Rinks boom on Kim Yu-na’s goldSEOUL - Little girls in pink dresses and black leggings are spinning, turning and jumping on the ice, while others in groups of twos and threes chat as they skate around the rink.
It’s an ordinary scene at ice skating classes here, but what is different is the zeal and the number of students ever since Korean figure skater Kim Yu-na clinched the gold at Vancouver Winter Olympics last month.
“South Korea has been seized by figure skating fever for two years, and it reached its peak after the Vancouver Olympics,” said Yeo Seung-hee, who teaches the sport at Lotte World Ice Rink, giving much of the credit to Kim.
“We receive so many telephone inquiries from parents and all of them are so eager to get a spot in our programs.”
Park Sun-woo, 11, started figure skating two years ago, and said she was inspired by Kim Yu-na.
“Kim Yu-na is so great. I’m working very hard to be as great a skater as her,” she said. “I can manage a triple toe jump now.”
Her friend, Lee Hyun-min, joined the two-hour lessons at Lotte World last year.
“I saw Kim Yu-na perform on television. She was perfect,” Lee said. “My mom encouraged me to learn figure skating as a hobby. Now, I really like it.”
This month, some 200 children registered to take figure and speed skating classes at Lotte World, one of the larger, better-equipped rinks in southern Seoul. About a year ago, there were about 120 students total.
“Lotte World has five figure skating classes and each class has 15 students. This month, all the classes are full and many kids are still on the waiting list,” said Yeo.
Until Kim Yu-na, Koreans only really cared about short track speed skating - a sport that has consistently brought Korea gold medals at the Winter Olympics, 19 so far.
“Usually, most of the kids, nearly 90 percent of them, until last year wanted to learn speed skating, especially short track speed skating. This year, it went down to 70 percent. The other 30 percent are eager to learn figure skating,” said Jeong Joon-ho, chief marketing director at Lotte World.
Sports experts say turning this excitement into serious athleticism is difficult but critical.
“The number of beginners is on the rise, it’s true,” said Sagong Kyung-won, a director at the Korea Skating Union.
“I’m not sure whether they will continue skating as athletes, but the increase cements the base of figure skating in Korea.”
Figure skating demands time and money, as Kim Yu-na’s mother, Park Mi-hee, can attest. Since her daughter was discovered by a coach at age 7, she has spent 12 years constantly at Kim’s side, offering support and pushing her to refine her natural talent.
In her 2008 book, Park wrote, “I majored in Yu-na. I have studied her harder than in my school years and devoted my life to her.”
Koh Sook-hee says she isn’t ready for that kind of sacrifice.
“There have been many figure skating athletes in South Korea before Kim Yu-na stood out, but their mothers did not look after their children as Kim’s mother did,” she said as her 9-year-old daughter practiced on the ice.
“Now, ‘skating moms’ are required to devote themselves to turning their kids into world-class skaters.
“I encouraged my daughter to learn figure skating as a hobby, but I don’t want her to become an athlete because I can’t sacrifice myself for her.”
Even for moms willing to make the jump, figuring out the logistics presents another challenge.
Ice hockey, short track and figure skating athletes have to share time slots at the 10 indoor ice rinks in Seoul.
Figure skaters end up renting the rink at night to practice jumps and spins without other people getting in their way.
Kim Yu-na used the rinks at night before she went to Toronto to train with her Canadian coach, Brian Orser, in 2006.
“We need more skating rinks to accommodate the increasing number of students and provide a better environment for athletes,” KSU director Sagong said.
“Kids have to move from rink to rink to skate all day because most skating rinks are open to the public and other skating events,” said Yeo, the instructor at Lotte World.
“We need more and cheaper ice rinks reserved exclusively for figure skating to foster competitive figure skaters like Kim Yu-na.” Yonhap