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Gold medalist Inbee Park: Olympics most stress I've ever felt

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Inbee Park sees her gold medal every day.

The medal sits inside a trophy case that her father built. It’s standing in a hallway on the second floor of her home. It’s her most prized possession among her 31 worldwide wins and seven major championship trophies. When Park looks at the medal, which she won by beating the best female players in the world at the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016, she has just one thought.

She wishes there were two.

“Every time I look at it, I want one more,” Park says with a smile. “Two trophy cases right there.”

It's certainly not unheard of for Olympians to win multiple gold medals in a single event. Swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, has four gold medals in the 200-meter individual medley. Usain Bolt has three gold medals in both the 200- and 100-meter races. And Shaun White earned three gold medals in snowboarding’s halfpipe.

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“I got the first step done being there,” Park says about qualifying for her second Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. “Let’s not let this go to waste.”

Ascending to the top of the podium in Rio, where Park won at 16 under par at Rio de Janeiro's Olympic Golf Course, was the highlight of the week for the Korean. She was flanked by two of her fellow LPGA Tour members in New Zealand’s Lydia Ko, who took home silver, and China’s Shanshan Feng, who took the bronze.

Now, five years removed from her victory, what would Park consider a successful week in Tokyo?

“Winning gold,” she says. Full stop. “Worst case, bringing home some kind of medal.”

Park’s aspirations aren’t misplaced. If she can achieve Olympic gold while injured and feeling more stress than trying to win the career Grand Slam, then Park can certainly win for a second time.

In 2016, Park battled a nagging left thumb injury for much of the season. In May of that year, she withdrew from two events before missing the cut in June at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship where she was seeking a fourth consecutive victory. That became her final LPGA Tour event of the year.

Park going for second gold medal at Tokyo Olympics

Park going for second gold medal at Tokyo Olympics

Park spent the next two months resting in preparation for the Olympic games. But she began to feel mounting pressure as growing calls from back home in Korea suggested Park should be replaced on the team with a healthy player. She felt the weight of the nation to make the right decision for not only herself but for her country. Park, admittedly, didn’t know whether she could even complete four competitive rounds in Rio.

“I never thought that I needed to prove something to myself playing golf in my career, but I thought that in 2016,” Park now says. “This pressure was something I’ve never experienced.”

And Park knows pressure. She says the stress she felt to win at the Olympics compared with no other event in her career. Not even when she was trying to complete the career Grand Slam in 2013.

“This was something different. I was just really about to burst. I was really about to melt down,” says Park, in relation to how she felt leading into the Games. “Even like a week or two before the Olympics, I don’t think I can go.”

To those watching on the outside, no one could know the pressure Park was feeling. But that’s what she does so well. Fans can rarely tell if she has just made a birdie or a bogey. The reaction is the same. But Park clearly remembers all the feelings she had over those four tournament days in Rio. She says she can’t watch highlights of her victory on television because all she sees is the stress and fatigue on her face.

On the 72nd hole, Park let her emotions show. As the final putt dropped, she raised both of her hands in the air and looked to the sky.

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“I felt like I proved myself to the country. I proved myself to myself,” Park says about her win. “I felt probably the best in my career. I thought that I don't want anything else. This is the only thing I want.”

For Park, she had achieved the greatest moment in her career. That same year, she had become the youngest to qualify for the LPGA Tour Hall of Fame at age 27. She’d won 17 times on the tour, including seven major championships. What more was there for her to achieve? She spent the next five months pondering that question.

In February 2017, Park returned to the LPGA with her sights set on a return to the Olympic Games in 2020. But as qualification began to wind to a close in the spring of 2020, Park had dropped in the Rolex Rankings to the fifth-ranked player from Korea. Only the top four would qualify for the Olympics. The team which had been the toughest to qualify for in 2016, was once again proving to be the most difficult to make. Park, the Olympic gold medalist, found herself perplexed at the prospect that she might not get a chance to defend her victory.

“‘Is there any golf tournament in the world that I cannot compete?’” Park recalls asking her parents as she fought to make the team. “If I wanted to, is there any tournament that I need to qualify? I am defending champion of the Olympics, but I don’t get in.”

In April 2020, however, the International Olympic Committee and the country of Japan agreed to postpone the Olympics one year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The qualifying period was extended an additional 12 months. That gave Park time to make up the ground she needed to qualify for the Korean team. When the teams were finalized this June, Park held the No. 3 spot in the world rankings and was the second-ranked player from Korea behind No. 2 Jin Young Ko. They’re joined on the team by Sei Young Kim and Hyo Joo Kim.

“I did the tough part,” Park says about qualifying. “Going to the Olympics, it’s going to be a little bit easier than what I’ve done for the last five years.”

In June, Feng, who won the bronze medal in 2016, said the Olympics will likely be one of her final events before retiring later this year. Park considered her own retirement after capturing the gold medal in 2016, but says no matter how well she plays this year, she isn’t going anywhere.

“I feel like I still have a few [wins] left in me,” Park says about her future, post-Olympics. “I don’t feel like it’s the end of me.”

Whenever Park is home, she walks down the hallway that houses the most precious item in her home. She never wears it; she just looks at it. She sees the teeth marks embedded in the gold medal from where she took a bite of it during celebratory photos afterwards. It’s a symbol of not only the most challenging time in her life but also the most rewarding moment of her career.

“It is still the best accomplishment that I ever had playing golf,” Park says. “It probably will be. Unless I win another one.”