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KATC Sports Presents | Defining Rei Park

Posted at 9:25 PM, Sep 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-21 19:32:35-04

The American dream is sought for many reasons.

For some it's for money, family, or safety.

For Rei Park, his American dream was about escaping the shadow cast by his gold medal winning father, Park Si-hun.

"When I came to Opelosuas, Louisiana nobody cares who I am," he said outside Berchman's Academy, where he graduated in 2019. "I am just one of them. That was the best feeling I ever had, you know?"

Rei's life was scripted 11 years before he was born at the 1988 Olympics. His dad, Korean boxer Park Si-hun beat Roy Jones Jr. in one of the most disputed fights in Olympic boxing history.

"Boxers instinctively know who won after the fight," Park Si-hun recalled during a Zoom interview at home in Seoul, South Korea. "I lost the fight, but my hand went up. I should have been put in the second place and Roy in the first."

Olympics 1988 Seoul Games Park vs Jones
FILE - In this Oct. 2, 1988, file photo, South Korea's Park Si-hun, left, delivers a left jab to America's Roy Jones, and goes on to win the gold medal in the gold medal bout of the light middleweight division at the summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. The last South Korean boxer to win an Olympic gold has spent the past 32 years wishing it was a silver. Park's 3-2 decision win over Roy Jones Jr. in the light-middleweight final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics remains one of the controversial moments in boxing history. Jones had seemed to dominate. (AP Photo/Ron Kutz, File)

"To me it was nothing. But for other people it was everything and they wanted to keep the legacy" - Rei Park

Si-hun became a boxing outcast. The scandal brought him pain and sadness. But it didn't affect Rei much, he recalls. After-all it happened a decade before he was born. What Rei remembers is growing up with a gold medal hanging on the wall.

"To me it was nothing. But for other people it was everything and they wanted to keep the legacy," Rei said. "That was my childhood. I didn't want to follow the thing he had and everyone wanted me to follow the thing he had."

Even before he was born, Rei's parents decided he would be an athlete.

"Many South Korean parents have plans for their kids' future," said Park Si-hun. "I wanted to be a baseball player as a kid, but financially, my parents weren't able to support me. So, I tried to make Rei play baseball and turn him into a top player so that I can vicariously live through my own dream as a kid."

When Rei was seven, his parents sent him to an elite baseball school. An experience that changed his life.

"It was scary," Rei said. "My coach abused me, like, beat me with baseball bat. It was every day, though. They'd beat me with a baseball bat and that was a normal thing in Korea."

"In South Korea, many coaches and athletes believe that putting players under stress and constant pressure would lead to better results and records," said Park Si-hun. "So, I also told his coach, more as a formality, to scold Rei a lot every time I got to see him. But it definitely didn't mean, "please beat up my child."

Rei Park Team Korea Baseball
Rei Park, 9, at baseball practice

"My coach abused me, like, beat me with baseball bat." - Rei Park

Rei tried to quit baseball. His dad pushed him back, a move that ultimately eroded their relationship.

Rei eventually walked away when he was 14, but in Korea, leaving your chosen life is difficult.

"I tried to have a life there and I had a lot of issues because I couldn't fit in. I tried it, and they didn't accept it, nobody accepted it," Rei said. "Teachers didn't accept it, school didn't accept it. And my friends didn't accept it. I was athlete, so they just call me dumb. That was my nickname, 'dumb.'"

Rei said he became depressed. He was rejected. He needed a reset. In 2016, he got it.

"I also told his coach, more as a formality, to scold Rei a lot every time I got to see him. But it definitely didn't mean, "please beat up my child." - Park Si-hun

At 16, Rei moved away from home, flying to America. Here he's fallen in love with his new home in Opelousas.

"I call it the Cajun mindset. They're trying to find something happy, happiness in their life. They're not fancy, they're not going to be fancy like Korea, Seoul city people. They're not fancy but they trying to find happiness in what they have," he said.

There may have been a mix-up when Rei saw he was going to "LA" (That's a story for another day) but Rei wouldn't have it any other way. He attended Menard and Opelousas High before settling in at Berchman's Academy mid-way through his junior year.

There, Rei joined the football team and played well.

"He could pretty much get his body to do whatever you asked him to do," said Saints head coach Chris Garvey.

Still, Rei's roots and upbringing, the 4 a.m. training sessions and abuse, left an impact he could not shake.

"He was his own biggest critic," remembered Garvey. "In sports we say your done with that play, your done with that pass, your done with that shot and move to the next one. By the end of his senior year he was taking the pressure off himself and that's when he played the best."

"There's no such thing as fun in Korea," Rei said, recalling how unusual it was at first when his teammates were only playing for fun. "If you're having fun, you're not doing your job."

Rei Park
Rei Park gives interview outside Berchman's Academy

Rei Graduated in 2019 and returned home to Seoul. One afternoon, in the midst of an argument with his mom, Rei collapsed. Doctors eventually found tumors growing on his brain.

Rei had symptoms for months but brushed the headaches off as a concussion.

"I didn't want to tell my mom. I don't want to make her make her sad." he said. "You had a son that didn't see for three years and come back with some kind of news. It was my goal to have some kind of great news to bring to my family."

Rei's prognosis is unclear. What isn't is his determination to return to competition.

For the last year Rei has trained throwing javelin, hoping to capitalize on all those years of baseball.

"I thought I was going to take some easy way out," he laughed. "I find out, my baseball background is going to hurt me more."

Rei Park Javelin
Rei Park trains on javelin with workout partner Tzuriel Pedigo of LSU

"A lot of people call me failure because I went college. I'm an athlete. I'm not supposed to go to college. I'm supposed to be pros right now, my friend got drafted. Not me, but I'm happy. I'm in college where I'm not supposed to be. I'll get the education they don't get. It wasn't ever a thing to me, you know, college, education, anything. I'm happy. I like. I'm happy, for once." - Rei Park

Rei is in the gym early each morning. He throws twice a week. He's dedicated and remains quite critical of himself, grunting in frustration after bad throws.

Much of Rei's competitive mentality was taught to him during those dark days at baseball school. Some of that he's struggled to let go of. What Rei has learned to leave behind is living for the expectations levied by someone else. That gold medal that hung in his childhood home no longer weighs on his life.

"If it happens. Great," Rei said when asked about where the Olympics are among his goals. "Who doesn't want to be in the Olympics? Who doesn't want to be in the pros? It's a great place to be," he said.

Rei's real focus is earning a role on a college team. It's a door that was never given to him in Korea. Like the friends he made in baseball school, he should be going pro right now.

For Rei, this is more important.

"A lot of people call me failure because I went college," he said. "I'm an athlete. I'm not supposed to go to college. I'm supposed to be pros right now, my friend got drafted. Not me, but I'm happy. I'm in college where I'm not supposed to be. I'll get the education they don't get. It wasn't never thing to me, you know, college education, anything. I'm happy. I like. I'm happy, for once."

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