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With Kim’s Gold, Asian Skaters Come Into Their Own

9 minute read
Alice Park / Vancouver

Call it the Asian Invasion. Or the Beast from the East. But for the first time in Olympic history, Asian skaters stood upon the podium in three of the four figure-skating events. With South Korea’s Kim Yu-Na winning a gold medal and Japan’s Mao Asada a silver with their skates on Thursday, Feb. 25, athletes from the Far East earned five of the 12 figure-skating medals in Vancouver. It’s the highest haul so far in the sport at the Olympics for those from the Pacific Rim, and it signals the beginning of what many anticipate will be a shift of the podium from West to East. U.S. ladies Mirai Nagasu and Rachael Flatt finished fourth and seventh, respectively.

The highly anticipated ladies’ free skate became a showdown between Kim and Asada, who skated back to back before a capacity crowd in the Pacific Coliseum. Kim took the ice first, made the sign of the cross, then delivered a record-setting performance set to Gershwin that earned her not only the Olympic gold but the highest point total of any woman so far under the new scoring system, which has been in place since 2006. As she twirled to a stop after her final spin, most of the 11,771 spectators were on their feet, including Olympic and world champions like Michelle Kwan, who was in the crowd as a fan, taking out her camera phone to capture Kim’s tearful bows at the end of her program.

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After warming up amid the roaring of the crowd at Kim’s scores, Asada landed two triple Axels, making history herself as the first woman to complete two of those jumps — the most difficult that any female competitor performs — in a single program at any competition. (She also landed a triple Axel in the short program on Tuesday.) Close to the end of her program, however, she caught her heel on the ice and couldn’t launch into her second-to-last jump, a triple toe loop, losing precious points.

It’s a testament to her skating skills that Kim, the first South Korean skater to win gold, with her score of 150.06 in the free program, surpassed Asada’s score of 131.72 for the night, which included the two high-scoring triple Axel jumps. The difference came in Kim’s delivery. The South Korean earned only positive points for her execution of jumps, spins, spirals and transitions, while Asada was downgraded and lost points for underrotating a jump. “It was toward the end of my performance, and I think my legs were a little tired,” said Asada after her program. “I wish I would have completed that jump, and I have some regret over that. One thing I can say is that I am proud of the fact that I completed three successful triple Axels at these Olympic Games.”

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The pressure on both skaters to perform was nearly suffocating, as media coverage of their every practice was documented for millions back home in video and print. When arena officials arrived to open the doors on Thursday at 5:45 a.m., there was already a knot of Japanese cameramen ready to rush in and grab prime shooting spots; rumors were that they had spent the night outside the arena.

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Thousands of miles away, life went on pause across the Korean Peninsula as students (now on winter break) and office workers all stopped what they were doing to watch Kim’s program at 1:20 p.m. Seung Jun Lee, a 16-year-old high school student in Yangju, 30 miles north of Seoul, returned home from cram school at lunch to watch Kim skate with his family. “Maybe I will have to skip class today,” he predicted amid the excitement. Even businessmen had caught Kim fever and were willing to suffer a dip in productivity during her skate. “When Kim Yu-Na perform[ed], I let all the workers stop, and we all watched together on the TV in the company,” said Beom Jin Hong, CEO of an electronics-manufacturing company in Incheon. At Kim’s high school in Gyeonggi province, from which she graduated last year and where her Olympic skating teammate Min Jung Kwak is currently a student, hundreds of students and local residents gathered in the auditorium to watch and cheer Kim and Kwak. “Even though we’re on a [three-month winter] vacation from school, almost every teacher gathered in the school to cheer Kim Yu-Na together,” said Young Ae Choi, an economics teacher at the school. “Today is Gunpo Suri High School’s big celebration day. We’re also preparing a big cheering party for later today. I’m so proud of her.”

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While all week Kim denied feeling burdened by those expectations, she had clearly bottled up some anxiety that needed a release on Thursday. Just after hitting her final pose, she broke down in tears, unable to believe that all the anticipation about the Olympics was finally over. “I still can’t believe my performance,” she said. “I don’t know why I cried. I think I thought it might not turn out well, so when I finished my program, I felt good.”

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While Asian skaters collected an impressive number of medals in Vancouver, many of these nations — Korea, Japan, China — have only rudimentary figure-skating programs, and most are still in the process of building an infrastructure for the sport, with élite-level coaches and comprehensive training from the novice level up. The country with the most advanced program is China, thanks primarily to the efforts of one man, Yao Bin, who in 1980 was part of China’s first pairs team to compete in a world championship. After a 15th-place showing there that he considered disastrous, Bin built a pairs-skating program in Harbin from the ground up, recruiting skaters and pairing them based on who he thought were best matched in skill, size and technique. At the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, he coached Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao to the country’s first Olympic medal in pairs, a bronze; he also helped them to a world championship. In Vancouver, he put two couples on the podium, including gold medalists Shen and Zhao, who had waited eight years for their win. Bin was and still is the only man that any Chinese pair with Olympic dreams seeks out.

Coaching choices are just as slim in Korea and Japan. In Korea, where short-track speedskating has traditionally earned more medals and respect from fans, figure skaters often have to share precious ice space with speedskaters, limiting their ability to build speed and work on expansive elements such as spirals and intricate footwork sequences. Things aren’t much better in Japan, where crowded sessions forced Asada, as an up-and-coming talent in the early 2000s, to train for a few years in California before returning to a new rink built in Nagoya.

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Kim had to look overseas as well, when her talent outmatched the coaching skills in Korea. She sought out a training facility in North America or Europe, landing in Toronto, where Canadian Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser was just beginning his coaching career. Having decided to adopt a hands-on approach, Orser skates along with Kim during most of her training sessions, pushing her to the remarkable speed she achieves as she flies across the rink. The move may have been just what Kim needed. “I think Yu-Na improved so much in Canada,” says Jae Eun Chung, director of the Korean Skating Union. “The Korean culture values being quiet, but in figure skating, you need to express various feelings. She improved her confidence and her expression.”

Orser agrees. “She was a 15-year-old girl when she first came. She was a bit gangly, and she didn’t have the confidence that she has now. But there was raw talent, speed and awesome jumps. She was a blank canvas.”

For now, says Chung, such talent can’t be cultivated on home ice. Coaches in Korea don’t have the expertise to refine techniques in spins, jumps or footwork to the level of Olympic perfection, so they are sending their most promising skaters outside the country. But with the growth in interest that Kim has nurtured — she is one of the most recognized and highly paid celebrities in the country today — Korean skating officials realize they need to build more rinks and recruit more coaches, and fast. “After Kim Yu-Na became so popular, the number of students in our figure-skating club [more than] doubled, from 30% to 80%,” says Hyun Ok Chung, deputy manager of Mokdong Ice Rink, one of the most prestigious skating clubs in Seoul. “Hundreds of students who apply for figure skating are on the waiting list because we already reached the maximum number. We plan to renovate the ice rink to accommodate more students.” The rink is also planning to institute one-day workshops to address the sheer volume of interest in figure skating.

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If skating officials don’t ride the momentum Kim has generated, young skaters may continue to train elsewhere, a huge burden for those who may have talent but can’t afford a transoceanic move and may therefore give up skating dreams altogether. “I’ve thought about it but haven’t made any plans,” said Kwak, Kim’s 16-year-old teammate, who finished 13th. “Compared to other countries, we have fewer skaters and fewer coaches.”

Kim’s victory is just the catalyst that could change that and nurture the growth of an entirely new sport in Korea, even if she is too humble to admit it. “Watching Korean athletes in short track and speedskating win medals on television, I was happy I could contribute to that,” she said. “I hope that by seeing me, it gives other Korean athletes hope and lets them dream like I did.”

— With reporting by Geoffrey Cain and Seok Joon Hong / Seoul

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