Grace and beauty, at a priceShe looks like a bird floating over pure white snow. The girl in purple and blue dances, jumps and flies over the ice.
The air is cold at the ice rink at Taeneung Sports Park in northeastern Seoul, but Kim Yu-na is used to it. Standing 156 centimeters tall (5.1 feet) and weighing 38 kilograms (84 pounds), she may look delicate, but the 14-year-old is perhaps the most promising figure skater the country has ever produced. Last fall, she became the first Korean in her sport to win a medal in an international competition.
“Kim Yu-na opened the door to figure skating for Korea,” said her coach, Chi Hyun-jung, 34. “Her success serves as a turning point for Korean figure skating, and the country will produce more competitors.”
Last September, Yu-na placed first in the qualifying round of the International Skate Union’s Junior Grand Prix of Figure Skating in Budapest. It was her first time competing outside Korea.
“Because it was the first [international] competition for me, I felt no pressure,” she recalls. “I didn’t expect to win.”
In December, she went on to compete in the Junior Grand Prix finals in Helsinki. She fell during her free skating program; she finished third in free skating, but held onto second place overall, behind another 14-year-old, Mao Asada of Japan. On Jan. 4, she added another trophy to her cabinet, winning the national championship for the third year in a row.
Yu-na began skating when she was five years old. During a school vacation she took some skating lessons, and a coach recognized her ability and recommended to her parents that she receive formal training.
“The coach told me that she was exceptional and had great potential, and we gave her our full support,” said her mother, Park Mi-hee. “But I didn’t imagine she would go this far.”
“Yu-na was born to be a figure skater,” Ms. Chi said. “Everything she learns, she learns quickly.” Though petite, Ms. Chi said, Yu-na is quite powerful; her jumping is one of her biggest strengths.
It’s been a rigorous and sometimes painful journey for Yu-na. She trains for six hours a day, including four hours on the ice. The other two hours are for ballet and other forms of training.
Since joining the national team last year, she has not been attending middle school classes, nor has she been receiving private tutoring. This is common for teenage athletes in Korea, who typically are allowed to graduate without having attended classes.
Because she is on the national team, the Korea Skating Union allows her a two-hour daily practice slot at the Taeneung ice rink, which is used by hockey teams and a handful of other figure skaters. (It’s the only rink in Korea that’s never open to the public.) Her other two hours on the ice are at the Gwacheon ice rink, across town in southern Seoul, which her parents pay to rent. But she can’t go there until late at night, after closing time.
“She should train at a time when it is most effective,” Ms. Chi said. “But she has to wait until 10 p.m. for training, and it is 1 or 2 a.m. when she returns home. It is hard for her physically, and she feels very tired.”
In the afternoons, she often gets massages, which are necessary because of the enormous amount of stress her body endures, not to mention the occasional injury. She may look graceful when she executes a jump, but when she falls, she lands on cold, hard ice.
“Injuries are almost routine,” Ms. Chi said. “It is only a matter of whether they are severe or less severe.”
A while ago, Yu-na strained a ligament in her right ankle, a serious injury for a skater. But she didn’t take a break from training. “She gets treatment and training at the same time, although the level of training is adjusted,” Ms. Chi said.
“I tried to comfort her, and persuaded her to continue training,” her mother said. “It was heartbreaking.”
More recently, she injured her other ankle; because of this, she now skips several jumps during training. Injuries and falls are the hardest parts of her training, Yu-na said.
After a series of ups and downs, Ms. Chi said she still sees Korea’s figure-skating future in Yu-na. “Yu-na showed the world that Korean figure skaters can do it, too,” she said.
Ms. Chi, herself a former skater who won several domestic championships, said there have been many changes in women’s figure skating since her day. “Most of all, the level of technique female skaters need to have has risen significantly,” Chi said. Today, she said, female skaters are executing jumps that only male skaters attempted when Ms. Chi was in her prime.
Except in short-track speed skating and a few other disciplines, Korea has lagged behind its Asian neighbors when it comes to winter sports. Japan and China have already become world-class. “Japan and China have invested heavily in figure skating for the last 10 to 20 years,” Ms. Chi said. “But there was hardly any investment or preparation in Korea.”
After her triumph in Budapest, the Korea Skating Union gave Yu-na a grant of 10 million won ($9,700). Prior to that, the only support she’d received from the union was the two-hour daily practice slot at the Taeneung rink.
The news of a Korean girl winning an international competition seems to have boosted the sport’s popularity at home. The number of children taking figure skating lessons at the Mokdong ice rink, for instance, has increased to the point that there are now eight separate classes, according to Chi.
As is the case for many young athletes in individual sports, Yu-na can credit her success to her parents, who have spared no expense for her career. Her monthly training costs average more than 2 million won, which includes renting the Gwacheon ice rink and hiring instructors. When she takes part in an international competition, it’s at the family’s expense.
But it is overseas training that truly costs a fortune. To create her program, Yu-na and her mother have gone abroad and paid huge sums to hire professionals such as choreographers.
“Figure skating is a sport that is impossible to pursue without parental support,” said Ms. Park, who functions as her daughter’s manager, helper, caretaker and chauffeur.
Yu-na will compete at the junior level until September, when she turns 15. Ms. Chi says she needs to work on her technique as well as her artistic expression.
Her next major hurdle is the triple axel, which is a hop followed by three and a half turns; it’s considered the most difficult jump in women’s figure skating. Some skaters, including Yu-na’s favorite, the American Sasha Cohen, have promised to introduce quadruple jumps into their routines, but Ms. Cohen, at least, has yet to do so.
Yu-na’s next competition is the International Skate Union World Junior Figure Skating Championships in Kitchener, Canada, which begin Feb. 28. Until then ― and after then ― her solitary work will continue.
“Once in two or three months, I go to see movies and have a chat with my friends, and that is my only free time,” Yu-na said.
by Limb Jae-un