Olympic Hopes Rest With Skating Favorite Kim Yu-na
TORONTO — The megastar of figure skating, Kim Yu-na, lives with her mother in a Korean neighborhood here, a world away from her life of fame in Asia.
She needs no disguises or bodyguards. She has no reason to brace for mobs of fans. With the ease of anonymity, she trains at her rink. She eats out, and sings in karaoke clubs.
But in her home country, South Korea, Kim is anything but ordinary.
“When you’re with her in Korea, it’s like you’re traveling with Princess Diana; Yu-na’s that famous there,” said her coach, Brian Orser, a two-time Olympic silver medalist for Canada. “But here, things are obviously quieter. It gives her a chance for a normal life. She can focus on what she has to do.”
Women’s figure skating begins at the Vancouver Olympics on Feb. 23, and Kim, the reigning world champion, is expected to win. No skater in decades has entered the Games as such a strong favorite. Since finishing third at the 2008 world championships, Kim has lost only once, breaking scoring records and raising South Korea’s hopes of its first Olympic gold medal in figure skating.
“She knows the expectations that her country has, and how they’ve embraced her so much and how they love her and adore her and are counting on her to win in Vancouver,” Orser said. “I think she realizes that she has made a difference in that country. She’s changed the morale there during this global recession, so there’s a lot of pressure to keep that up.”
To lighten that burden, Orser scheduled Kim’s final contact with reporters for Dec. 18, when about 70 news media outlets took him up on the offer.
In January, he advised her to skip an international event in South Korea, saying the travel would be too taxing so close to the Olympics. Although the president of the International Skating Union asked her to compete, Orser and Kim did not change their minds.
A few days before her news media blackout took effect, Kim, 19, spoke about the chaos surrounding her.
“What I’m worried about the most is how nervous I am going to get,” she said through an interpreter, though she speaks English almost fluently. “I really have to keep my focus and stay calm.”
Kim’s top rival for the gold medal is Mao Asada of Japan, a former world champion who is also 19. They grew up competing against each other, fueling one of the fiercest Japan versus Korea sports rivalries.
The first Olympic appearances by Kim and Asada will be huge in Asia. That is why Orser is a perfect coach for Kim. He knows how it feels to be in a searing spotlight and to have the hopes of a country hanging on his performance.
Orser entered the 1988 Calgary Olympics as the world champion. He carried the Canadian flag and led the host country’s delegation into the opening ceremony.
“Canada is the only country in the history of the world to host an Olympic Games but not win Olympic gold in them,” Orser, 48, said. “Did you know that? I knew that. The pressure on me was incredible, really, really tough, but I was ready for it. Now I want Yu-na to be ready for it. We talk about the Olympics every single day.”
Orser tells her the tale of what is known as the Battle of the Brians. In that memorable matchup, Orser finished second to the American Brian Boitano. Orser endured 10 years of what-ifs before coming to terms with the result. His silver medal was not so bad after all, he decided.
Because of Orser’s lessons, Kim understands that the favorite does not always win. Thinking about his defeat, she said, makes her work harder because she dreads feeling as empty as he did. If she did win a gold medal, she said she would dedicate it partly to Orser, whom she handpicked nearly four years ago.
In South Korea, Kim’s coaches told her what to do and expected her to do it, no questions asked. But Kim yearned for more freedom. So in the summer of 2006, she traveled to Toronto to work with the choreographer David Wilson. It was the turning point of her career.
She was 15, a gangly, socially awkward, newly minted junior world champion with braces on her teeth. She spoke no English. Though she had wonderful technical ability, she was dispirited as a skater and a person, Wilson said. Ankle and knee injuries had plagued her.
“Her coach said to me back then that Yu-na wanted to be a happy skater, so that’s what we started working on,” said Wilson, whose goal was to change Kim from a stone-faced skater to one who oozed emotion. “I remember even having to teach her how to hug me because she was so shy. She was always so stiff, like a telephone pole.”
Kim also began working with Orser, who was the rink’s skating director. Helping her with jumps, Orser communicated by pointing to his shoulder or hip, so she would watch that body part as he executed a move. Kim liked that he did not push his ideas on her and that he asked for her input.
She gravitated toward him because of his perspective and laid-back coaching style. Soon, she and her mother, Park Mi-hee, asked Orser to be a full-time coach.
He kept declining. They kept asking.
“He has been through this as a skater, so he understands how to deal with the emotional side of her,” Park said through an interpreter. “He respects the way she is feeling. They are equals. It is what she needed.”
When Orser finally agreed, Kim and Park moved here. Kim’s agent and physical therapist followed. Now Park and the others are rinkside for five-plus hours a day while Kim trains. But Orser is in charge.
A headline in one South Korean newspaper proclaimed, “Brian Orser is the new savior of figure skating and of Yu-na.” Orser responded, “Oh, my God.”
Orser, Wilson and a team of specialists began polishing Kim’s raw talent. In workouts, they made her embrace quality over quantity and worked to make her laugh. Soon, her personality began to peek through.
Kim relaxed and learned to use facial expressions to win over crowds — and the judges. She teased the spectators with her eyes or knitted her eyebrows as if to cry. She summoned her inner diva.
“I needed to show a more mature performance,” she said. “So I developed my acting and programs in that direction. My character and makeup as well.”
Finally, Kim had assembled the perfect package. She became a beauty on the ice, skating quickly and seamlessly, with an ease to her movement and an edge to her jumps. During her triple lutz-triple toe loop combination — a move most women have not mastered — her height, precision and distance help raise her scores. And she does it all with a smile.
“When things start to click, things start to jell and you start to get a little more motivated,” Orser said, describing the genesis of Kim’s success under his tutelage.
“I think there also was some separation from her mom, and she was growing into her own woman, being able to call her own shots and take ownership of where she was going. I think that’s the big difference.”
Still, Kim has weathered some bumps. Before the 2009 world championships, she had a series of “mini-meltdowns,” Orser said. She realized how good she had become, and it scared her.
Orser stood with her on the ice and set things straight.
“See all those people?” he said, pointing to her entourage. “No one else knows what you’re going through except me. Going into the Olympics as a world champion is a huge responsibility. Everybody is saying it’s going to be O.K., but we don’t know that. Sometimes you finish second, and that’s O.K.”
Kim went on to win the world title, becoming the first woman to break the 200-point mark in scoring. This season, she has not shed any tears, Orser said.
Her short program has sizzled. Skating to a James Bond medley, she plays a sexy, confident Bond girl. Her long program is set to George Gershwin’s Concerto in F, and she performs it with the grace of a prima ballerina.
Away from the rink, Kim still has the obligations of fame. She stars in commercials for products like air-conditioners, makeup and bread. (Her agent’s powder compact bears Kim’s likeness.) She endorses goods like the Yu-na Haptic cellphone by Samsung and Yu-na’s Korean Wheat Sweet Potato Cream Bun from the company Tous les Jours.
But as the Olympics approached, Orser urged her to forget all that. Kim will remain in Toronto until a few days before the short program. Orser said he advised her to embrace everything once she arrived in Vancouver — the Olympic experience, the pin trading, the pressure — and let that energy lift her to her best performance.
Kim said she was prepared for anything.
“Maybe we can say it’s up to heaven to decide who will win the gold medal,” she said. “So whatever result I would get, I’m ready to accept it.
“Even if I don’t win the gold medal, I would” — she paused — “I would not be disappointed too much.”
We all know how hard our favorite lovely figure skating girl has tried!
Keep in mind that there are 50,000,000 Koreans behind you!
Way to go, Yuna Kim!
Wish you for another golden luck!
With Love, Anne