Going pro: The first amateur archer to ever make the Korean team

Kang Donghyeon shoots in the mixed team bronze medal match in Medellin in 2022.


There’s always been a fixed path to make the national team in Korea.

Kids start practising in after-school clubs at a very young age. There are more primary school clubs than middle school, more middle school than high school, and more high school clubs than university squads. 

It’s a funnel, only the best remain in the sport – and eventually turn professional, representing a company or a city team. And only the best of those go on to wear the Korean uniform.

But the system, built four decades ago, was purely focused on recurve.

With the introduction of compound to the Asian Games in 2014, Korea needed compound archers, too. Some former recurves switched to fill the void. It was at about the same time that there was a huge drive in Korea to encourage more people to take up sport.

And it was only in early 2017 that Kang Donghyeon picked up a bow.

“I wanted to be a firefighter so I enlisted in the military in this role at the age of 20,” he says. “While working in the rescue team for two years, I saw life and death with my own eyes. It made me want to experience more in life.”

“With a vague idea I wanted to shoot a bow, I don’t know why but my heart was more inclined towards compound. I took a part-time job for three months, saved and bought beginner equipment. I went to a public archery field, three hours back and forth by bus, and starting pulling and shooting.”

“I had no idea about archery.”

Kang Donghyeon as an amateur archer.

Donghyeon moved from Busan to Gyeongsan to attend university but continued to shoot – for fun.

“I just enjoyed archery, participating in tournaments and sharing time with other club members,” he says. “I never imagined becoming a national team member.”

No club archer had ever worn the Korean uniform before.

“I didn’t start archery at a young age,” he explains.

But the late starter’s talent hadn’t gone unnoticed.

Hong Sung-chil, a former international recurver who’s best known for winning the World Archery Championships in 1999, invited the amateur archer to join his professional academy in Daegu at the end of his studies in December 2020.

Donghyeon had made an astonishing leap.

He made another in 2021, carving a place on the Korean squad and appearing in competition – for the first time – in the national uniform as a member of the B-team at continental events in Asia.

“Starting a new adventure, as a pioneer, made me worried,” he says. “But I also thought that archery is a sport in which I can achieve anything, as long as I can shoot 10 points.”

“So I gave it everything.”

Donghyeon made the first team in 2022 and appeared at three stages of the Hyundai Archery World Cup, in Gwangju, Paris and Medellin, alongside Korean compound mainstays like Choi Yonghee and Kim Jongho.

The story of an amateur archer making it to the world scene may not seem significant or unusual for many people from Europe or the Americas – or other parts of Asia.

In Korea, it’s huge.

After the academy in Daegu closed – Hong Sung-chil went to coach in Iran – Donghyeon joined one of Korea’s oldest and most successful professional teams, Hyundai Steel. Among his teammates there? The nation’s only two men to win the Olympics, Oh Jin Hyek and Ku Bonchan.

(As well as the two top compounders previously mentioned.)

“When I got the offer, how could I refuse such a great chance to train with Olympic medallists as well as Yonghee and Jongho? I’ve been watching their videos on YouTube from the moment I started archery,” says Donghyeon.

The country’s first amateur-turned-pro missed out on a team place for the Asian Games in 2023 – but he returned to the squad for winter training in 2024.

Kang Donghyeon changed the route to professionalism in Korea. More have followed (Joo Jaehoon, for example, whose employer gives him time off to compete).

The path is not so fixed anymore.

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