(This article was originally published in the IFS August 2009 issue)
Yuna Kim has set the skating world on fire. The teenage phenom from the Republic of Korea is being touted as perhaps one of the most talented female skaters the world has ever witnessed, with a combination of powerful athleticism and graceful artistry that are a rare mix.
The gracious young woman who has been making history every step of the way has earned worldwide respect and a legion of fans. It is a far cry from the reaction to her second-place finish at the 2005 World Junior Championships, which garnered little attention even though the then 14-year-old skater made history by claiming her nation’s first international skating medal.
So much has changed in four years.
When Kim wove her magic at the 2009 World Figure Skating Championships, she brought the audiences to their feet with her inspired performances. Winning the World title was her childhood dream and on a warm California evening last March, millions of people around the world witnessed that youthful musing morph into reality as Kim claimed her first global crown in a runaway victory.
LIVING THE DREAM
Kim was victorious at all but one of the competitions she entered last season. She claimed gold at Skate America and Cup of China and won her first Four Continents title in February. Her only loss was a heartbreaker at the Grand Prix Final in her homeland last December, where she settled for silver.
With those experiences under her belt, Kim headed to the 2009 World Championships with a confidence Brian Orser had not previously sensed in his gifted student. “In the days prior to going to L.A. we were doing our work at the club — all the finishing bits — but we were ready to go,” Orser recalled. “We finished our last session, and I had a little lump in my throat when I said, ‘Okay, you’re ready, let’s go to the next thing.’
“We both took a moment to look around the rink, got off the ice, packed up our skate bags and away we went. It was right then that I knew she was going to win. I just had that feeling.”
Kim headed to Los Angeles as one of the top contenders for the title. “I could hardly believe it. It was like a dream come true,” Kim confided. She set the bar in the short program, earning 76.12 points, a record score in the ladies event. “Yuna was good all season, but she was especially good at Worlds in the short program,” Orser said. “You would never know she was competing at a World Championship, she was so relaxed and so in charge. I believe that it is going to be one of those programs that people will remember forever.”
She carried the momentum into the free skate and when the final results flashed overhead at the Staples Center following her performance, Kim was overjoyed. The 18-year-old claimed her first World title with a record-breaking score of 207.71 points. Kim is the only woman to break the 200-point mark.
“When I realized I had won, I was not shocked but very surprised,” she said. “I just thought, ‘all finished.’ I was just so happy that I ended the season on a high note by winning the World title. “When I was young I would ask myself, ‘What if I would be the World champion?’ but I was never sure that it was possible,” the gracious young woman admitted. “For a few years I missed the World title (she placed third in 2007 and 2008), and this was my last chance to win the title before the Olympics.”
Orser feels the judges got it. “They got the whole package. They had to give her those marks,” he said. “Yuna was completely in control. She just let it happen. It was such a nice feeling.”
As she took the top step of the podium, Kim was unable to control her emotions. “When she shed tears on the podium, it was really quite moving,” Orser reflected. “Just to know what she is feeling … and I do … it was really special.”
His elation was tempered by the fact that Kim received no points for her last spin. “I became consumed with her last spin being deemed invalid and tried to figure out where I went wrong,” Orser admitted. “I could not enjoy the moment as much because I felt like I had let her down. You know, being the captain of this team, I let something slip through. … I should have been more on top of it.”
Respected television analyst Tracy Wilson described Kim’s victory as magical. “There was this audible gasp in the arena when Yuna skated her long in Los Angeles. When those marks came up, that was a celebratory moment,” she recalled.
Kim’s accomplishment was an inspiration for Canada’s Patrick Chan, the 2009 World silver medalist in the men’s event. “She was definitely the most unique out of all of the ladies in the final. It was amazing,” he said. “I get goose bumps every time I watch her skate. She is really something different, definitely. I hope one day I can know that same feeling of being a World champion.”
Kim returned to Korea after Worlds. As she exited customs at Seoul’s Incheon Airport, flashbulbs lit up the arrival lounge. “It is always crazy at the airport,” said Kim, who noted she was mentally prepared for the media frenzy. “There were about 100 media people there, but I did not have to do many interviews.”
Security officers guided the national hero to a waiting car and the peace and quiet of her family home. “I never dreamed that I would be so popular, especially in Korea,” Kim admitted. “Last season and especially at the World Championships I realized that now I am a little bit more famous than before. All the media from around the world want to interview me, not just the Korean media. In Los Angeles everything changed for me.”
There was, however, little downtime for the megastar. When asked what she did on her vacation, Kim laughed. “It was not really a vacation. I was busy doing commercials for Korean television and magazines. I had the weekends free, so I got to spend time with my friends. We went shopping and had lunch together.”
While Kim was already an iconic figure in her Korean homeland, her victory in Los Angeles sent her popularity rating off the radar. “I can’t go to the movies or walk around on the streets anymore because so many people recognize me everywhere. I am just a little afraid,” Kim confided. “I have to hide myself. You know, wear caps and be in disguise.”
Johnny Weir and Kim have become good friends and share a mutual admiration. “Yuna is the No. 1 celebrity in Korea,” Weir observed. “She is ranked higher than any actor, singer, dancer or movie director and is maybe even more popular than the South Korean president at this point.”
‘FESTA ON ICE’
Kim headlined a trio of “Festa on Ice” shows in Korea in late April. As a testament to how popular figure skating is in that nation, all three performances sold out in 35 minutes. “Brian and David (Wilson) were there and all the skaters. It was fun,” Kim said. “I liked the rehearsals as much as the show for different reasons.”
Chan loved the opportunity to skate in Korea. “I am always happy to be around Yuna,” he said. “We have become good friends since she moved to Toronto.”
The cheering from the 21,000 people who attended the shows was deafening at times, Chan said. “Oh my gosh. Scott (Moir), Tessa (Virtue) and I had been there before, but we had forgotten about the craziness until we did the opening number. We were saying to each other that we really miss this and we wish this would happen every time we do a show.”
Virtue described the experience as amazing. “We love skating in Korea,” she said. “Yuna is such a rock star, her popularity is astounding. It is easy to forget that she is just a normal teenager, but she is so talented and so grounded.
“I think we can learn a lot from her.” Moir added, “Yuna is a ton of fun, she is so easygoing.”
Orser and David Wilson choreographed the shows. “I was so excited when Yuna opened the shows … to hear the eruption of the crowds,” Orser recalled. “They just adore her and Yuna is very humble and so gracious with her fans.”
Weir agreed. “I think what she has done for such a small country with no real skating history in this day and age when figure skating is so political, she deserves every ounce of credit and adoration she gets,” he said.
Skating at home for the first time as World champion is a special moment, Orser observed, adding “I was glad to be a part of that.”
When Kim first went to work with Orser in 2006, she was a shy, reticent 15-year-old who rarely smiled. Orser said that feels like a lifetime ago. “I first noticed a big change in Yuna when I went to Korea for ‘Festa on Ice’ in May 2008,” he recalled. “She went back to Korea after 2008 Worlds, so I had not seen her for about six weeks. I was in the hotel lobby with David Wilson and Yuna walked in. She had to speak at a business luncheon so she was in her little business suit and high heels and had her hair down. She just commanded the room as she walked into the lobby. … She had so much confidence.
“David and I both looked at each other and I said, ‘Oh my God, look at our little girl, she is all grown up,’” Orser said, laughing at the recollection. “When she saw us, her face lit up and she raced toward us with her arms out to embrace us. Before, she would never have done that. That is when I first noticed the change.”
When Orser returned to Korea last April he witnessed a new level of confidence in his protégé. “That comes with being World champion. When you win Worlds because you deserve to win and with that much of a lead and that much control over the field, it changes you.”
The past three years have been a time of evolution for Kim and Orser. “You cannot force a friendship,” he said. “We have a great, great working relationship, but at the same time she is comfortable to be herself when she is around me.”
Kim feels life could not be better. “Brian, David, Tracy and all the coaches help me a lot,” she said. “I am not Canadian, but they really love me and I really love them all. I am very happy to prepare for the Olympic Games here with them.”
Orser and Kim have discovered they have a lot in common. “Yuna has a great sense of humor and so do I, but I did not feel confident exposing that side of me early in the game,” Orser admitted. “Now we can talk about other things like what she did while she was in Korea after Worlds, what she did during her time off, how the press was in Korea. It is a very comfortable relationship.”
When asked what she likes about Orser, Kim laughed. “I don’t really like coaches who talk a lot because it is hard to think when a coach talks a lot,” she said. “Brian does not talk too much. He was a skater and he knows what I am feeling. He understands the rivalry at competitions — I think he is the best coach for me.”
A BREATH OF FRESH AIR
Some believe Kim is the invigoration the sport needs. Kurt Browning likened her to a tsunami. “I don’t know if it is the wave that is going along with her but when I watch her skate I say to myself, ‘This is what figure skating should be,’” he said. “She makes me a fan of figure skating.”
Even though Kim is excited about being the World champion, she remains a very levelheaded, down-to-earth person, Weir said. “That is what attracts me to her. She is so talented and she is crazy famous in Korea, but she is still the same Yuna Kim that she was a few years ago when she competed in her first Grand Prix, looking at all the star skaters with big wide open eyes.”
Weir noted that is a trait sometimes lacking in successful people. “She understands where she came from and everything she had to do to get to the position she is in now,” he said. “A lot of people forget and that makes them unapproachable and unattractive, but Yuna handles it very well.”
Kim has indeed remained true to herself. Success, fame and universal popularity have not changed who she is even when it comes to her favorite pastime of shopping. “I don’t really know much about designer labels. I just buy what appeals to me,” she said. “I don’t care about brands.”
Orser and David Wilson turned their attention to crafting Kim’s new programs in late May. Though they are keeping the selections under wraps at this point, Orser said the short will be dynamic and powerful. “The key word is rhythm. We have to go with how she competes best, the type of music she responds to that makes her competitive and fierce. She is not a fluff skater. She does not respond well to soft and slow.”
The long program will also be refreshing. “We have moved away from a theme where there is the motivation and inspiration of a story. We are going somewhere different though somewhat familiar. I think what we have chosen will be the perfect Olympic vehicle,” Orser added.
Kim will kick off her Olympic season at Trophée Eric Bompard in Paris. Her second Grand Prix assignment is Skate America. “I want her to do the first event,” Orser said. “I want her to be ready early.”
KEEPING IT NORMAL
Orser is determined that Kim will have a normal life leading up to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver.
“When you came into the club today you did not see a big sign saying ‘Home of World Champion Yuna Kim’ because she does not need to be looking at that every day,” Orser said. “When you are having a bad day you don’t need to be reminded of this and you have to have your bad days. The plan this year is to keep everything normal. The team that she has here will continue to stoke her confidence and keep everything natural.”
Orser is drawing on his own World and Olympic experiences this year. “I am really thrilled that Yuna is willing to take the next step technically because that is the one mistake I made between 1987 and 1988,” he admitted. “I didn’t grow again as a technical skater. I kind of thought it was enough, but I should have been challenging myself. That is the one thing she is doing.
“We have had this discussion. I told her, ‘you have to continue to be competitive; you can’t just coast for the next 10 months. You have to move forward, move up, be better, stronger, faster,’ and that is what she is doing. We have made a lot changes.”
Kim is looking forward to competing against Sasha Cohen next season. “Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen are two of my favorite skaters,” Kim said. “I liked Michelle when I was younger and I never skated against her, but now I can compete with Sasha.”
When asked her reaction to the standing ovations and adulation she received when she competed in North America last season, Kim blushed. “I want to thank the media and the audiences in Canada and America. They recognized not only my wins but also my possibilities in the future,” she said. “Thank you to all the fans who cheered for me at Four Continents and Worlds and sent me very nice words and messages. I am very appreciative of that. I will try to give something next season that will touch your hearts.”