Son Yeon-Jae: The reluctant 'fairy' who charmed South Korea

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.
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    "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."

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    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.
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    "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 it."
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    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."