SEOUL (Reuters) - Life as one of the ‘Yuna Kids’ demands sacrifices few 16-year-olds are willing to make, but for budding South Korean starlets Kim Jin-seo and Kim Hae-jin the chance to learn from the “mother of figure skating” is worth every second of a childhood spent on skates.
The first lady of South Korean sport, Kim Yuna has single-handedly made figure skating popular in a country where 44 of its 45 medals at the Winter Olympics have come in short track and speed skating.
Her gold medal-winning performance at the 2010 Vancouver Games left the nation spellbound and lifted her to a level of marketability few athletes could ever hope to achieve.
At 22, Yuna recognizes Sochi will be her last tilt at Olympic gold but she is determined to nurture the next generation of South Korean figure skaters to vie for titles when the Winter Games come to Pyeongchang in 2018.
For 16-year-old Hae-jin, however, contemplating a skating world without ‘Queen Yuna’ is almost too much to bear.
“Even talking about her retirement makes me cry,” she told Reuters as tears welled up in her eyes. “Yuna has always been in my figure skating life. She is my life.”
When asked by former President Lee Myung-bak who would carry Korea’s figure skating hopes to Pyeongchang and beyond, Yuna anointed Hae-jin her chosen one.
Like Yuna, Hae-jin took up figure skating at seven and landed five types of triple jump - loop, toe loop, salchow, flip and lutz - at the age of 12. She won gold at the 2012-13 Junior Grand Prix in Slovenia.
Blossoming under Yuna’s wing, Hae-jin learned how much dedication it takes to be a success in the sport, and also got a rare insight into her idol’s personality.
“I am so grateful and honored. I want to learn every single thing Yuna has - not only her techniques and mental strength but also her superb personality, which made it easier for me to be around her,” said Hae-jin.
“Yuna is called ‘a lady with a steel heart’, but I think she overcomes her nervousness with ceaseless practice and training.
“If you see how much she practices, you will know why she is called Queen Yuna,” added Hae-jin, who must finish at least second in the national ranking competition in November to book her seat to Sochi.
The ‘Yuna Kids’ also have the Olympic champion’s mother to help them along, Park Mi-hee arriving to settle the skaters’ nerves ahead of their first sit-down interview with a foreign media outlet.
“I am worried that Korean figure skating will suffer a drop in popularity if she leaves the rink for good,” Hae-jin said sadly.
“But we hope Koreans continue to root for us as we are poised to do our best to carry her legacy forward.”
Kim Jin-seo is another of Yuna’s prodigies and one of the few competitive male figure skaters in South Korea.
He won a bronze medal at the 2012-2013 Junior Grand Prix in Austria and will be on the plane to Russia if he places no lower than sixth in the Nebelhorn Trophy in September.
Jin-seo says he is blessed to train each day with the skater he calls “Yuna the Goddess” and he studies her closely. Simply being known as one of the ‘Yuna Kids’ gives him a lift.
“The very nickname has imbued me with the fighting spirit to live up to the expectation,” he told Reuters after practice at the Taeneung National Training Center outside Seoul.
“Everyone has good or bad days but Yuna is amazingly consistent, always sticking to her schedule on the (training)ground as well as on the ice. When I watch her, I know I can’t cut myself any slack.
“She is like the mother of figure skating - so many things to learn from her.”
Before she boarded the plane for the World Championships in March, Yuna told South Korean media she wanted her performance in Canada to serve as platform for her compatriots to get the chance to skate in Russia next year.
“Instead of going alone, I’d like to give younger skaters the opportunities to compete in the Olympics,” she said.
The ‘Yuna Kids’ want to be sitting on the plane to Sochi with her.
Editing by Peter Rutherford