The Brookstone boys soccer team prides itself on its diversity. The Cougars have players who are from or have family ties to Puerto Rico, Paraguay, Columbia, Mexico and Nigeria.
But maybe nowhere is the team’s international connection as deep as it is among three athletes from South Korea: Ian Ha, Yongtae Lee and ChurlHwan Chong.
Ha, a senior, and Lee, a junior, have been at Brookstone four years, and Chong, a sophomore, is in his third year.
Each said they went through a bit of culture shock upon arriving in America, where they said everything including food and body language was different. Two of them even adopted shortened or Westernized names; ChurlHwan became Hwan, pronounced like Juan, and Yongtae became Nick, the name of the protagonist in the first English-language book he read.
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The move to America was also an emotional one for Lee and Chong. Ha moved to Columbus when his father accepted a position as a professor at Columbus State, but Lee and Chong are away from their parents, who remained in South Korea and sent them to Brookstone for a better education.
“I kind of felt very lonely and very isolated when I first came here,” said Lee, who lives with a host family. “It is still sometimes hard when you miss your family.”
Chong and Lee are from the South Korean capital of Seoul but lived in different sides of the city and never had met, and Ha is from Busan, far to the south. But when the three met, they quickly bonded.
“We had many things in common, like we were all very typical Koreans and we were having the same linguistic problems and cultural problems,” Lee said. “And even though we have a lot of American friends now, we are still very close from that.”
And through soccer they found another link: In South Korea, soccer is the most popular sport, and each of them said they used their middle schools’ traditional 90-minute lunch break to play each day and closely followed South Korean soccer stars.
“I think every Korean boy, at least at some point, has a time when they want to be a soccer player,” Chong said. “When I was a sixth-grader, that was my time. I just wanted to play for fun, and I still really enjoy it.”
It wasn’t always organized, but it was in South Korea where they picked up the skills that allowed them to transition to a more structured practice and game schedule at Brookstone.
“We usually just played around,” Ha said. “It wasn’t a big deal, and we didn’t have real teams. I didn’t play center midfield there, I just played up and down the field. It was more just for fun.”
Brookstone coach Billy Byrd said their experience and athleticism have given Brookstone a boost all over the field as Ha plays center defense, Chong plays center midfield and Lee plays left midfield.
“I wish I could say I taught them what they know,” Byrd said. “I would love to take credit for that, but I can’t. They all came to me as excellent soccer players. And we have an eccentric team with a lot of personality and diversity, and I think that makes us a better team.”