From teenage debutant to a rare feat: Ryu eyes fourth Olympic Games 

01 May. 2024

From teenage debutant to a rare feat: Ryu eyes fourth Olympic Games 

The ‘Dream Big’ series focuses on the stories of elite handball players, from childhood or their discovery of the sport through to now. The IHF recognises the important part athletes play as role models for children and young people who dream of becoming professional handball players — or pursuing any goal. With that in mind, this series aims to bridge the gap children and young people may perceive and show them the diverse paths to the top. 

This instalment focuses on Republic of Korea and Györ right back Eun-hee Ryu, who is currently contesting the Champions League quarter-finals and looking ahead to her fourth Olympic Games with the record Asian champions.   
The 2024 Olympic Games are on the horizon and the handball competition line-ups are set. In the women’s competition, Republic of Korea are the record holders for most participations in the Games, as they prepare for their 11th appearance this time around. 

Korea have played every Olympics since they first reached the pinnacle event in 1984. And they arrived with a bang, making it to the final on their first four consecutive appearances and taking the gold medal on two of those occasions. Korea played for the medals in every Olympics from 1984 to 2012, and have a collection of six to show for it — only one less than the record holders in this standing, Norway. 

2012 and their last semi-final berth saw the Olympic debut of Korea’s biggest star right now, Eun-hee Ryu. The 34-year-old right back will travel to Paris for her fourth Olympic Games — a number of participations few handball players have accomplished — after leading Korea to first position at the Asian qualification event held in Japan last August. 

Ryu was noticeable early in her career, being called up to the national team at the age of 15 and then making her major tournament debut at the 2009 World Championship. “Although I was young, I was so happy that I made it,” recalls the right back today. “When I was 16 years old, I realised that I wanted to be a national team player and play in Europe.” 

By the 2012 Olympic Games, at the age of 22, she was standing out — enough to rank as the third top scorer of the competition. Since then, she has always been a leading player for Korea, not only as consistently one of their top scorers but also placing among the top in other statistics such as number of assists and even steals and blocks. 

Ryu really caught attention internationally at the 2019 World Championship in Japan, where she finished as second top scorer of the competition behind Lois Abbingh, who notched up 71 goals on the path to the Netherlands’ maiden title. However, 29 of Abbingh’s goals came from the penalty line, while only five of Ryu’s 69 total did, and Ryu also played two matches less compared to the Dutch back. A superb record that cemented Ryu’s place as a household name for handball fans, where she has stayed since. 

On a club level, Ryu has been with EHF Champions League powerhouse Györ since 2021. Her first venture in Europe, in 2019, took her to Paris 92. There, Ryu made a strong impression in the French league and had her first taste of Europe’s international club competitions, taking part in the start of the European League — the second-tier competition behind Champions League — in 2020/21. Due to rising Covid-19 cases in France in November 2020, Ryu made the difficult decision to return home. 

“I always feel sorry for Paris 92 because they have given me motivation all the time.
Though I got used to my new life there, suddenly Covid-19 occurred. My friends in Korea were worried a lot about me staying in Europe. Also, I felt afraid of Covid so I decided to go back to Korea,” reflects Ryu. “Although I went back to Korea, I could try again in Europe thanks to them.”

Then in 2021, with life and sport settling into a new normal living with Covid-19, Ryu had the chance of a lifetime: To join Györ. 

“At that time, there was the Covid-19 situation still. However, I could not wait for the end of it. I thought it would be my last chance to play the Champions League. It was a little bit risky, but my decision made my dream come true,” says Ryu. 

With the Hungarian club, Ryu has reached the semi-finals of Europe’s top club competition in both seasons so far. Now, the side are looking to return to the semi-finals once more, with the Champions League currently in the quarter-final stage, from where the aggregate winners of each two-leg tie progress to the season’s final weekend. Györ aim to consolidate a clear win in the first leg of their quarter-final tie against defending title holders Vipers Kristiansand this coming weekend. 

As Ryu eyes a potential next big achievement in her club career and with her fourth Olympics approaching, she looks back to where it all began — with a love for sport and a serendipitous opportunity. “When I was young, I loved playing sports. There was a handball team in my elementary school. One day, one of the PE teachers asked the students if anyone wanted to join the team. So, I raised my hand, and this was my first time to touch the ball,” says Ryu. 

And Ryu’s most important piece of advice for young players? “Just enjoy handball itself!”