How could a 19-year-old woman achieve perfection while bearing an entire nation’s hopes and the baggage of its past, while 50 million South Koreans stood on her shoulders as she tried to stay upright while doing triple jumps on a slippery surface with knife-thin blades?
That is what Yuna Kim did 10 years ago on this date, lifting spirits in her homeland and elevating herself into a singular place in Olympic history by winning the women’s figure skating title at the 2010 Winter Games.
How? Even Kim still marvels over that, as she said in an email interview done this month through her management company. Even now, the moment confounds her, brings back the nervousness she had in Vancouver and, as it did then, makes her teary-eyed because she feels overwhelmed.
“I always wonder how I did it, and every time I watch, it doesn’t seem real,” she said.
She had not only won South Korea’s first Olympic figure skating gold medal but had beaten an exceptionally talented Japanese rival for it, a fact of no small consequence given the complicated history of relations between Japan and South Korea for five centuries. Sports competitions between the two countries had always been freighted with nationalistic implications.
What skater before Kim ever had to deal with circumstances of such significance? The pressure was so great even Kim did not fully realize its magnitude after breaking into tears when she finished a free skate of transcendent brilliance that brought her immortality in South Korea.
“I honestly don’t know why I cried,” she said that night. “Maybe I was relieved, maybe I was satisfied with my performance.”
Ten years later, Kim seemed to have a full sense of the burden she had overcome.
“I think it was more out of relief than joy,” Kim said to a question about the meaning of the tears. “I’d been pretending to be fearless, but I think the moment the program was over, the pressure that had built up inside me came bursting out.”
I’d been pretending to be fearless, but I think the moment the program was over, the pressure that had built up inside me came bursting out.
The four minutes of skating that immediately preceded the tears were simply magnificent. Having also won the short program, Kim beat Japan’s Mao Asada for the gold by 23.06 points, the largest margin in women’s singles at the four Olympics and the 15 world championships scored under the International Judging System.
This is how I described it for the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times:
“Skating a stunningly difficult program without an error, floating like a feather in the wind to the airy, jazzy rhythms of Gershwin’s Concerto in F, unflinchingly bearing the weight of her country’s hopes, Kim crushed her rivals with a performance for the ages.”
Brian Orser, her coach from Kim’s senior-level debut in 2006 through the 2010 World Championships, got an understanding of how tremendous that weight would become when he directed the ice shows in South Korea that Kim headlined in the spring of 2008 and 2009 – especially 2009, when she had won South Korea’s first figure skating world title.
Orser probably understood it better than anyone, having gone into the 1988 Calgary Olympics as the reigning world champion and his country’s top hope for gold at the first Winter Olympics in Canada. He felt he owed Canada an apology after finishing second to Brian Boitano of the United States.
Orser’s coaching colleague, Tracy Wilson, had a similar grasp of Kim’s situation, since she and ice dance partner Robert McCall were expected to win Canada’s first Olympic medal in that discipline in Calgary – which they did, a bronze.
“There were training days with tears from Yuna in the Olympic season,” Orser said last week. “The one thing both Tracy and I could tell her was, ‘We know what you are going through because we have been there.’ I think she kind of took comfort in that.”
David Wilson, who has been Kim’s choreographer for 14 years, saw the pressure taking its toll at a practice a year earlier, before her first event of the 2008 Grand Prix season, which she began as a two-time world bronze medalist. She had been struggling for a few days before he went to observe her, and on that day, she was frustrated and angry to the point of despair over her imperfections.
“I told her you need to find a reason for why you are skating other than winning,” Wilson recalled a few days ago. “You need to have a deep desire for skating that will be a buffer to all the pressure and expectations.”
Kim had taken a form of that approach during my lengthy interview with her in Toronto two months before the 2010 Olympics.
“Competing or winning competitions, it’s not for my country, it’s for me,” she said then. “I’m doing it for myself, not to win awards for Koreans. I am not skating just to win gold. I am skating for skating.”
But Kim also said in that interview she thought her flawed skating at both 2009 Skate America (second in the free, with a fall and three under-rotated jumps) and the Grand Prix Final (second in the short, with one under-rotated jump and a popped triple) might tamp down some of the expectations. “Now they know I couldn’t be perfect every time,” she said.
By the 2010 Olympics, Kim’s image was everywhere in South Korea. She had sponsorship deals with five of the country’s major companies. Those contracts were so lucrative that Forbes would rank her fifth on its 2010 list of the highest paid women athletes in the world, with earnings of $9.7 million in the magazine’s calculation period, June 2009 to June 2010. South Koreans called her “Queen Yuna.”
A major Korean newspaper had named her the country’s “person of the year” in 2008 and 2009. Respondents to a Gallup poll chose her as South Korea’s top athlete for each of the three years before Vancouver. Kim was training in Canada to avoid constant attention from South Korean media, but she could not escape the sense that what she did at the 2010 Olympics was not just about her.
That came through in her answer to the question in the email interview of whether she had been able to maintain her mantra of not skating only to win gold for South Korea.
“It’s true that I represent my country, but skating for my country is too much of a burden,” she said. “Before the Olympics, I had to skate for myself first and foremost.
“But the Olympics were definitely different. As an athlete representing Korea, there was pressure to give my country the gift of a gold medal. To free myself from the pressure, I remember concentrating on myself and confronting the feeling that I could fail as a human being. In the end, that’s what led me to the gold medal.”
That tactic clearly was effective. Orser knew it was working from the minute he and Kim arrived in Vancouver three days before the women’s singles event began.
“As soon as we got off the plane, I knew she was going to win,” Orser said. “At that point, it was like she took complete control of what was happening. You could see it in her demeanor and calmness. It was an ‘I’ve got this’ kind of attitude. The whole week (practices and competition) was just perfection.”
You could see it in her demeanor and calmness. It was an ‘I’ve got this’ kind of attitude.
Kim decided she did not want to stay in the Olympic Village, so she and her mother, Park Mee-Hee, plus Orser and David Wilson opted for a low-frills hotel in Coquitlam, about 12 miles southeast of the arena. (Tracy Wilson, an NBC commentator at the Games, stayed at a downtown Vancouver hotel.)
For David Wilson, it would be the first time accompanying Kim at a competition – and the first Olympics he had attended.
“We were trying to keep things normal,” David Wilson said. “I tried to keep her laughing and break the ice whenever it was needed.”
David Wilson did not have a coaching credential for the Olympics, so he sat in the stands with Kim’s mother during the competition. The stress of watching from there was enormous.
“Every time she jumped, I was praying to my [late] mother in heaven to keep her upright,” David Wilson said. “I was too rattled to enjoy it. I had to watch it later to really appreciate it, and then I marveled at what she was able to do. I don’t know how she was able to make it look so easy and be so composed.”
Kim’s sassy, technically virtuosic short program to a James Bond medley brought a record score (78.50) and a lead of 4.72 over 2008 world champion Asada, who had landed the first triple Axel in an Olympic short program. Kim was even better in the free, nailing six triple jumps, including triple Lutz-triple toe and double Axel-triple toe combinations and getting a score more than 16 points higher than the record she had set three months earlier (a stunning 12 percent improvement).
“I succeeded at each of the individual elements during my program and once [my] skating was over, my gut told me I was going to win,” Kim said via email. “That was the only time I ever burst into tears after a performance. It was a whirlwind of emotions.”
That Asada made more history by landing two triple Axels in the free became irrelevant. Even had she not made mistakes on lesser jumps, Asada would not have challenged Kim, who was happiest about having done clean programs to win the title.
“She has jaw-dropping magnificence,” 1976 Olympic champion Dorothy Hamill told me when asked to assess Kim a day after the 2010 free skate. “The height of her jumps, the power, and the fluid beauty of her skating are like magic.”
In South Korea, the stock market ground to a near halt when Kim skated (time difference put it in the afternoon of the following day). The clamor to see the woman who made that magic was so intense she and Orser almost immediately flew to Seoul to meet the country’s president at his official residence, the Blue House.
Eighteen hours later, they were on their way back to Toronto to prepare for the world championships in Turin, Italy. Kim, emotionally exhausted after the Olympics, staggered to seventh in the short program there before rallying to win the free skate and finish second to Asada.
The 2010 worlds would be Kim’s last competition with Orser as her coach. For reasons neither she nor her management team at the time ever chose to make public, Kim split with Orser in August 2010. She posted comments on Twitter and her web site accusing Orser of lying about the way the decision to leave was handled after he had made it public.
Orser said he and Kim have had no real interaction since then.
“That kind of makes me sad,” Orser said.
Orser, Olympic silver medalist in 1984 and 1988, had just begun his coaching career when Kim came to him, and he worried that her departure would make some people think the success with her was a one-off. But he has gone on to coach Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan to two Olympic titles and Javier Fernandez of Spain to two world titles.
Orser had been so respected in South Korea he was made an honorary citizen on Seoul in 2010. He currently coaches the country’s top man, Cha Jun-Hwan.
“It was a fantastic ride,” Orser said of his years with Kim.
Peter Oppegard of the United States, a 1988 Olympic pairs bronze medalist, took over as Kim’s coach for the 2010-11 season, in which her lone international competition was the world championships. She finished second to Japan’s Miki Ando.
Kim would take the next season off before returning to competition in December 2012 with the next Olympics as her goal. Working with her childhood coaches in South Korea, she delivered two exceptional performances to win 2013 Worlds by the largest margin (20.42) in the event’s IJS history and immediately became a favorite for gold at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
“Deciding to make a comeback after winning the Olympics and preparing for competition again following a long break was tough, but I felt less pressure because I was less desperate to win,” Kim said.
Kim won the short program by a whisker over surprising Adelina Sotnikova of Russia, who had been ninth at the 2013 worlds. Sotnikova took gold by building a nearly six-point lead over Kim on technical scores in the free skate and giving back less than a tenth of a point on component scores. Sotnikova’s PCS was nearly nine points higher than her average in four previous competitions that season.
That one judge on the free skate panel was Alla Shekhovsteva, wife of the former president of the Russian Figure Skating Federation, and another judge on that panel, Yuri Balkov of Ukraine, had been suspended for his role in prejudging an event led to Internet outrage. It was magnified when a Korean TV station posted a screenshot of Shekhovtseva hugging Sotnikova backstage after the event.
Two months later, the Korean Skating Union filed complaints with the International Skating Union, citing the makeup of the judging panel and the hug. Both complaints were dismissed.
Kim had declined to comment on the result at the press conference after the event. Asked in the recent email interview if she felt any disappointment or anger now over the result, she said her feelings had not changed.
“I already became the Olympic champion, and at that time (2014) winning was not my only goal,” she said. “It was my last competition, and it was a long, hard journey to be there. I was just so happy to finish it.”
Six years later, 10 years after winning gold, Kim remains a revered – and highly paid – figure in South Korea. She also remains very protective about her private life, with infrequent Instagram posts and nothing on Twitter since 2018.
Kim’s mother capitalized on her daughter’s Olympic triumph to create their own management company, All That Sports, in spring 2010. From 2010 through 2014, according to Forbes’ figures, Kim earned about $60 million. She currently has an annual income estimated at $5 million and seven major sponsors – KB financial group, SK telecom Dongsuh foods, E1 oil and energy, J.estina (jewelry), New Balance (athletic wear) and Samsung.
“When I started figure skating, I never imagined I would receive so much attention and encouragement,” she said in the email. “Even after several years of retirement, I’m unbelievably thankful that people still remember.”
Kim had a significant role in helping provide what PyeongChang 2018 bid consultant Terrence Burns called “athlete credibility” during presentations near the end of Korea’s successful 2018 Winter Olympics campaign for International Olympic Committee votes. At 29, she remains such a national icon that the Korean edition of Harper’s Bazaar put her on the cover of its November 2019 issue. The magazine’s simple but evocative headline for the photo: “The Queen.”
Her ice show, All That Skate, has been an annual attraction in Seoul, with last year’s edition featuring world champions from all four of the sport’s disciplines. She is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador who has made personal donations of “about $1 million” to the United Nations agency’s global relief efforts, according to a representative of her management company. The latest is $50,000 to the fund-raising effort her fan club is doing for UNICEF in celebration of the gold medal anniversary.
Korean TV editor Han Sung Yun said he considers Kim the second greatest athlete in their country’s history, behind only Sohn Kee-Chung.
Sohn won the 1936 Olympic marathon as Kitei Son of Japan, forced to bear the name and wear the colors of Korea’s colonial master at the time.
It was not until 2011, nine years after his death and 23 years after he carried the torch into the stadium during the Opening Ceremony of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, that the IOC biography of Kitei Son was amended to include the runner’s full back story. His medal still is attributed to Japan.
“Sohn’s gold medal is a symbol of Korean pride,” Han wrote in an email. “Yuna is next to Sohn.”
Significant circumstances, indeed. And the two champions also are linked by the quality of their triumphs: Sohn’s winning time was an Olympic record, and Kim’s winning total score a world best that lasted seven years.
“Yuna’s Olympic performances rank right up there among the greatest ever,” Orser said. “Even more, just look what she did for women in Korea. The thousands of little girls skating in Korea now were two or three years old in 2010.”
In 2003, when Kim won her first national title, there were eight competitors in senior women’s singles at the South Korean Championships. This year, there were 32 (plus 24 in juniors), with the first nine senior finishers all succeeding on the difficult triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination in the free skate.
The current national champion, 15-year-old You Young, just did triple Axels while winning the silver medal at the Four Continents Championship, making her the first Korean to win a medal at an ISU championship since Kim in 2013. Kim would present her and the other medalists with stuffed animals during the awards ceremony.
“I always wanted to be like Yuna,” You told the Olympic Channel four years ago. “That was why I became a figure skater.”
At 11, You won her first senior national title. Kim was 12 when she won her first.
At 13, You was first to carry the flame in South Korea during the torch relay leading to the Opening Ceremony of the 2018 Winter Games. Last in that relay was Kim.
Dressed in all white, with beading on her coatdress and hat sparkling, Kim skated on a tiny patch of a platform high above the stadium in PyeongChang as she performed the ritual of lighting the cauldron at the Opening Ceremony. She did a brief spin before being handed the torch, gave a few shy waves, then glided over to dip the torch into what looked like glowing shards of ice.
“I was worried I might make a mistake like not lighting the torch properly or falling over,” she said.
She need not have worried. With skates on her feet, Yuna Kim was Queen Yuna, firmly in command of her realm with the world watching. Like her 2010 Olympic performances, this one was magic.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
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