South Korea has had many male sports celebrities since it started to compete actively in international sporting events; Son Heung Min, Park Ji-sung, Ki Sung-yeong, Park Tae-hwan, and Ahn Jung-Hwan were among the most famous of them all. However, most female athletes were not successful in garnering the public’s attention; that is, until Kim Yuna came along.
No female athlete in the history of Korea has been as idolized as much as the first and only figure skater to have never finished off the podium in her entire career under the current ISU (International Skating Union) judging system. The Korean media had been covering Kim Yuna since she was a junior, but she really started to become popular in 2009, when she broke three world records in the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships and World Championships. When she claimed gold in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, she became a household favorite all around the country and received international recognition; even Hillary Clinton praised her record-breaking performance. By the time she retired after the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, she had won too many titles to count and was nicknamed “Queen Yuna” or “Queen of the Rink.”
After Kim Yuna retired three years ago, competition for the top position in the figure skating world has been tough, especially in Korea. However, a couple of young ladies have been rising in prominence: Choi Da-bin, You Young, and Kim Na-Hyun. In the South Korean 2017 Figure Skating Championship, Choi Da-bin placed fourth, You Young placed fifth, and Kim Na-Hyun placed third in the senior division. Although they had been well-known to avid figure skating fans in Korea, they have only started to receive major spotlight quite recently.
Choi Da-bin did have a rough start this season during the national championship, but she surprised many by claiming the gold medal for women’s singles at the 2017 Asian Winter Games in Obihiro, Japan. She exceeded the public’s expectations of a skater who had been an emergency replacement for Park So-youn, who suffered an injury and could not compete at this year’s Asian Winter Games. This is the first time a Korean figure skater has won gold at the Asian Winter Games, for Kim Yuna had never competed at the events. Kim Na-hyun did compete at this year’s Asian Winter Games as well, but she was not very successful, ranking only 13th out of 24 athletes due to an ankle and hamstring injury. Choi has been named one of Korea’s rising figure skaters, and some point out her similarity to Kim Yuna; the two skaters both call their strongest jump combination the triple Lutz/triple toe loop combination.
Choi is at the beginning of the prime of her career; she is of the ripe age of 17, and experts predict that she will be representing Korea at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. By claiming third place, Kim Na-Hyun, Choi’s major rival, had received a ticket to the World Figure Championships, but due to her injury, she decided to hand her ticket over to Choi, who had placed right below her. Kim also had to withdraw from the Four Continents. How Choi performs at the 2017 World Figure Championships will be crucial for Korea’s representation in figure skating at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. If she places in the top ten, South Korea’s figure skaters will receive two tickets to next year’s Olympics. This was precisely the reason Kim Yuna, who had planned to retire early, decided to compete again at the 2013 World Figure Championships; she wanted to give an opportunity for some of her country’s rising skaters to compete at the Sochi Olympics.
You Young, on the other hand, is too young to worry about world championships or the Olympics. She became the youngest national champion of Korea at age 11 last year, breaking a record set by Kim Yuna when she won at age 12 in 2003. She is currently 12 years old, and the first Olympics she will be eligible to compete in will be the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
However, she is not one to ignore; she raises one or both arms overhead almost every time she executes a jump, which rewards her with higher GOE (Grade of Execution) due to its technical difficulty. She became the first Korean figure skater to attempt quadruple (four spins) jumps beyond a triple axel jump in an official figure skating championship. Quadruple jumps require immense speed and power and are therefore rarely seen in female figure skating competitions. It is, however, a necessary skill for males wishing to be competitive in international competitions. There is only one male Korean figure skater, Cha Joo-hwan (15), who successfully executed a quadruple jump in an international competition. You’s coach says that the young girl had performed quadruple jumps nicely during practices, and that she had fumbled during the competition only because she had been nervous. Many consider this girl to be the successor to Kim Yuna (check out this video made by the Olympic Channel on her), but they say that we must wait until she hits puberty to see how she matures as a skater.
With the recent retirement of Son Yeon-jae, there remains no decisive female sports star in Korea. Who will be the next female athlete to be placed on a pedestal? It is unclear who the next Kim Yuna will be yet, but it’s a safe bet to say that she might be one of these rising starlets.
– Kristin Kim (’20)