Esther Kim, a U.S. taekwondo athlete who gave up her Olympic spot to her injured best friend, died on Tuesday at age 40.
Kim had lost liver and kidney function and spent recent weeks hospitalized in an intensive-care unit, said Jake Stovall, a friend, former instructor and taekwondo athlete. Stovall set up a GoFundMe page to cover funeral expenses.
In May 2000, Kim forfeited the U.S. Olympic Trials flyweight final to Kay Poe, allowing her best friend to take the lone spot available on the Olympic team.
Poe, reportedly ranked No. 1 in the world at the time, dislocated her left kneecap in the previous round. The injury would have kept her from being competitive in the final.
“I was in a very unfair situation. How can you go out there and fight someone who can’t even stand up?” Kim said in 2000. “There was only one choice to be made, and that was just to forfeit and bow out.”
Poe and Kim were training partners, both coached by Kim’s dad, and friends for the previous decade growing up in Houston.
“I felt blessed, and at the same time, I almost felt, like, guilty,” Poe said in 2000. “I couldn’t express it any other way, but it just came out with my tears.”
The story spread among national media, from The New York Times to Sports Illustrated to Oprah Winfrey.
Then-IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch arranged for Kim to travel to Sydney, where taekwondo made its Olympic debut as a medal event. Kim watched from the stands as Poe competed and was upset in her opening match.
“She was really one of a kind larger than life kind of woman,” was posted on Poe’s public Facebook page on Tuesday, along with a photo of her with Kim.