Yuna Kim never imagined as she rose through the skating ranks that she would one day become an international megastar, both on and off the ice.
But Kim, who turned 21 on Sept. 5, is enjoying a post-Olympic career unlike any other skater in history. For many athletes a World or Olympic title is the kick-start to their future careers, but Kim was already well on her way long before she laid claim to either of those titles.
The Olympic crown only enhanced her rock star status both at home and abroad.
After training in Toronto for four years, Kim relocated to Los Angeles in the fall of 2010 to work with respected coach Peter Oppegard. Though she was initially hesitant about the new arrangement, the transition proved seamless. “The decision to train with Peter could have put a lot of pressure on not only me but on Peter as well, but we soon established a good rapport and adjusted to each other,” Kim said.
“Whatever little differences in training style there might have been, we learned to adapt to each other, so I quickly got used to training with him.”
The Korean superstar credits Oppegard as the guiding force behind her preparation for the 2011 World Championships.
“Peter’s intensive training regimen helped me refocus when I could have become lax physically and mentally,” she explained. “Training in a new environment with a new coach and new skaters provided me with the motivation to continue competing.
“After having achieved my dream of becoming an Olympic champion, I found it difficult, mentally, to go back to participating in competitions as I had done in previous seasons. And in a way, that is to be expected. However, getting back to the right mindset would have been harder had I not come to L.A.”
Not one for the sun, Kim laughed when asked how she deals with the California heat. “L.A. is really hot, but I usually spend my time at the rink, so the heat does not affect me too much,” she said. “I miss the winter a little bit. It does not snow in L.A. like it does in Korea or Toronto. But a lot of Koreans live in L.A., so I feel as if I am living in Korea. But I still like Korea better.”
Kim has won everything there is to win: the Grand Prix Final and World titles in the junior ranks, three senior Grand Prix Final titles, a World crown and the coveted Olympic title.
When asked what motivates her to continue competing, Kim was reflective. “In all honesty, deciding to compete at 2011 Worlds was very difficult,” she admitted. “Even after I made up my mind to compete, I kept thinking to myself, ‘Do I have to go through with this?’
“After some soul searching, and as I became more physically prepared for competition, I started thinking in a different way.
“I wanted to show my best in Moscow and I think the preparations went well. I skated clean programs during the official practices, so I was somewhat disappointed by the mistakes I made during the actual competition,” Kim added. “I wasn’t very nervous, but then again, I was not completely at ease. There were some nerves since this was my first competition in quite a long time.
“However, I felt more happiness than disappointment because I knew I had overcome many challenges last season, and I was overwhelmed when it was finally over.
“I have been asked many times if I was disappointed at not winning gold, but I never felt that way,” said Kim of her second- place finish. “For me, that competition was not about winning a medal, but more about putting down a great performance for my fans and my country who had all been waiting to see me compete for a long time.”
Kim returned to her Korean homeland after the World Championships. Her nation was in the final stages of the bid process to host the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, and Kim was happy to jump onboard.
“I had been a PR ambassador for the Winter Olympics bid for quite some time, but I only started playing an active role after Worlds this year,” she explained. “My first official role was being part of the presentation team at the technical briefing of the candidate cities in Lausanne, Switzerland in May.”
Kim embarked on a journey to the African continent with the rest of the bid team in late June. “First, I attended the General Assembly and the 30th anniversary of the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa (ANOCA) in Lomé, Togo,” she said.
“Then I headed straight to Durban, South Africa where the International Olympic Committee (IOC) General Assembly had convened.”
Initially, the Korean contingent had intended to utilize the services of an English speaker to present their bid, but Kim worked tirelessly on her English skills leading up to the final presentation. “I was one of the speakers for the final presentation,” she said. “It was an honor to be given the opportunity to present the PyeongChang bid to the IOC members. Because it was a very important presentation, I practiced over and over for three weeks to the point where I had my speech almost memorized.
“I have never felt this way before even in competitions, but just before my presentation I felt like my heart would pop out and I could feel my legs shaking because I was so nervous. However, because I had gone though a similar pro- cess of speaking in front of a large audience in Lausanne, the nerves went away once I began to speak.
“I feel so blessed to have been part of that historic moment. When IOC president Jacques Rogge announced to the world that PyeongChang was the host city, the sense of achievement and the overwhelming emotions I felt were so different from the joy I felt winning the Olympic title. I know I will never forget that moment.
“Even though I joined the bid process in the latter stages, I saw firsthand all the hard work and painstaking efforts that so many people had poured into preparing the bid over the last ten years. This is why I really hoped that PyeongChang would win.
“The announcement made the entire team burst into tears as expected, and to see them hugging each other with a mix of joy and relief was especially emotional. I, too, felt glad and proud to have been part of this great team and to have played a small role in bringing this great present to the people of Korea.”
When asked how much pressure she personally felt, Kim was thoughtful. “As an athlete, the results of my participation in competitions rests solely on me. Everything is up to me and if the result is disappointing, I take full responsibility and it ends there,” she said. “However, this bid involved working with many people and I was worried that I could make mistakes which could be a burden for others.
“Also, because it was the third bid for PyeongChang, the dedication and determination of the bid committee was greater than ever, so I did feel some pressure.
“I was very happy to return home with good news for the Korean people who had shown overwhelming support for the bid.”
ON THE SMALL SCREEN
In early May, Kim made her television debut as the emcee of the reality skating show “Kim Yuna’s Kiss & Cry.” The format is similar to “Skating With the Stars,” but the Korean approach includes a wonderful sense of humor. Though Kim was nervous at the first taping, having never hosted a television show before, she soon felt at ease “because the show is about the competitors and not about me,” she explained.
“I like the fact that a celebrity and a professional skater get to partner up and compete many times. If it were only the celebrities with little experience in skating competing against each other, it would have been harder to see them develop in a short amount of time and it wouldn’t be interesting. However, since the celebrities skate with professional skaters as an ice dance couple, their skating and performance skills improve much faster.
“Actually, I could see them all getting better every week, which was very impressive. Since the bottom team gets eliminated every week, or every other week, there is a sense of competitiveness and friendly rivalry amongst the teams to be better. One can see the challenges that the skaters face and all the effort they put into their programs, which is very interest- ing to me as well as entertaining for the viewers.
“I hope this program helps to bring more attention to the
sport of figure skating and that more people will take up the sport,” she added.
Being on the other side of the boards in a judging role was initially a challenge. “It is my first time to be a judge so I don’t think my scores were very consistent during the first competition. Now that the show has been on air for a couple of months, I am okay with judging. To be honest, being judged is quite painful,” Kim said with a laugh.
“Being the judge is actually more fun than being judged, but every time a team gets eliminated, I feel so sorry and sad and that makes judging quite difficult.”
Kim spent the summer in Korea fulfilling corporate commitments and getting some much-needed rest. “I did not come home to Korea for eight months while I was prepar- ing for Worlds,” she said. “So now I am spending a lot of quality time with my family and friends whom I’ve missed so much.”
In mid-August she headlined a series of “All That Skate Summer” shows in Korea. “I was excited about all the great skaters that came to participate in the show,” Kim said. “As always, we had an international cast of champions and I really looked forward to doing that show with them.”
The team who won “Kiss & Cry” also participated in the shows. “Unfortunately, only the winning team performed a full program at the show but everyone was so good that it is such a shame the rest could not show off their skills. I wish all of them could have skated,” Kim said with a laugh.
Her plan is to return to the United States at the end of August. “Right now, I am training regularly. I have started thinking about next season but nothing has been decided yet.
“I want to perform a more diverse range of characters and show great performances for everyone,” she explained. “Also, although it might be difficult, I want to be able to skate with less pressure about results and medals.”
Kim’s accomplishments on and off the ice have earned her worldwide respect, but fame and fortune have not changed her. She remains the same down-to-earth person she always was. “Where I am now was a dream that was always inside my heart, but I did not imagine that it could really come true,” she said.
“Over the years, I have been both surprised and proud as I saw myself getting closer to achieving my dreams. I often now think to myself, ‘Yes, I knew I could do it.’
“However, I am only human and there are times when I go through a rough phase which makes me doubt my successes. But I push myself to overcome those challenges. I tell myself that I am a lucky person.
"I have accomplished everything that any athlete in the world could ever dream of.”
Originally published in October 2011