Dreaming of making it big in baseball, teenage brothers An Seung-han and An Seung-young travelled hundreds of kilometres away from home to remote Deokjeok Island, where the sport and their team are now the closest thing they have to a family.
The boys are among a few dozen teenagers who have left the bright lights of some of South Korea’s biggest cities to join a specialised sports academy set up by Kim Hak-yong, former manager of the elite Dongguk University team, which has produced scores of players in the national KBO major league.
“If I work hard here, I can be a main player, so I’m working even harder. If I keep doing well, I can also become a professional baseball player,” 16-year-old Seung-young, the younger brother, said during a training session.
In addition to helping the boys achieve their dreams, the sports academy has breathed life into Deokjeok, which was struggling to retain and attract youngsters like many other rural areas in the world’s most rapidly ageing society.
The island has a population of 1,800, the majority of them elderly. Last year, it was on the brink of losing its last school under a nationwide school board guideline that stipulates closures if the number of students falls below 60.
That has now changed, thanks to Kim and his friend Chang Kwang-ho, manager of the Deokjeok High School baseball team.
“The players who come here come with an amazing mindset. You don’t come here unless you’re willing to give up everything,” Chang said.
Although the island is less than two hours away by ferry from the city of Incheon, it remains quite isolated from the mainland and is much less developed.