The Reluctant Fairy

By Gary Morly and Olivia Yasukawa

Seoul, South Korea (CNN)She’s one of the most popular sports celebrities in South Korea, but don’t expect Son Yeon-Jae to make a big fuss about it.

In fact, she will probably just blush — the sweet-smiling 20-year-old’s shy demeanor is part of her endearing charm.

The petite athlete is known by her adoring fans as “Fairy” — a nickname she reluctantly accepts, despite being slightly embarrassed by the attention it brings.

As the first rhythmic gymnast from her country to reach the all-around final at the Olympic Games, and the first to win a medal at the sport’s world championships, she is learning to deal with the glare of public attention.

“Everyone is watching when I come back to South Korea,” says Son, who has spent the past five years training in Russia with elite coaches.

South Korea's new sporting sweetheart

“Sometimes it feels like pressure but I think it’s really good because everyone is supporting me, so I’m so happy and I’m very grateful for everything,” she tells CNN’s Human to Hero series.

“It feels really good and I’m so proud of myself … people say ‘First time…’ and ‘First time a Korean gymnast has…’ — everything is ‘first!’ “

Son’s success, and subsequent appearances on popular Korean TV shows, has earned her a big social media following, with more than 230,000 fans on Twitter, along with sponsorship deals capitalizing on her cute image.

It brings welcome publicity to an elegant sport that battles for global attention outside of Olympic years.

“Son is a very unique athlete in Korea,” says her manager Sangun Chung. “She is one of the few who interact with the audience as an athlete and as an entertainer at the same time. That’s what I think makes her so special.”

While she is not yet at the heights of fame reached by skating star Kim Yu-Na, Son draws inspiration from the achievements of the former Olympic and world champion.

“She was the legend of figure skating and I was so impressed about this. It’s kind of a little bit the same because she performs and I perform too,” says Son.

“I think it’s similar sports without skates, so when I saw her Olympic Games in Vancouver, I was so impressed and I thought that I really want to be like her.”

Son made her world championships debut that same year, 2010, but failed to qualify for the final as one of the top 24 — though a couple of months later she would win bronze at the Asian Games.

She was so shocked by her world ranking of 32nd, says Chung, that she decided to seek coaching help in Russia — whose athletes dominate rhythmic gymnastics.

Based at Moscow’s famous Novogarsk training center — a hub of excellence catering for more than 30 sporting disciplines — she mainly works with coach Elena Nefedova as well as receiving guidance from the legendary trainer Irina Viner.

“It was really hard without family, friends and everything but I am very grateful that I train in such a good condition with the world’s best gymnasts and coaches,” says Son, who is from South Korea’s capital Seoul.

“The first time it was really hard because I can’t speak Russian, but everyone is so kind.

“The gym is perfect — it has everything like doctors, coaches, the ballet teacher. And when I train with the really good gymnasts, it makes me push myself more.”

Son is the only Korean at the center, but she is not yet seen as a major rival to the home athletes, according to Guillermo de No Coma — a national rhythmic gymnastics judge in Spain, and a video producer.

“Training there is a question of money, and a lot of international gymnasts decide to go there for training camps, paying the (sometimes incredibly high) fee to the Russian Federation,” he says.

“Son is not a real competitor for the Russian gymnasts, because they are in a higher level.”

Son, an only child, started out in the sport at the age of five when her mother took her to a children’s gymnastics class.

“I really loved to play with the ribbon, the hoops and balls and everything,” she recalls. “I did rhythmic gymnastics because I loved it. I didn’t plan anything but when I started, I dreamed about Olympic and Asian Games, everything.

“Rhythmic gymnastics is my everything. I can’t even remember myself before I started this sport.”

After placing 11th at the 2011 world championships, Son made her big breakthrough at the London 2012 Olympics, finishing fifth in the all-around final and proving a big hit with her exuberant routines.

“The London Olympic Games was my dream stage and I really wanted to get there and to go to the final because no-one from South Korea had done that,” she says.

“Rhythmic gymnastics is like fighting with myself because it’s competition. I go to the floor alone and do my performance and get the score — and I feel so free and so happy.”

Son won a silver medal at the 2013 World Cup Final in the hoop and bronze in ribbon — her two favorite disciplines.

The following year she won bronze in hoop at the world championships — the best result by an Asian gymnast since 1975 — and then triumphed overall in front of her home fans at the Asian Games in Incheon.

“Competition makes me always nervous,” she reveals. “The absolute best moment is when I finish the performance and I do the final pose because I pour out all my effort in that one-minute-30-seconds routine.”

It’s the culmination of years of training, six or seven hours a day, six days a week.

“Sometimes I don’t think anything. I just do. My body just does it because I train a lot, so it’s automatic. But sometimes I think about every single element and I control i

Son’s next goal is to win a medal at next year’s Rio Olympics, but bronze is her most realistic target according to De No Coma — especially as there are no titles for the various individual events, just for overall and team.

He says world champion Yana Kudryavtseva will battle for gold with fellow Russians Margarita Mamun and Aleksandra Soldatova, while Son will be scrapping for third with Ukraine’s Ganna Rizatdinova and Melitina Staniouta of Belarus.

She is already looking towards life after competition — and hopes to be as much of an inspiration to young gymnasts as Kim Yu-Na is to skaters.

“When I finish, I want to help Korean gymnasts — I want to see another gymnast better than me,” says Son, who will return to action after an ankle injury at the World Cup event in Uzbekistan later this month, a week before her 21st birthday.

She will represent South Korea in front of home fans at June’s Asian Championships in Jecheon and July’s World University Games in Gwanju — for which she is also an ambassador — then compete at the Rhythmic Gymnastics World Championships in Stuttgart in September.

“When I started rhythmic gymnastics, (Korean) people didn’t know anything about it but now they know everything so I want to keep it going like this,” she says. “I don’t want to stop this attention to rhythmic gymnastics.”



(CNN)Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid have swept all before them in this season’s Champions League — but perhaps they didn’t anticipate being schooled by an ‘old lady’ and an ex.

The ‘old lady’ in question wasn’t wielding a walking stick but instead came in the guise of a Juventus side powered by the insatiable Carlos Tevez and the familiar figure of Alvaro Morata.

Juventus, nicknamed ‘La Vecchia Signora’ or ‘old lady’ in English, deserved its win after a pulsating contest against the reigning champion.

It was Morata, once of Real, who punished his former side for its slow start and it was Tevez, who ran and ran all night, who finished off Real from the penalty spot.

In between, Ronaldo, who else, claimed an invaluable away goal for Real — his 54th of the season — but even he was unable to save his side from defeat.

“The most important thing was the win,” Patrice Evra, the Juventus defender, who also played alongside Tevez at Manchester United, told ITV.

“It is never easy against Real and I am very proud of my team mates and staff. We prepared very well and we got the win. We are very confident. Well done, we are 50% of the way there.

“Nobody expected us to get this far, it is 12 years since we got this far.

“Carlos Tevez has United blood like myself. He is a champion. He has had a fantastic year and we want to win the Champions League. He is a massive professional.”

Not since 2003, when it was beaten in the final on penalties by Milan, has Juventus competed at this stage of Europe’s top club competition.

Fresh from winning its fourth consecutive Italian league title at the weekend, it produced a display full of courage, vigor and quality.

In Tevez, the top scorer in Serie A, it had a man seemingly determined to drag his team into the final by straining every possible muscle within his body.

It was Tevez who helped create Juventus’ opening goal in the eighth minute — his effort was only parried by Iker Casillas, the Real goalkeeper, and Morata tapped home from close range.

Morata, who signed a five-year deal with Juventus in July 2014 following a move worth around $24 million, refused to celebrate his goal though his teammates were not so reticent in showcasing their delight.

Real, aiming to become the first team to successfully defend the Champions League crown, appeared stunned as Juventus continued to move the ball around at pace.

Carlo Ancelotti’s side had not conceded a goal away from home in the competition in 444 minutes before Morata’s strike and yet its defense looked hugely vulnerable.

Fortunately for Real, in Ronaldo, it has a player who can conjure something out of nothing and so it proved as the visiting team drew level on 27 minutes.

James Rodriguez, star of last year’s World Cup, found space inside the penalty area and his hooked cross picked out Ronaldo to head home his 76th Champions League goal.

Suddenly, Real began to find its feet and should have taken the lead just before the interval.

Isco, the diminutive midfielder, skipped his way into the penalty area and produced a fine cross for Rodriguez only for the Colombian to head against the crossbar.

It was to prove a turning point in the contest as Juventus moved back ahead just before the hour mark.

Once again it was Tevez who played a starring role. The forward went on another one of his trademark runs and teased Dani Carvajal, the Real defender, into fouling him.

Carvajal’s foul sent Tevez hurtling towards the ground inside the penalty area and Martin Atkinson, the referee, had no hesitation in awarding the spot kick.

Tevez, unnerved, stepped up to smash the kick straight down the middle and leave Casillas flailing on the ground.

Real, unbeaten in their previous nine matches in all competitions before arriving in Turin, was then afforded a huge let off in added time.

Andrea Pirlo, the exquisitely bearded midfield maestro, curled a free kick into the Real penalty area where Fernando Llorente rose unopposed, but the forward somehow contrived to head straight at Casillas.

It is a miss which Juventus could yet rue when it arrives in the Spanish capital for next Wednesday’s all important second leg.

Standing Ovation

By ABC News

Marcus Mariota received a hero’s welcome Saturday at Oregon, where fans gave the reigning Heisman Trophy winner a standing ovation during the Ducks’ spring football game.

Mariota attended the game less than two days after being selected by the Tennessee Titans with the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft.

Oregon played a video tribute to Mariota during halftime at Autzen Stadium, and the crowd of over 35,000 saluted the former Ducks quarterback with a raucous ovation that lasted several minutes.

“That was cool, that was really cool,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich told reporters. “A couple weeks before the draft, he was jacked that he could be here for the spring game. It just pays tribute to both him and this program, this community, the fans that [attending the spring game] was his main goal. … That was very him.”

Mariota watched the game from the sideline and even offered some pointers to¬† Jeff Lockie, who is competing for the starting job as Mariota’s replacement under center next season.

“[Mariota] said that first ball was too short,” Lockie joked with reporters. “I told him it was cold. He was just giving me a hard time about that first throw. But he was pretty supportive, and he was happy with the job I did. And he was proud.”

Mariota traveled from his Hawaii home on Friday to Nashville, where he was introduced by the Titans at a news conference. He plans to return to Tennessee on May 11 for the start of the Titans’ rookie minicamp.

Wooly Jumpers

By Sarah Holt

(CNN)From office sweepstakes to gambling grannies, Grand National fever is sweeping the UK ahead of the nation’s world-famous horse race at Aintree on Saturday.

A record-breaking $219m is expected to be laid in bets across the globe on which colorfully named horse will master the fearsome fences over the four-mile course.

“It is the biggest betting event of the year by a long way,” Mark Pearson, of British bookmaker Betfred, told CNN.

“With a worldwide television audience of 600m in 2014, it is simply the world’s biggest race.”

Irish jockey Tony McCoy will be the star attraction at Aintree as the multiple champion jockey races in his final Grand National on mount Shutthefrontdoor.

But for those looking for an outside bet, then the rival Grand National Sheepstakes in Devon could be just the ticket.

Grand National fever is so entrenched in the UK that some ideas are a little barmier (or should that be baa-mier?) than others.

Visitors to the Big Sheep family attraction in Devon on Saturday can place their bets on six of the best jumping sheep, including Woolly Jumper, Red Ram and Sheargar.

The racy sheep, which jump over show jumping poles, must be careful not to unseat their knitted jockeys.

Ascot, home to the prestigious royal flat racing meeting in June, also got in on the woolly races, by staging the Lamb National last month.

There was even a royal presence for the novice hurdlers as Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall watched from the sidelines.

“They did appear to be having a great time,” Nick Smith, Ascot Head of Communications and International Racing, told CNN.

Sheep racing events are an unlikely success despite the dangers that the sheep will just follow each other aimlessly around the course.

“There’s a sheep dog. They wouldn’t do it on their own,” laughed Smith.

“If anyone can get a sheep to jump a fence without a sheep dog I’m be very, very surprised. The sheep dog is the key talent in this operation.

“Having said that one or two of the lambs got a bit lost and the sheep dog had to round them up.”

Could sheep racing ever usurp horse racing in the hearts and minds of the betting public?

Smith, for one, was quick to scotch the idea that sheep racing could be a regular fixture of the Ascot race calendar.

“It was a novelty event,” he explained. “The chances of anyone watching a sheep dog race as a fan and transferring that into an interest in horse racing is nil.”