From her beginning triumph in North America--when she won the Women's Singles at the 1974 Toronto CNE--Insook showed the remarkable poise that anyone watching her for the next two decades would have to admire. And what a game she had--she varied the spin so beautifully, and, to complement her near impregnable defense, she flashed those pick-hits from either side.
Just how good was she?
"How can a woman beat our men?" asked one long-time player torn between amusement and disgust.
In Team matches at the '75 U.S. Open, Insook split matches against the visiting South Korean players--she beat World #39 Sung Nak So, but lost in 3 to Chung Hyun Sook, World #4 and the eventual Singles winner.
Of course Insook was very familiar with her fellow Korean's games. In 1973 she'd gone to the Sarajevo World's as a member of the South Korean Team. However, she felt she'd been the victim of Association politics, for she'd been given what she considered the hollow title of Non-Playing Captain, and was extremely disappointed, literally pained, that, after years of practicing, sometimes 5-6 days a week, 4-5 hours a day, she wasn't given what she'd worked for and deserved--the chance to play.
The next year she left Korea and came to the States, to settle momentarily in a Korean community in Flushing, N.Y. Then, with that independence of mind so characteristic of her, she moved to Columbus, Ohio to help six-time U.S. Champion D-J Lee in his table tennis business. Columbus, of course, had been the hometown of Leah Neuberger, who'd won more U.S. Women's Singles Championships than any woman in history.
Perhaps working for D-J was not entirely satisfactory, so for a while Insook became a waitress. "I'd rather be a waitress than a hostess," she said. Why? "Because it's easier to get another girl to replace me if I want to go to a tournament."
And go to tournaments she did.
In 1975, she won the Kingston, Jamaica "Lovebird" Tournament--beating both Sweden's Ann-Christin Hellman, World #10, and England's Jill Hammersley, World #17. Also, she again won the CNE--clearly showing a new level of Women's play. Former U.S. and Canadian Champion Violetta Nesukaitis could not reach double figures against her in any game.
The CBS "Challenge Match of the Sexes" between the #1 U.S. man, Danny Seemiller, and Insook was a natural. They played to an audience of thousands in Mission Viejo, CA, and from their combined $4,000 purse (Danny got $2500 for first, Insook $1500 for second) Fred Danner , who'd helped to arrange the match, got 10% for his Junior Development Fund.
In 1976 Insook lost her "Lovebird" title in Kingston to Japan's World #8 (and the 1974 U.S. Open Champion) Yukie Ohzeki. She also lost that first U.S. Closed final to He-ja Lee, D-J's wife.
Still, though she'd abandoned serious training, she was pretty much keeping up her level of play in the U.S. by competing against men in tournaments.
In fact, if you had to pick one year from Insook's long career that she'd be most proud of, probably 1977 would be it. At the World's, her 13-0 Corbillon Cup record helped her U.S. Women's Team to advance to the First Division. And in first-round Singles play she beat France's Claude Bergeret, Mixed Doubles Champion at that very World's. Maybe Insook's best match ever was in the second round of these Singles. Up 2-0, she lost to China's World #3, Chang Te-ying, 15, 18, (ohh)-20, -15, -18.
But immediately balancing that heartbreaker was maybe Insook's best win ever--at the '77 U.S. Open. There in the final she beat Chieko Ono, winner of the '76 All-Japan Championships. But after rallying to win, 23-21 in the 5th, Insook collapsed courtside, suffering from dehydration and severe cramps in almost every part of her body.
Another such collapse would happen in the '91 Pan-Am Games in Havana. Again Insook's suffering would be severe, made perhaps the more so because at first it was so little understood by most of those around her--the desk, for example, thought that at any moment she might be ready to play, and so was reluctant to default her in a Mixed Doubles match scheduled to follow. Finally, when a therapist wasn't able to relieve her--he'd been administering to her for maybe 20 minutes, hearing her near unconscious moans, and trying to induce her to take liquids ("I can't," she gasped--"they make me nauseous")--an ambulance was called for. Fortunately, after being rushed to a hospital, she soon recovered.
Also, in 1977, Insook won the "Lovebird," the CNE, and the U.S. Closed from He-ja who'd been playing in the German Bundesliga.
In 1979 at the Pyongyang, North Korea World's, Insook with her long-time ties to Seoul, was very self-conscious, very uncomfortable. "The South Korean Team couldn't go to Pyongyang--they couldn't get a visa. But since I, a native-born South Korean, was able to go, and to play for the U.S., I was like a 'double enemy' to those North Koreans. In fact, there was a rumor going round that I was paid to play for the U.S. by the South Korean Association." As she'd say later, "It was a really bad experience playing there. I came on court and there were 20,000 spectators clapping like mad for my opponent and rooting against me. I hadn't expected this--and it wasn't any fun."
Well, maybe just a little fun? Since, in the Team's, Insook beat North Korea's Li Song Suk, who would go on to be World runner-up in the Singles to China's Ge Xinai. Significantly, North Korea didn't risk playing their two-time World Champion Pak Yung Sun (the only tie Pak didn't play was against the U.S.). Had Insook beaten her....
Then, at the top of her game, ranked World #23, Insook retired....That is, until the fall of 1981.
Back in the mid-'70's at that Columbus, Ohio club, Insook had met Shekhar Bhushan, a native of India, who was studying architecture at Ohio State. He taught her to drive, and to speak better English. Now, having been married since Nov. of '75, they were teaching each other how to have a family. Their first boy was Austin. A few years later, they would have another son, Kevin.
Insook returned to win the '81 Closed--beating her arch-competitor He-ja Lee in 5.
But now she was beginning to look beyond table tennis. She was almost 30 years old. How much longer could she continue to play?
And in addition to being a wife and mother, she wanted to have a working life. So, go for it, she must have told herself. Eventually she'd get a degree in Accounting from the University of Colorado.
But she needed, and was needed in, the table tennis world. At the '83 Novi Sad World's, Insook had a 12-2 record in the Team's. Then she twisted her ankle. The Yugoslav doctor treating her confined her to her bed. Where, like Patty Martinez before her, she learned backgammon.
Table tennis, however, was never a game to Insook. She couldn't have been more serious about it. In'83, she won the first of her three Pan-Am Women's Singles titles. Her winning scores? An embarrassing 6, 2, 4...3, 3, 3...6, 8, 7...and 11, 8, 4.
Insook didn't play in the '84 Closed or '85 World's. She had some very discomforting but very necessary oral surgery.
She did attend the '87 New Delhi World's, however, and had an 11-2 record in Corbillon Cup play.
In '87, too, she qualified for the Seoul Olympics. And as always she was very dedicated. She committed herself to the Resident Training Program (RTP) in Colorado Springs 120 miles away and practiced faithfully 4-5 days a week. When suddenly the news came that the '88 U.S. Olympic hopefuls were going to train in China, Insook reluctantly agreed to go. She had no youthful illusions. "I'm going to win a Gold Medal in the Olympics?" she asked rhetorically. "Win by partially training for a year while others train uninterruptedly for 10 years?" But she dutifully left home and family and went to China--for 7 weeks.
Later, in '89, she was elected the Olympic Athlete Representative for Table Tennis, and this meant more time away from home at various meetings.
That which has always impressed me most about Insook is her relentless intensity to do what she sets out to do as well as she can do it. I admired her the more for a match she won in the 1990 French Open against the Czech International Renata Zatkova. From the scores of this match (-18, -16, 25, 17, 16), you can be sure Insook wasn't merely availing herself of the opportunity to take a Paris sightseeing trip.
In 1990 Insook lost the 1990 Closed to Wei Wang. But in '91, only two months before her 40th birthday, and with her rating still near 2400, she won her 11th and last National Singles Championship (to go with her 10 Women's Doubles and 7 Mixed Doubles titles). That may well be a record that--sorry, Leah--lasts as long as the Sport does.