VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Soccer, baseball and speedskating are passions in South Korea. Kim Yu-na is an obsession.
The 19-year-old Kim, dubbed “Queen Yu-na” by her adoring public, has raised the appetite for figure skating in her nation from invisible to insatiable. She’s mobbed everywhere she goes back home, so much so that Kim rarely appears in public in South Korea without bodyguards.
She trains in Toronto with coach Brian Orser, the two-time Olympic silver medalist, partly because working full time in her homeland had become distracting, even dangerous. Since joining Orser in Canada, Kim has soared as a competitor and as a performer, capped by her first world championship last March.
“He gives me confidence, and he teaches me many things about skating that help me,” Kim says.
But a coach can do only so much, and Orser has no control over the frenzy that follows Kim in South Korea. He recognizes the effect it can have on an athlete, and is impressed how she has handled the blinding spotlight.
“They’ve embraced her and they love her and she’s very gracious about it,” Orser says. “The audience seems to be captivated by her style, grace, athleticism. She’s beautiful and she’s everything you think of in figure skating. And she’s managed to be a very strong competitor.
“She has great choreography and it seems to come from her soul. She’s able to raise the bar and she has a passion for skating that seems to come across, and it’s genuine.”
Kim rarely comments on the hysteria her every move – on and off the ice – causes in her country, and possibly will elsewhere. Others do.
“She’s a superstar in that country, a superstar. And if she wins the Olympics, she’ll be a Godzillionaire,” says Frank Carroll, who has coached his share of champions, including Vancouver gold medalist Evan Lysacek.
“Yu-na has a great fan base in the United States,” adds Michelle Kwan, the five-time world champion and double Olympic medalist (silver in 1998, bronze in 2002). “She’s already establishing herself, especially since she won worlds.
“If she can carry that and win the Olympics, that will be a statement. Especially when she’s a beautiful skater and she’s fun to watch, it doesn’t matter what nationality or country from.”
Japan has been a power in figure skating for two decades, and China emerged in that span, as well. But the only ice athletes to make any impact among South Koreans before Kim have been speedskaters.
Orser repeatedly has emphasized to her that Olympic gold shouldn’t define anyone. Who would know better than Orser, who was edged by Scott Hamilton at the 1984 Sarajevo Games, then by Brian Boitano in the “Battle of the Brians” in Calgary four years later?
“My advice to her coming here was that we are not looking at medals or the color of the medals,” Orser said. “Your life is not hinging on winning a medal. You need to embrace the Olympics, all of the Olympics.”
The ladies short program is scheduled for Tuesday.