INCHEON, July 21 (Yonhap) -- With a historic silver medal from the world championships hung around his neck, South Korean high jumper Woo Sang-hyeok received a hero's welcome home on Thursday.
And with more experience, the 26-year-old believes he can keep getting better and better.
Woo grabbed the silver medal by clearing 2.35 meters at the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon, on Monday (local time). Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar won his third straight gold medal by jumping 2.37m.
Woo, who tied his own national record in Eugene, is the first South Korean high jumper to win a world championship medal of any color. He joined race walker Kim Hyun-sub as the only medalists from South Korea in any discipline at the biennial event.
Unlike Kim, who finished sixth in the men's 20km race walk in 2011 and moved up to bronze in 2019 after those ahead of him failed doping tests, Woo got to stand on the podium during the official medal ceremony on Tuesday.
It was another "first" for Woo, who owns several of them in South Korean athletics record book.
"This hasn't hit me yet, but it always feels great to be the first to do anything," Woo told reporters gathered at Incheon International Airport. "It would have been better if I'd won the gold medal. But I am satisfied with the result and I have no regrets."
Woo entered the world championships as one of the strongest medal contenders. He is the first high jumper from South Korea to be so highly regarded, and Woo felt the burden of such expectations.
"I feel like I've just completed a major homework assignment and a huge weight is off my shoulders," Woo said. "I am going to be competing without pressure from now on. And I think it will help me get better results, too."
In Eugene, Woo tied three others for first place in qualification, and cruised through the early stages of the final before running into his first trouble with the bar set at 2.33 meters. He missed his first two attempts -- after going the entire qualification stage without missing once and clearing the first four heights in one attempt each -- and suddenly faced an unexpectedly early elimination from medal contention.
Woo acknowledged that he hadn't felt at his 100 percent during his training camp in Las Vegas prior to the worlds, and those feelings carried over into the final.
"After the first miss, I started feeling a bit heavy," Woo said. "But I thought I had to accept that situation as soon as possible in order to overcome it. I kept telling myself I should just go for it and even if I missed, I wouldn't have regrets. That set my mind at ease."
Woo did clear 2.33m on his final try with room to spare and then jumped over 2.35m in two tries.
As he tried to chase down Barshim, spectators at Hayward Field started chanting the South Korean's name, "Woo!"
As locked in as Woo was, he heard it all.
"At that moment, I was so proud to represent my country, and I was glad I had decided to become a high jumper," Woo said. "It will be an unforgettable memory. It meant so much to me to have those fans call out my name."
Woo has so far had a memorable 2022 season, which also includes his first career world indoor championship in March and a Diamond League gold medal in May.
More major competitions are on the horizon for Woo.
This year, Woo is scheduled to compete in Diamond League events in Monaco and then in Switzerland in August. In September, Woo will enter the Diamond League Final, again in Switzerland.
The biennial world championships had been held in odd-numbered years, but the 2021 competition was pushed to this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The next edition will remain on course and take place in 2023, followed by the Paris Summer Olympics in 2024 and another edition of world championships in 2025.
"In March and August next year, I will try to win both indoor and outdoor world titles," Woo said of joining Javier Sotomayor of Cuba from 1993 in the exclusive company. "And obviously, my goal at the 2024 Olympics is to win the gold medal."
With Barshim, 31, not showing signs of slowing down, Woo knows he will have to get past the Qatari great to reach the top of the podium at major events for the foreseeable future.
Woo placed fourth at last year's Tokyo Olympics, the best Olympic showing by a South Korean track and field athlete, while Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy shared the gold medal.
"I worked really hard for the world championships, but I felt Barshim was really determined as well," Woo said. "I obviously lack in experience. If I can continue to get into more international events, I think I should be able to become a more complete athlete."