From West Point to the U.S.A. Team Handball Women’s National Team, one reader transforms her tomboy past into serving her country in more ways than one.
Like most other Korean girls, I was fed daily the familiar adage, “A good education is the key to a successful future.” Though I know that there is truth to my dad’s lectures, I never longed to be the doctor or lawyer many Asian parents coveted. I wanted something different, but in the beginning, I didn’t know what. Now that I look back on my childhood, I can see how my upbringing encouraged the rebel in me. I grew up in Valencia, Calif., a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, where fresh orange groves and white picket fences perfectly lined the streets. In a predominantly white neighborhood, I often felt like the only Asian in the area. The few Asians I hung out with were my brother and my cousins — all males. As the minority in many aspects, I later learned that my childhood was different from other Asian females. Instead of playing with Barbie dolls or dressing up as a princess, I learned to love basketball, “cops and robbers,” and action figures. I actually didn’t mind because I liked being active and running around outdoors. I was often scolded for being un-ladylike, but what could I do? It was either play with the boys or sit inside by myself.
Unfortunately, my parents didn’t approve and desperately attempted to reform my tomboy behavior. Consequently, while the other kids were playing outside, I had to stay in the house to finish my homework and study from extra workbooks. I was pretty sure that none of my friends’ parents assigned them additional study materials in the second grade. I also wanted to join Little League sports teams, but instead my mom signed me up for piano and violin lessons. “Life is so unfair,” I thought to myself. Desperate to break free, I eventually found a balance: as long as I finished all my work, I could go outside and play. Because I wasn’t allowed to watch TV on the weekdays, the playground was my outlet, where I would stay out until the sun set.
When I entered high school, I didn’t even think about playing sports on school teams. At first, I thought I had no chance because all the other girls had played in various leagues and club teams around the city, but with the urging of teachers and friends, I tried out and actually made the varsity tennis and basketball teams. With the two sports keeping me busy year-round, my parents worried that my time was spent playing instead of studying. Like many Korean parents, mine saw no future in sports for an Asian, especially a girl. Personally, I wasn’t trying to get into the WNBA; I just enjoyed playing and being in a team atmosphere. In order to ease my parents’ stress, I earned good grades, continued my music lessons, and participated in various honor societies.
When the time for college applications rolled around, all I knew was that I wanted to get out of my small town. When my dad mentioned the service academies one day, I researched them and discovered the great opportunities and benefits they offer. Between the different services, I decided on the Army because it seemed to have the prestige and the most career options, and it was located in New York! As a high school senior, I was unsure of my future plans, but I was certain that I wanted to be a part of something important.
In the summer of 2001, I headed to the United States Military Academy (otherwise, known as West Point). When I entered the academy, I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. The transition from civilian to military life was physically and mentally challenging. Summer training was the beginning of my arduous journey as a cadet. As I trekked up steep mountains and camped out in ditches while upperclassmen yelled at me, I truly questioned my decision. “Did I really sign up for this?” September 11, 2001, only a few months into my freshman year, changed my whole world. It was a daunting realization that I was now part of a war-time army. It dawned on me then, that as a future officer, I needed to prepare myself to lead soldiers into battle and be responsible for their lives. I still have to remind myself at times that, as a 23-year-old, I am in a very serious profession, where lives are continually at stake. In that sense, West Pointers are forced to learn and mature quickly. We know the dangers of our job, but we fulfill our duties and support the effort for a greater cause. It’s a very surreal feeling when I receive official notices and emails about the deaths of my classmates from Iraq or Afghanistan. We read about it so often in the news, but it’s difficult to relate to them when they are faceless names. To know someone personally, even if just in passing, makes it much harder to accept.
Although we were faced with the harsh realities of war, life at West Point wasn’t always serious. To maintain our physical fitness, we were all required to play a sport, which I was excited about. In a mostly male-populated school (women make up a mere 15 percent of the student body), I wanted to be in a strong, team atmosphere with a female support system again. Although I had no idea what team handball was when I tried out, I had some basic athletic abilities and I made the cut. At West Point, the team was a nice outlet from the daily regimen and gave me a chance to travel off-campus for competitions. It also gave me a break from having to do the marching drills that everybody hated. Little did I know that this sport would allow me a chance to go to the Olympics. Team handball, the third largest sport internationally, is behind only soccer and basketball. The sport is played on a 20x40 meter indoor court with six players on each team trying to score by throwing a cantaloupe-sized ball into a net past a goalkeeper. We often compare it to water polo but played on land. Though it is relatively unknown in the United States, there are a few club and college teams around the country.
Sometimes I can’t believe that I’m on the U.S.A. National Team. Just a few years ago, I was a West Point cadet who had accidentally discovered team handball. But from the first day I played, I fell in love with the sport and wanted to pursue it at a higher level. I knew that I loved being on the court and playing competitively so I did some research and found out that I could pursue my passion through the Army’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP). The program was set up to allow soldier-athletes to compete in national and international competitions, including the Olympic Games, and still maintain a professional military career. I applied for WCAP at the end of my senior year so that I could start as soon as possible after I graduated. After a lot of paperwork and meetings with higher authorities, I was approved. In December 2005, I finally arrived in Cortland, NY, to start training full-time with the team and learned that this is the right place for me. It’s amazing to be a part of something bigger than myself and to chase the Olympic dream. There is a tremendous sense of pride when I put on my U.S.A. jersey and walk out onto the court to represent my country. I never imagined I would have the opportunity to pursue these aspirations, especially as one coming from a background where sports are considered only a side activity.
Even though we are a national team, we receive little funding and recognition, especially because many Americans are unfamiliar with the sport. Thus, in order to keep our program viable, we raise our own money. As athletes, we give up many comforts to relocate to Cortland. Many struggle to survive — working minimum-wage jobs while practicing twice a day and playing matches on the weekends.
Driven to pursue the Olympic dream, we make these sacrifices willingly. And 2007 is an important year for our team, as we try to qualify for the Pan-American Games and the World Championships. If we beat the top teams, we can then qualify for the Olympics. We are the underdogs, relatively inexperienced compared to the rest of the world. But this has only helped to fuel our heart and desire to achieve great things.
To find out how you can help Jennie Choi’s handball team make their Olympic dreams come true, email Jennie at email@example.com or visit the team’s website at www.usateamhandballwomen.com.
photo Getty Images
Photo: Rémy Gros