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Happy, healthy Kim hopes for big season

"She's a new person," says her coach, Brian Orser

Yu-Na Kim.
Yu-Na Kim. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(09/03/2008) - Training at Toronto's Cricket Skating & Curling Club -- some 6,500 miles from her hometown in Gunpo, South Korea -- agrees with Yu-Na Kim.

When she skates at Lotte World, a recreation complex in Seoul billed as the largest indoor amusement park in the world, the teenager is disadvantaged by her own fame. A national hero, she must weave around dozens of youngsters she inspired to don skates and often pause to sign autographs.

"The rink where she trains in Seoul is in an amusement park, and it's a super-duper-sized rink, way bigger than Olympic size," said Kim's coach, two-time Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser. "And there are all these rides going around and a lot of people taking interest, so we have to skate to the middle of the ice and have our little chats."

Here, at the rather tony private club, visitors are invited by members and carefully logged in at a reception desk. Fewer adoring fans and plenty of elbow room on the ice have relaxed the two-time world bronze medalist.

"I love to train here," Kim, who turns 18 on Sept. 5, said in her fast-improving English. "There are [only] a few rinks in South Korea, and I think there's not enough time to skate. It's hard to train there; that's why I moved here. There is more calm and quiet. I am popular in Korea, a lot of people come and want to take pictures [with me], and so it's very hard to focus."

The engaging teen misses the comforts of home during her long sojourns in Toronto; family and friends head the list. But living just 15 minutes from the rink with her mom, Mi-hee Park, plus a full-time physiotherapist and a personal trainer, has helped lift her skating to new heights.

"She's a new person this year," Orser, who has coached Kim since late 2006, said. "It's been really remarkable to see her evolve into a young woman, from this little girl who was crying a lot and was very, very shy. She has confidence. She beats to her own drum. She has her own agenda and a real passion for skating now."

That's a huge improvement from six months ago, when hip and back injuries forced Kim to withdraw from the ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships held in her home country. She arrived at the 2008 ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden, six weeks later, low in confidence and practice time. Still, despite falling on a triple Lutz in her short program, she won the free skate and came home with a second consecutive bronze medal.

"Last summer, she had some good days and some not so good days," Orser said. "Then we got to the fall Grand Prix season and she started doing a big push with her off-ice people, and it was just too much. So I'm happy with the new [physiotherapist and trainer] this season. I'm pretty confident she is going to stay healthy as long as I can teach her about pacing."

"My back is getting better; for sure it's better than at worlds," his pupil agreed. "It is not 100 percent yet but it's [between] 90 and 99 percent."

Kim is looking for a big year. Unlike her Japanese rival Mao Asada, the reigning world champion who has competed neck-and-neck with her since their junior days, the Korean skater doesn't have a triple Axel in her arsenal. What she does have is a technically sound quintet of triple jumps and a consistent triple-triple combination.

"Mao is a very great skater; she can do triple Axel, which is very hard to do for women skaters, so I love her skating," Kim said. "If she was not my rival, maybe I [would not] improve my skating so much. We push each other. It's good to have a rival."

Despite her admiration, Kim has no intentions of adding Mao's most famous weapon to her own repertoire.

"Sure, I tried [triple Axel] when I was 10 or 11," she said. "It's very hard. It takes a very long, long time to learn, and I got injured [trying it]. I don't think it is good to learn new [jump] skills now. It is better, I think, to do what I can and not make mistakes during competitions."

Orser pointed out that if his pupil skates up to her abilities, she has a strong chance for gold.

"At worlds, we've never been able to lay out what she's capable of," he said. "Last year at the Grand Prix Final, she put out a pretty good long program, and the scores reflected that. But at [2007] worlds in Tokyo and [2008] in Gothenburg, [her programs] were sub par. She was in pain; she was not in great shape; she got the tricks out, but they were not good quality.

"Her advantage is [that her] triple flip-triple toe combination usually gets a +2 [Grade of Execution]. She's even had +3s. And her Lutz is a true Lutz [with an outside-edge take-off]; when she does a good one, she usually gets +1 or more, whereas some of the other girls [including Mao] with the edge error could get a -1 or 2."

This season, Kim tackles two new routines, both choreographed at the Cricket Club with David Wilson. Her short is set to "Danse Macabre," her free is to Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade," music one of her favorite skaters, Michelle Kwan, used during the 2001-02 season.

"Its fun to work with David," Kim said with a laugh. "I was very shy a few years ago before working with him. He has made me [less] shy. It's easy to express [myself] when I'm working with David, so I'm lucky to be working with him.

"[The short] is very strong music, much stronger than last season. I want to skate to more impressive music. For the long, I heard [Scheherazade] a few years ago, and I thought I'd like to skate to it, but last year Miki Ando used it, so I couldn't. I wanted to use more popular music than I did last season."

Rather than adding new jumps, Kim and Orser are working to add new positions to her spins and spiral sequences.

"She's been working on her flexibility a lot, because I know under the new [judging] rules, you get [more credit] for a full split in the spiral sequence," the coach explained.

"The judging system changed, so I've changed, and I'm working on that," Kim agreed.

With her stays in Toronto so successful, Kim seemed uncertain when asked about recent newspaper reports that she had applied to Korean University.

"I live here right now; I can't go to school in Korea, not while I am training and skating all the time," she said. "Maybe later, after the Olympics, I will go."

The 2010 Vancouver Games, just 18 months away, are not uppermost in her thoughts. Her first goal is to do well at her fall events, Skate America and the Cup of China, and then repeat as Grand Prix champion in Goyang City in December.

The prospect of competing at home both energizes and concerns the skater.

"The Korean media expects me to get gold at all times, even when I got injured," she said. "I just try to focus on my skating. [The pressure] is good for me sometimes, and sometimes not good. It's the first time to compete in my country, so that puts a little more pressure on me. But I like it.

"I think Olympics are very big, but they are in 2010. I don't want to think about it right now. I want to think about my [upcoming] competitions and what I need to do this season."