want exactly the same thing [to win the World Archery Championships]. But we can all take that ambition and win the team gold together,” she said, laughing.

“Even though I’m preparing for the World Championships and would love to do well there, I still haven’t been to a World Cup final yet. I would love to go to a World Cup Final.”

Of the World Cup venues, Chang said that her favourite is Antalya, where she won in 2014: “I feel comfortable and relaxed there. I’d love to visit without my bow sometime.”

The Korean team, however, is not planning on attending the Antalya stage in 2017.

What else is the Olympic Champion looking for in 2017?

“A boyfriend? …ummm… there’s someone I’m talking to… but it’s not like that yet. [laughs] I think it’s because I’m at the archery range all the time. A few years ago, I really wanted to be in a relationship but I feel that less and less.”

Of course, as this Olympic cycle wears on, many will ask questions featuring the words ‘Tokyo 2020’, and perhaps a chance at the greatest unclaimed prize in archery: defending an individual Olympic title.

“If I’m still shooting as well as I am right now, I’m sure I can give it a try. It’s too early to say. As much as I want to try, I don’t know yet,” Chang said, then continued, laughing:

“The future isn’t decided. If I did something else? I’d be able to work for LH, my corporate team’s company. As of yet, I haven’t thought about coaching or anything along those lines. I want to get married, shoot, and be a good housewife.”

Last but not least, Chang Hye Jin – describe yourself in three words?

“Fun. Jjangkong [her nickname]. Blessed!”

Korean translation: Vanessa Lee, Choi Kyunghwan.

The first stage of the 2017 Hyundai Archery World Cup took place on 16 to 21 May in Shanghai, China.