Kuo Hsing-chun believes her biggest rival “is myself” as Taiwan pins its hopes for an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo on the record-breaking “goddess of weightlifting.”
Taiwan has become a power in women’s weightlifting in the past few years — Hsu Shu-ching won her second gold medal in the 53kg class in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, while Kuo took bronze in the 58kg division to secure two of the nation’s only three medals at those Games.
Hsu retired three years ago, leaving the 28-year-old Kuo — dubbed “the goddess of weightlifting” by local media — as Taiwan’s best hope for gold when the Tokyo 2020 Games begin later this month.
Photo: AFP / Courtesy of Kuo Hsing-chun / Chou Yi-lun
Kuo became a national icon after setting a 58kg class clean and jerk world record of 142kg on home soil at the 2017 Taipei Summer Universiade and went on to win gold in the Asian Games in Jakarta the following year. The weight divisions were readjusted by the International Weightlifting Federation after the 2018 Asian Games, meaning Kuo is to lift in the 59kg division in Tokyo, where an Olympic gold would complete a grand slam of major titles.
“Everyone is hoping I can get it. There is pressure, but it is also a motivation for me not to let everyone down,” Kuo said in a telephone interview.
“I felt sad because I was hoping for gold in 2016, but I did not do well,” she said. “At that time I kept thinking I wanted to get the gold medal, I was too self-conscious and did not stay focused.”
Photo: AFP / Courtesy of Kuo Hsing-chun / Chou Yi-lun
Kuo’s path has been made easier by the absence of long-time rival and gold medalist Sukanya Srisurat because her country Thailand is banned from the sport for multiple doping offenses. North Korea, another women’s weightlifting powerhouse, does not plan travel to Tokyo because of COVID-19 fears.
“Competition is a driving force for progress, it is a pity they cannot join the Games, but my goal is the same. My biggest rival is myself,” Kuo said.
Kuo has been in unbeatable form in the run-up to Tokyo, breaking two more world records at the Asian Championships in Uzbekistan in April. Her monumental 110kg lift in the snatch smashed the previous record by a massive 3kg, and despite professing not being satisfied with 137kg in the clean and jerk, it was still enough to raise her own aggregate world record by 1kg to 247kg.
Kuo said that her training became too frenetic in the aftermath of Uzbekistan before she decided to “tone down” a little.
“I was in a very good state, but I was training a little too much amid post-game excitement. Right now I am trying to avoid getting sick or injured,” she said.
Taiwan has largely managed to contain COVID-19, allowing the nation’s athletes uninterrupted training during last year and much of the early part of this year.
“I think it more or less showed in the Asian Championships, as some athletes were not reaching their previous best performances because they could not train normally due to the pandemic,” Kuo said.
However, Taiwan has had a COVID-19 outbreak in the past few months, meaning that the Olympics team have since mid-May been consigned to a training “bubble” in Kaohsiung where athletes are strictly quarantined from the public.
“It is more stressful now,” Kuo said. “Besides training, I watch the news about the outbreaks and I am concerned for my family.”
Kuo said she finds some solace in playing piano, something she took up in 2014.
“I have loved the sound of piano since I was an elementary school student walking past a piano classroom... Now I feel very happy and accomplished when I can play a song in whole,” she said.
A member of the Amis people, Kuo showed sporting talent at an early age, training in judo, basketball and athletics in her native Taitung County.
She had ambitions to play basketball for Taiwan before a coach in junior-high school spotted her weightlifting potential and recommended her for training at a sports academy.
“Initially I disliked weightlifting and did not want to train because I was the only [weightlifter] at my school and I was more fond of group sports like basketball,” she said.
Her interest and confidence grew when, at 15, she won her first gold medal at a domestic event.
Kuo cuts a graceful figure on the weightlifting stage and said she had received an encouraging message from an overseas fan, who described her style as “dancing with the barbell.”
“I hope I can lift the weight up in a smooth and beautiful way to break the stereotype of weightlifting,” she said.
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