As Michael Jackson said, “I’m a lover; not a fighter.”
Yet, when you’re filming a TV show and the director tells you to get into the ring and battle a trained South Korean wrestler, you kinda have to say “yes.”
A Brief Intro to Ssireum Wrestling
Ssireum, also known as Korean wrestling, is the traditional national sport of South Korea.
To begin, each contestant locks their hands in their opponent’s belt (satba), which is wrapped around the waist and thigh.
The goal is to get your opponent’s body to hit the ground before yours does.
When done correctly, this folk wrestling style is intended to cause little or no harm to the wrestlers.
My Turn to Enter the Ring
My first opponent was a teen-aged South Korean wrestler.
We entered the ring, bowed, locked wrists in each other’s belts, smiled for the camera and waited for the whistle.
Jump. Sweep kick. Lean in. Try and pull his body up in the air. Use my considerable height difference to my advantage. We’re going down! Did I win?
The whistle blew and I was pretty sure that I had won. But alas, my knee hit the ground just before his, so the round went to my opponent.
Rounds 2 & 3
Traditional Ssireum matches follow a best-of-three system. So, I brushed the sand off, locked my wrists in my opponent’s belt and prepared for round 2.
Let him make the first move. Go left. Put my weight into it. Jump. Sweep. We’re going down. I think I actually won this one!
Yup. Round 2 was a victory for Team America: aka, me.
Time to lock wrists for the final battle.
Man, I’m getting tired. OK, one more round. This is for all the marbles. Do the same thing I did last time. This round is taking forever. I don’t know how much more I can do.
Hey, we’re falling. Did he trip? Did he let me win? Am I just that good? OMG, who cares; I won!!!
With the final whistle, I thrust my hands into the air in a sign of victory.
I had won my first-ever South Korean wrestling match.
Now it’s Jesse’s Turn
Next up in the ring was my costar, Jesse, who fought a fierce three-round battle against a different Korean wrestler. His match-up didn’t go as well as mine.
. . .
Fighting My Costar
As we locked wrists in each other’s belts, you could see the determination in our eyes.
Unfortunately for me, Jesse also had years of martial arts training to go with his determination.
Before I knew what happened, he won two rounds and it was over.
Or, I let him win.
Because, um, I wanted us to leave the ring with one victory each.
Yeah, that’s the ticket.
Anyone buying that? 🙂
Reflections on my Day as a Korean Wrestler
- I was amazed at the pure adrenaline coursing through my veins during the match-ups.
- Pretty much everyone in the crowd was smiling and laughing when Jesse and I were in the ring.
- Falling on the sand cut up my legs.
- I was sore for about three day after the match; good thing we had a filming break during that time.
- While walking around town later, Jesse and I ran into our opponents. They had the biggest smiles on their face when they saw us and were super curious to learn what we were doing there.
- While I’ll never forget my afternoon in a South Korean wrestling ring, I don’t ever need to do it again.
- In case you were wondering, the wrestling match took place in the small seaside town of Yeonggwang Gun in South Jeolla Province during a traditional South Korean folk festival.
- The day before, we attended an exorcism on a boat.
. . .
GET LOST IN KOREA
In 2013, I was hired by National Geographic to film a TV show in South Korea … following my adventures as a travel blogger and photographic storyteller.
The single-episode show offered a mix of humor, tradition, adventure and stunning imagery; as I teamed up with Jesse Day: a Canadian entertainer who lives in Seoul and raps in Korean.
Here are the highlights from filming Get Lost in Korea …
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