Few people would have believed a decade ago that South Korea would produce an Olympic champion, but Yuna Kim defied the odds and became one of the most identifiable faces of the sport.
People sat up and took notice back in 2006 when she won the World Junior title at age 15. She became a dominant force on the international stage, landing on the podium at every event she contested throughout her entire career, collecting 14 gold medals along the way.
At her first senior World Championships in Tokyo in 2007, she bagged the bronze, and in Los Angeles two years later, she became the first skater from her nation to claim a World figure skating title.
At the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, Kim captured the gold medal in a landslide victory, earning world-record scores in both the short and the long programs. She was defeated by archrival Mao Asada at the subsequent World Championships. The following year, Kim placed second behind Miki Ando at the global event.
Kim added another World title to her repertoire in 2013, despite sitting out the entire previous season. But this victory was different from any other in her career. It was no longer about titles and medals for Kim but rather a mission to earn three berths for her nation to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
Her two teammates stepped up to the plate in Sochi, both making the cut for the free skate over a number of veteran skaters. “They have the chance to compete at the Olympic Games, and it is a very good experience for them,” Kim said. “I hope I can help contribute to their careers.”
Kim’s success on the figure skating stage has made her a high-profile celebrity in her homeland, with massive media attention focused on her every move. Her star status has made it impossible for her to live the life of a normal 23-year-old, which is one of the reasons Kim is bowing out of the competitive arena for good.
Her second-place finish to Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova at the 2014 Olympic Games unleashed a wave of outrage from her loyal fan base and sparked a debate about the veracity of the judging at the Sochi Games.
“The most important thing for me is to participate in these Olympic Winter Games. I’m happy to be here,” Kim said at a press briefing.
Not made public during the Olympic competition was the fact that Kim was suffering from a serious injury. The day after the ladies free skate, a Korean television network reported that Kim had competed with a 1.5-cm fracture in her right leg and that compensating with her left foot had caused muscle damage in that leg, as well.
Kim headlined her final “All That Skate” shows in Korea this May.
She has expressed a strong desire to become a member of the International Olympic Committee and intends to continue her philanthropic work, specifically with disaster-relief and aid projects around the globe.
With the retirement of Kim and Asada, one of the greatest on-ice rivalries of the last decade will also come to an end. “Yuna Kim is a fantastic skater,” Asada said. “I have been competing with her since our junior days as a fellow Asian, and our time together is a fond memory.”
Kim’s contributions to figure skating cannot be understated. Aside from her victories, her elegance and grace on and off the ice inspired legions of fans around the globe to fall in love with the sport and countless young girls to dream of being an Olympic champion. Kim’s presence will be missed.