Posted by: happyfan08 | March 8, 2010

Yu Na Kim – Long Live the Queen!

For this first time, I’m going to write an article on this site about a Korean female athlete who isn’t a golfer.  What Yu Na Kim just accomplished at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, in winning Korea’s first ever gold medal in Figure Skating, was so extraordinary that it deserves an article, even though her short programs are doubtless infinitely better than her short irons.  And no, I’m not just doing this to up the hit count on my site (though that never hurts!).

As Yu Na Kim finished her free skate at the Olympics, you could almost hear an entire country exhale in relief.  She herself broke down in tears for the first time after a competition.  It might have been sufficient for her to go out on the ice and skate conservatively, to safeguard the gold medal that looked likely to be hers after her equally phenomenal short program.  Instead, she skated with passionate abandon, embracing the opportunity this huge stage provided to express herself and show just what she was capable of.  For four minutes, she performed one of the most technically complicated programs in Olympic history and made it look easy, expressing the music with a speed, flow and lyricism that drew all eyes to her with magnetic force.  When she was finished, the stadium erupted in applause.  We had all been blessed to see one of those transcendent moments where a sport is being transformed, elevated, right before our very eyes.

Yu Na skates her long program, February 25th

It had been a long journey for Kim Yeon Ah to get to that moment of surpassing brilliance.  When she started skating in South Korea as a young girl, there were almost no facilities that could support a world class talent like hers in the entire country.  Indeed, there wasn’t, and still isn’t, so much as a single ice rink in the whole land dedicated solely to figure skating.  As for getting world class coaching in such an environment, forget it.  If Kim wanted to become a force in her sport, she would have to leave Korea to do it.  Her family was not well off, especially after her father’s small business failed.  But hers was a talent that could not be silenced, and she kept winning events as a junior, culminating in her dominating win at the World Junior Championships in 2006.  Among the skaters she trounced at that event was Japanese prodigy Mao Asada, who just a few months earlier was being called by many the best woman skater in the whole world of any age.  Only Asada’s youth had prevented her from being eligible for Torino, where some believed she would have won the gold.  Yet, here was a skater, the same age as Mao but from a country that had never produced a top skater, defeating her in important international junior events.  Kim knew she had to find a way to continue her training, to see how far her talent could take her.

Yu Na Kim in 2006

Kim’s story at this point is interestingly parallel to that of Se Ri Pak, the golf prodigy who launched the massive Korean wave that has overwhelmed women’s golf in the past few years.  Like Kim, Pak was not from a wealthy family, and she had to work hard despite not having the access to top facilities many of her competitors had.  Korea was not a notable force in world golf at the time any more than it was a force in skating when Kim started.  Like Kim, Pak had to leave Korea eventually to bloom, and after she won the biggest events her sport had to offer, Pak became a national icon.  The result was an entire generation of Se Ri Kids, golfers who took up the sport primarily because of Se Ri.  No doubt the Yu Na Kids are already lacing on their skates in the hopes of emulating their own heroine.

Golfer Hee Young Park takes a moment during a tournament to watch Yu Na Kim compete

When Kim joined the senior ranks in 2006, she almost immediately had success.  But perhaps the most fascinating thing about her story is how the right things seemed to happen for her just when she needed them to.  She went to Canada to work with choreographer David Wilson, who seemed to have an instinctual ability to bring out her best qualities in his programs.  While there, she worked briefly with Brian Orser, the Canadian skater who had twice won silver medals in the Olympics, but had come so close to claiming the gold both times.  Kim was so impressed with him that she almost immediately asked him to be her coach.  He declined; he had obligations in the skating world, had never coached before, and wasn’t sure he was ready to do it at that time.  Kim persisted, and eventually he relented.  And as it turned out, Orser was the perfect man for the job.  He and perhaps he alone could understand the pressure Kim would face when she stepped onto that Olympic ice.  He found a formula to keep her grounded, protecting her from the insanity that was all around her, and in so doing allowed her to blossom.

Team Yu Na: choreographer David Wilson, Yu Na, coach Brian Orser

And indeed, insanity it was, for as Kim started to have success, her fame grew and grew in her homeland.  She won Korea’s first gold medal ever in a senior figure skating competition at the 2006 Trophee Eric Bompard in Paris, and followed that up with a surprise victory at the Grand Prix Final, besting Asada again.  At the 2007 World Championships, despite struggling with painful injuries, she electrified the crowd with a world record performance in the short program, although the longer free program was too much for her to take in her weakened state, and she wound up with a bronze. 

Yu Na skates a world record short program at the 2007 World Championship

Although it was Miki Ando who won the gold that year, Korea fully embraced Yu Na (as she now spelled her name), turning her first into a celebrity, then an icon, then something even greater than that (a religion?).  Certainly there were perks to that: she would never have to worry about funding her training ever again, as she was inundated with sponsorship deals that eventually were earning her millions and millions of dollars a year.  But the downside was that it became almost impossible for her to even walk down the street in Seoul without dealing with paparazzi and fans.  She moved to Toronto full time, only returning occasionally to her homeland thereafter.

Yu Na's image is used for dozens of products in Korea

The pressure continued to build throughout 2008.  Kim did well again, winning two more Grand Prix events and the Grand Prix final.  But once again she found herself injured going into the World Championship, and this time it was her rival Asada who claimed the title.  Most commentators looking ahead to Vancouver were anointing Asada the presumptive gold medalist by that point.  But interestingly, at this very time, everything changed in Kim’s favor.  For Yu Na at last got over her injuries, and her work with Orser really started to pay dividends.  From this point on, she took a quantum leap forward, and suddenly it was the Korean star who was setting the pace in the skating world.  She dominated the 2008 Grand Prix season, but actually lost the Grand Prix final in her homeland to Mao.  No matter.  She went into the World Championship totally healthy, and destroyed the competition, in the process becoming the first woman to ever break 200 points in the new scoring system.  That event, held in Los Angeles, in some ways was the dry run for the Olympics one year later.  Kim showed the flow, matchless speed, technical brilliance and musicality that would soon become her trademarks.  Asada was on the ropes: she did not even win a medal at that event for the first time in her senior career.  This was the moment when the press decisively turned towards Kim, making her the favorite for the gold.  And this is when the pressure really started to hit her.

Yu Na wins the 2009 World Championship

In the events leading up to the Olympics in 2009, Kim at first seemed as brilliant as ever.  She set a new world record in Paris, annihilating the competition, including Mao.  Asada skated so poorly that she did not even qualify for the Grand Prix Final.  Everything seemed to be going Kim’s way.  But after another great short program at Skate America, Yu Na had a surprisingly poor free skate.  She still won the event, but actually lost to Rachel Flatt in the free portion.  Kim looked slower than usual, and a bit nervous.  At the Grand Prix Final, she actually finished the short program behind Miki Ando, although she still won in the end.  It was almost unheard of for the brilliant young Korean to produce such shaky, anxious results.  If she was already feeling the pressure several months before Vancouver, what would happen when she got to the Olympics?

The good news is that Orser knew exactly what she was going through.  He had been there himself.  In 1988, he had been the defending world champ going into an Olympics in his home country, where he was expected to get the gold.  Although he did well, he did not win, making just enough small errors to give the top prize to Brian Boitano of the United States.  Orser kept her away from most of the craziness, and was honest with her:  the pressure was going to be like nothing she’s ever faced, but if anyone could overcome that and do well, it was she.  Strangely, Kim admitted later that she was not all that nervous during the actual Olympic week, perhaps because she had gotten all the bad mojo out of her system earlier in the season.

Kim did, however, write a series of essays where she opined that her country people would probably turn their backs on her were she to fail (and fail meant do anything other than decisively win gold).  Well, maybe.  But I’m of the opinion that she used things like that to motivate herself, and that it did not reflect reality.  More likely, if she had lost a close one to Asada, the Korean fans would have just assumed the result was fixed and that Asada or the judges cheated somehow (look at how Korean fans react whenever a short track speed skating event doesn’t go their way).  And if Kim had lost big, they probably would have welcomed her back tenderly as they would a little sister, taking her into their hearts and hoping to heal the hurt from her failure.  It seems extremely unlikely to me they would have started to hate her, no matter what the outcome of the Olympics.

Yu Na Kim: the 'It Girl' of Korean Sports

That does not mean, of course, that she did not face huge pressure.  She is the biggest sports star in her land by far, and with that standing comes the pressure to perform.  The press watched her intently from the moment she arrived in Vancouver, a week after the games began.  When she fell on a routine jump during practice, it became big news – was the pressure getting to her?  To make things even more ‘difficult’, Kim would be skating in the short program right after her top rival Asada.  If Asada managed to hit her triple axel and posted a big score, Kim would have to respond or risk getting left behind. 

Fortunately, Yu Na has proved to be a big event performer par excellence, as she showed in LA in 2009.  Asada may have struggled through most of 2009, but she hit all the right notes in her Olympic short program, nailing the triple axel and posting her career best score in the event.  But Kim and Orser were both glad they got the skating position they received; Kim was certain it would motivate her to do her best to skate after Mao.  And indeed, that’s exactly what happened.  Yu Na simply hit it out of the park in her short, skating to a medley of theme tunes from the James Bond movies.  Her score of 78.5 was a new world record, nearly five points above Asada. 

Yu Na in the Olympic short program: another world record

More importantly, it freed her up to really go for it in the long program, and the result was an epic skate that will long be remembered as one of the very greatest in Olympic history.  In seven minutes of skating between the two programs, Kim literally did not make a single mistake.  What she did do was skate with speed, passion, musicality, and technical brilliance, leaving an indelible mark on the Games in the process.  Her free skate score was an astronomical 150 points, destroying her own world record by more than 15 points, and setting a new total record of 228.56 points that would have placed her ninth in the men’s competition.  She had had the weight of crushing expectations on her shoulders, and proved not only able to deal with all that, but capable of soaring into the stratosphere on wings of genius.

Yu Na and the Gold Medal

What is there left for Kim to skate for now?  She intends to defend her World Championship title in a few weeks, but will she be able to maintain motivation after that now that she has accomplished all her life’s goals?  Amazingly, it has been 18 long years since a women’s gold medalist last even bothered to defend her world title after winning the gold, much less stuck around to skate the following season.  And some of those champions were even younger than Kim is now when they chose to retire.  So it would surprise no one if Yu Na decided to hang up her skates.  But hopefully she will find motivation to go on, for her country and her newfound fans all over the world are not ready to see her quit just yet, when she may have so much more to offer us all in years to come.

[Addendum]: In reading this over again, I realize I might have been a bit unfair to Korean fans of Yu Na Kim.  No doubt, were she to have lost in a close battle, there would have been a vocal group of fans who would have cried foul and perhaps overreacted, but I think they would have been in the minority.  And it certainly is the case that there are some small group of Japanese fans of Asada who have done the same thing.  You would think there would be no way to argue that Kim should have lost the gold medal, but you’d be wrong.  There are fans out there claiming that the result was fixed (!).  To those fans, I say check the scoring out in detail, and you will see how everything falls into place.  There is even a small group claiming that Kim should be disqualified because she violated Olympic rules with illegal earrings (no, seriously!).  The argument is that, because a company sells replicas of the earrings she wore during the Olympics, this violates the Olympic rule against wearing anything that is advertising.  Exactly why any Asada fan would want their girl to win a gold medal because the woman who beat her gets DQed for a silly reason is beyond me, but there you go.  This idiocy should take its place next to the ‘Obama was not born in Hawaii’ people in the Sore Losers Hall of Fame.

Instead of worrying about stuff like that, let’s celebrate the amazing accomplishments of Kim and Asada, who gave two great performances during the Olympics and made it a never-to-be-forgotten competition.  M’kay?

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Responses

  1. Kim deserves the gold. All are haters who think otherwise. Obama still needs to show his actual birth certificate to silence those who are in doubt. Just show the darn thing! I totally believe he was born in Hawaii, but some people just can’t swallow it until they see the actual birth certificate. As for Yeon-ah’s performance, we were all witnesses. Peace.


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