Korea’s first Olympic skier revisits Pyeongchang
Representing a country that had just emerged from the ravages of war at the 1960 Games in California, Yim, now 87, had to compete on borrowed skis and practice on unkempt hills at home.
Back then, Korea barely had a skiing program. Now, it is 200 days away from hosting the world on the slopes of Pyeongchang County, Gangwon.
As of July 10, the course at the Yongpyong Alpine Centre is around 86 percent complete, and the one at the Jeongseon Alpine Centre is nearly 89 percent finished. Half of the 12 Olympic venues are done with construction, and the other six sites are in progress.
“When I first heard that Korea was going to make a bid for the Olympics, I didn’t think it would be possible,” Yim said. “And when Pyeongchang did win the bid on its third attempt, I couldn’t fall asleep that night. At the same time, I was worried about the pressure that players might have about winning a medal.”
Yim used to practice on the slopes that will be hosting the Winter Games. The way he remembers it, the ground was so bad that he and his fellow skiers had to smooth out the snow themselves.
More than 60 years after he cut his teeth on the slopes of Gangwon, Yim visited the site of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics last year to watch the International Ski Federation race, one of several test events in preparation for the Winter Games. The Korean skiers failed to race on the final day, but from their recent achievements, Yim has high expectations for the national team at the upcoming Olympics. As host, Korea is eligible to have at least two female and male athletes with Olympic FIS points at each event at the Games.
“The course at the Yongpyong Alpine Centre is very difficult,” Yim said. “It’s nothing like when I used to ski. The course is a lot faster and a lot icier, but overall, it’s in excellent condition.”
With 200 days left until the Games open, Yim believes now is the time for coaches to scrutinize the players being fielded by other countries and help their athletes improve their numbers. For the players, it should be time spent strengthening their mental game.
“It all comes down to little things,” Yim said. “Whether it’s endurance, power or technical things, the coaches have to pay attention to competitors and figure out what they are doing differently.”
A growing sport
Alpine skiing has never been considered Korea’s strength at the Winter Games, but the team has shown improvement over the years. Alpine skier Jung Dong-hyun won a gold medal in men’s slalom at this year’s Asian Winter Games in Japan, and the Korea Ski Association has recruited foreign coaches to strengthen the team.
“They’ve received some financial support in recent years, so they’ve gotten the chance to spend their offseason in other countries and I’ve seen some good results,” Yim said. “For the past 16 years, the Koreans have shown significant improvement and won a few minor events in Europe.”
Unlike ice and speed skating, in which Korea often dominates, snow sports aren’t as popular here. More than 40 percent of tickets for the ice and speed skating events have been sold, but less than 15 percent of snow sport tickets have been sold. To draw a bigger audience, the PyeongChang Organizing Committee has some social media campaigns in store mainly targeting people in their 20s to 40s.
“I’m not too concerned about the small number of fans visiting the center because alpine skiing has its own group of fans,” Yim said. “Whether there are people or not, once the players perform, the fans will come along.”
And in order to do that, the veteran skier believes the players need to set specific targets and fine-tune their technical skills.
“You have to set a goal to achieve it faster,” Yim said. “If you don’t have a goal, then you’ll never be able to be successful.”
And few people know the experience of self-discipline and regimented practice better than Yim.
Training without a coach
When Yim first started skiing in the 1940s, there were barely any places in the country for him to practice.
Yim was born in Sariwon, a city that is now the capital of North Hwanghae Province in North Korea, in 1929. His family moved to Manchuria, part of present-day China, in 1937 for his father’s work and then to Tonghua, where there was a large population of Koreans because of its proximity to the Korean-Chinese border.
It was here where Yim, an active and sporty middle schooler, first discovered skiing.
During one winter in Tonghua, the city received 30 to 40 centimeters (12 to 16 inches) of snow. The cover on the ground was so thick that the occupying Japanese soldiers needed skis to get from place to place - cars couldn’t get through the snow.
The skis fascinated Yim. It was a new sight for him, and he indulged his curiosity by going to the local ski resort with his friends to watch soldiers compete in tournaments. His passion for skiing grew after attending the games.
“I want to ski,” Yim recalls asking his father after watching the games. “Can you buy me some skis?”
His father obliged, and the next day, they went to a nearby shop to pick up a pair.
But since Yim didn’t have a coach, he had to teach himself how to ski based on his observations of the Japanese soldiers. At the time, skiing was considered an expensive sport, and only about three or four students in his whole school knew how to ski.
In 1944, about 10 months before the end of World War II in the Pacific, Yim’s father decided to move the family back to their hometown of Sariwon. Four years later, before the start of the Korean War, Yim’s father decided to move the family again, this time to Seoul to avoid the persecution of Christians in North Korea. Yim’s family was religious.
When the family moved to Seoul, Yim had to start from scratch because he left his skis in China. But when he read a news article about a junior ski tournament on Mount Jiri in the southern part of Korea, Yim just couldn’t let go of his passion for skiing.
“I told my father that I wanted to ski again, but he told me that we didn’t have the money to afford skis and there was no place to buy skis now because all the Japanese soldiers left,” Yim said.
Yim did not relent and continued to press his father for skis. Finally, he was able to procure an old pair from a friend. Yim was elated, and that winter, he also saw an advertisement in the paper by the Korea Ski Association about a junior ski competition on Mount Acha in southern Seoul.
“When I saw the advertisement in the newspaper, my passion for skiing grew bigger and I just wanted to compete,” Yim said.
It was the start of his career in competitive skiing. Yim endeavored to enter the competition, and he began practicing with the old skis. The process was difficult because the skis, made from Japanese cherry blossom trees, were worn out. Whenever he got on the slope, Yim had to apply a lot more pressure to make turns.
“With a circular edge, every time I tried to change direction, I would slip 1 to 2 meters [3 to 7 feet],” Yim said.
When the day of the tournament finally came, Yim hiked up Mount Acha on his own with his skis in tow. He was excited to be competing with skiers his age in Seoul for the first time.
Perhaps it was the excitement, or maybe arrogance, but when Yim saw his competition, he felt as if he could beat them all. After watching the other players, Yim signed up for two events: the slalom and giant slalom. He had zero experience going into the competition, but he ended up winning both events as an unknown in his first tournament.
“When I raced down, the referee just stared at me,” he recalled.
Yim went on to study at Dongguk University and played on the school’s very first ski team. While he was leading the team, a crazy thought came to Yim: participating in the Olympics.
“To get to the Olympics, I told myself that I would have to become the best skier in Korea,” Yim said.
Yim began participating in more local tournaments, signing up mainly for three events - slalom, giant slalom and downhill - and won at least two of the three in all the tournaments in which he participated. From the competitions, he quickly earned recognition and became the best skier in Korea. It was an impressive feat, not least because he didn’t have a specific ski resort where he could consistently practice during the winter.
The tournaments themselves were essentially his practice.
“I’ve been to Ulleung Island, Mount Acha, Mount Namsan and other ski resorts around the country to compete,” Yim said. “We were given two to three days in advance to practice and get to know the course. That was my practice for the season.”
At the time, ice skating was already becoming popular in Korea. The country registered with the International Skating Union in 1947 and participated in the Winter Olympics for the first time in 1948, but skiing did not have the same level of interest. No support was provided by the government, and ski resorts were not well developed. The country’s first ski lift wasn’t installed until 1975 at the Yongpyong resort.
“To get to the ski resort, we had to walk through the mountain to Daegwallyeong-myeon,” Yim recalled. “Once we arrived, we stood in line and stomped on the ground so that we could ski on it. By the time I walked up the hill, I didn’t have any energy to produce speed coming down the slope.”
In 1957, the Korea Ski Association registered with the International Ski Federation, and the committee made a request for Korean skiers to participate in international events, including the Olympics.
The federation allowed Korea to field just one athlete in alpine skiing and one in cross-country. Yim was chosen to represent Korea in alpine.
With minimal financial support, the ambitious 30-year-old skier left for the United States - without bringing any of his equipment. Yim thought it would be more embarrassing to bring his skis in poor condition than to go empty-handed.
“The president of the Korea Ski Association came along with us, but we didn’t have any coaches,” Yim said. “So I had to play the role of player and coach. I attended the coaches’ meeting and took care of everything.”
Since Yim went to California without his skis, he spent the first two days just watching players. The head coach of the U.S. team noticed Yim and presented him with two pairs of skis for the event. They were the highest-quality skis at the time, and they were new. Yim was unaccustomed to the razor-sharp edges, so when he braked, his body shook from the sudden stops.
With the skis donated from the American coach, Yim only had to buy ski boots in the States. “But since I didn’t have enough money, my wife had to sell her wedding ring to buy my ski boots,” he said.
That was only the beginning of his struggle at the Olympics. It was the first time Yim rode a lift to get to the top of a course, and he recalls sitting down too early and hitting his tail bone on the seat. Once he got to the top, he felt jitters because he had never gone down a hill so steep.
“The angle of the slope was about 37 to 38 degrees in elevation,” Yim said. “It was like making me ski at Mount Paektu when I only practiced and skied at Mount Namsan.” Mount Paektu is the tallest mountain on the Korean Peninsula, and Mount Namsan refers to a hill in Seoul.
Yim faced further challenges in downhill. He struggled to find the jumping point and suffered an injury while attempting to land. Following minor injuries on the slalom course, Yim faced another injury on the downhill course.
“That was something the coaches have to watch,” Yim said. “During practice, I jumped too early and tripped so hard, flying in the air for about 30 meters, that the paramedics came and took me to the medical room in a stretcher.”
Although the injuries weren’t serious, Yim stayed overnight in a medical room. The next day, the president of the Korea Ski Association visited him, and rather than asking about his health or safety, he said, “Are you here to just lay down in the medical room and rest?” The president wanted him to get back on the slopes and compete.
Afterward, Yim had one more day of practice, but it was enough. Rather than getting disqualified from tripping or falling outside the course, Yim surprised everyone by finishing the race.
“It wasn’t an impressive record, but I guess I left a strong impression at the Olympics just for the fact that I finished the race,” Yim said.
Sports Illustrated wrote an article on him titled “Courage and Hope” in a March 1960 issue and referred to Yim as a “true Olympic hero” for challenging himself to ski Olympic courses without any formal training, support system or experience.
Yim’s story is now on display at the Korea Ski Museum in the Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre, one of the venues for the Olympics.
BY KANG YOO-RIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]