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Paula Hancocks Interviews South Korean Figure Skating Gold Medalist Yuna Kim about Her Life, Training, Country, and Plans for the Future

Aired June 29, 2011 - 05:30:00   ET



PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: She has the grace and poise of a prima ballerina. And the strength and agility of a track and field athlete. Add her own unique blend of charisma and charm, and it's what's made Yuna Kim a world champion.

Revered as royalty in her native South Korea, the 20-year-old figure skater has been mesmerizing audiences for more than five years. Her talents have not only earned her respect in her field, she's also being celebrated in the wider arena.

Not to mention, she's a marketing dream. As companies cash in on her clean-cut image. Since she first hit the ice at that age of five, Yuna Kim has gone from strength to strength. And even realized her life-long dream in 2010 by winning a coveted Olympic gold medal. Now, she wants to share that Olympic spirit with her home country and is part of the team hoping to secure South Korea's bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

HANCOCKS: Hello Yuna.


HANCOCKS: This week, on "Talk Asia", we're in Seoul with Yuna Kim to find out how she handles the pressure of being at the top of her game. Plus, she gives us an exclusive look at her in action on the ice.


HANCOCKS: Yuna Kim, welcome to the show. It's a pleasure to talk to you. I feel as though I should welcome you back to your home country. You're out of the country so often. How does it feel to be back in Seoul?

KIM (through translator): It's almost five years since I started training in America and Canada. I'm in Korea for only two to three months a year, so it's been hard training and lonely. And now that I'm back in Korea, I'm happy that I can see my friends and family. It's also been a new kind of motivation for me to train with new figure skaters.

HANCOCKS: You're now training in LA after four years in Toronto. What's it like to be in the States, training?

KIM (through translator): I trained for four years in Toronto, and even before that, I was back and forth between Canada and the States during summer for training. And, since there isn't much difference between Canada and the States, I haven't felt much difference in the environment.

Training in the States with a new coach and new skaters in a new environment motivated me to prepare for a new season. And since it was mentally a hard time after the Olympics, the new setting helped me out a lot.

HANCOCKS: Now, you have won pretty much every award you could win, but we'll start with the ultimate, the gold medal at the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Talk me through that day. How did you feel just before the performance?

KIM (through translator): Because winning a gold medal had been a dream of mine since a young age, I needed to empty my mind during the preparation for the Olympics by telling myself that it would be OK not to win a gold medal. It was to reduce the pressure within me. So, to my surprise, I wasn't nervous at all. I felt almost comfortable right before and during the performance. I think that's how I was able to perform really well.

HANCOCKS: As soon as you finished your performance, you cried. I mean, this is unusual for you. This doesn't happen. What were you feeling at that moment?

KIM (through translator): It was my first time crying like that after a competition. I never guessed I would cry. I couldn't control my tears and asked myself why I was crying. And many people, afterwards, also asked me the same question. I didn't know why back then, but now that I think about it, even though I say I emptied my mind, it was still the moment I had been dreaming about, and I guess I felt relieved that it was all finished.

It was a mixture of all sorts of feelings. Although I kept telling myself that it would be OK not to pull a great performance, in the small corner of my mind, I still wanted to do well. And the fear of not doing well crept up. But, after being satisfied with my performance, I felt happy and relieved.

HANCOCKS: Not only the gold medal, you also got a world record score. When you'd finished, did you know that you'd done it?

KIM (through translator): Because I did a better performance than usual, I expected to get a better result, but I didn't expect to do that well. So, when I saw the score, I was at a loss for words for a second, thinking I had gotten it wrong. I was quite shocked and happy at the same time. At that moment, I thought I would win a gold medal, rather than setting a new world record.

HANCOCKS: So, after the Olympics, you have the world championships in Moscow. And you were runner-up there. Was that disappointing for you?

KIM (through translator): I thought I would do well during the actual performance because I performed really well during the practice. So, there was a bit of disappointment that I didn't show my best during the performance. Because I skipped every competition except the world championship, I regarded this Moscow competition as a present to the fans. So, on that, I didn't feel disappointed. The only disappointment was that the fans didn't get to see everything I had. But, I felt really relieved and happy after the competition.

HANCOCKS: Let's talk about Korea's hope to have the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. You're very much involved in this. Now Korea has already tried twice. It didn't get the Olympics twice. Do you think it could be third time lucky?

KIM (through translator): I thought the atmosphere seemed positive in Switzerland at the beginning of my role as an honorary ambassador. But there's still time left until the final decision. And even though it doesn't seem impossible to achieve that goal, based on our experience and preparation, there's still no certainty.

HANCOCKS: Now, you've said you feel more pressure from being involved in the Olympic bid than you do with performing. I mean, you skate in front of thousands of people. There's a TV audience of millions of people. Why do you feel under pressure with the Olympic bid?

KIM (through translator): During the preparation for the presentation in Switzerland, I felt that I had the weight of my country on my shoulders. I thought my heart would pop out during the presentation. The nervousness was nothing compared to the performances. Until then, I had only taken care of myself. The thought of having the expectations of the whole country on my shoulders worried and unnerved me. But, all in all, my teammates and I were happy that the presentation ended well. And I hope our efforts means it ends in our favor.

HANCOCKS: If Korea wins the bid, will you be performing? Will you be skating? You'll be the tender age of 27.

KIM (through translator): Because there's still seven years left, nobody would be able to predict such a thing. If, by any chance, I get to perform, then it would be a great honor for me. Especially because performing in the Olympics in your country doesn't happen to many skaters. It's not the sort of thing I can say with any certainty. So, I guess I could think about it only after it's decided that the Olympics will be held in Pyeongchang.


HANCOCKS: Coming up, "Talk Asia" heads to the rink with Yuna Kim, as she gives us an insight into her rigorous training regime.




HANCOCKS: Hello, Yuna.

KIM: Hello.

HANCOCKS: So, tell me about your training regime. I mean, what sort of time do you get up? How many hours a day do you train?

KIM: Well, now this is off-season, so I wake up at eight and I start warming up off the ice at 10 and I start skating 11. So, one or two hours skating, and then more of the off-ice training.

HANCOCKS: So, before a big competition, I mean, how intensive is the training then?

KIM: I - usually I train for like six or seven hours a day. And six days a week. And it's really tough.


KIM: Yes for me. I skate two sessions and then two or three sessions because of the choreography. And then, yes.

HANCOCKS: Do you ever have mornings when the alarm goes off and you just think, "Oh, leave me alone. I want to sleep, I don't want to train".

KIM: I always do that every morning. So yes, it's very difficult to wake up and start training, but I'm used to it.

HANCOCKS: What gets you out of bed? Is the passion still there?

KIM: I don't know, I'm not sure. Well, I always think, "Well, this is my job. I must do it". So I think that's all. I think there's nothing special, but, well, I've been doing it for a long, long time, so, yes.

HANCOCKS: This is obviously very different to a competition. You know, there's maybe half a dozen people watching you. How does it feel when there are thousands of people in the stands that are cheering for you. What's that sensation like?

KIM: Well, in competition, when I start performance I try not to think about all the pressure from the fans. But, I got a lot of energy from them always. They make me more perfect. Yes. And, of course, in Korea, I don't have as much chance to skate in Korea, but I'm doing a few shows in Korea. And I love skating in front of my Korean friends.

HANCOCKS: But, I mean, the pressure obviously is there from the Korean side because you're such an icon to many people here. Do your nerves ever get to you? Do you ever get so nervous you think, "I don't think I can perform"?

KIM: Yes, sometimes. But it's not about the pressure from my fans. Just it's all about me and if I have done a perfect practice, I don't get nervous at all. But sometimes I don't feel really ready for the competition. At that time, I got nervous so much.


HANCOCKS: Now you're very active in nurturing new talent and helping Korea to find the next you. When you were training, when you were younger, I understand you had to train at night because there weren't enough ice rinks. The facilities weren't there. Has this changed?

KIM (through translator): I don't think this has changed much. Although the number of ice rinks and available time for skating has increased since then, because there are more new skaters, we're still in great shortage of facilities. It's sad to see young skaters practicing very early in the morning or very late at night. It's still a harsh environment to train new talented skaters. So, I think it would take a long time to establish the right environment.

HANCOCKS: You started skating at the age of five. And your coach at that time said that they saw something in you, and that's why they wanted to encourage you to go further. Have you since spoken to that coach? Have they explained what it was that they saw in you?

KIM (through translator): I was very young, then. I didn't even know there was such a thing as figure skating. So, I started skating with no idea. The coach suggested the idea of professional skating to my mom. I didn't know any of it. I just skated for fun. I still see him sometimes and I'm grateful to him. We would have missed such a chance if he hadn't told my mom what he thought of me. I think it was fortunate to have crossed paths with such a person.

HANCOCKS: Just a few years later, you started competing internationally. Do you remember your first international competition?

KIM (through translator): Back then, it wasn't an official ISU competition. It was a beginner's level, one below the junior level. I went with a fellow trainee. I just went there to gain some experience before junior level competition without any thought of winning a medal. I unexpectedly did well. And many people complimented me.

I really didn't expect it. It just turned out to be that way. I was too young to understand what was going on. But it was the first small step that made me think, "I can do it". So, it was important in a way that helped me maintain a good record, even after the debut at a junior level.

HANCOCKS: Now, as I say, you started skating at age five. Do you ever feel that you've been training and pushing so hard for so long that you've missed out on anything? On part of your childhood?

KIM (through translator): I did miss out on much of the school experience. I believe it's natural to lose track of many things when you focus so much on one thing. So, I don't think much of it now. And I'm happy where I am.

HANCOCKS: Now, your mum is obviously your biggest supporter and she has written a book about the sacrifices she's made to get you to where you are today. Do you think you would be here if it wasn't for your mother's support?

KIM (through translator): I've trained with her almost every day since I was very young. And I've had arguments and disputes with her. Coaches are there for you, but not always. I learned a lot by being with my mother. And I think it's because of her that I was able to focus and train harder with no breaks. If it weren't for her, it would have been hard to be where I am now.

HANCOCKS: So, if in the future you have a daughter or a son, would you encourage them to follow in their footsteps?

KIM (through translator): I've been in this field for a long time. So, I don't think I'll make them follow in my footsteps. I know how hard it is because I've been doing it. And, although other careers would be just as hard, I wouldn't recommend it to them.


HANCOCKS: Coming up, the question that stumped South Korea's golden girl.





HANCOCKS: Now, you have a show called "Kiss and Cry" at the moment, which is where celebrities learn how to skate. Sort of a dancing on ice. Now, it is your realm, because it's skating, but you're out of your comfort zone because you're presenting. What made you want to do this?

KIM (through translator): When I was young, many people didn't know what figure skating was. Some who knew of it thought of it as dancing on ice. But, as I entered international competitions and got good results, many people got to know more about it and came to cheer for me.

I decided to host my show "Kiss and Cry" hoping that people actually want to participate and feel more familiar with figure skating. When I see these people enjoying themselves, it's a great joy to me. Although some of them get hurt once in a while, they enjoy it a lot and I hope the show makes the viewers want to give it a try.

HANCOCKS: Now, I understand "Kiss and Cry" refers to the area that you have to sit and wait in while you're waiting for your score when you're competing. How do you feel when you're sitting there waiting for that score to appear?

KIM (through translator): In some ways, it's more nerve wracking than the actual performance. No matter how well I perform, it's something I can't predict and, when the actual score comes out, there are moments when I want to get out of there, or when I'm really happy. It's a moment of many emotions for all athletes. Because, it's when everything unfolds. It is the most important, most anticipated, and sometimes most dreadful time. With as much significance as the actual performance.

HANCOCKS: Now, you're also well known for singing.



HANCOCKS: When you retire from skating, is this going to be your next project?

KIM (through translator): Never. I sang a few times, but I don't have any intention of becoming a singer. I mean, situations keep coming up where I need to sing, but honestly I only want to figure skate.

HANCOCKS: Now, you wrote an autobiography at the tender age of 20. Do you ever allow yourself to just sit back, look at what you've accomplished, and pat yourself on the back?

KIM (through translator): Even though I'm only 20, I've experienced and lost many things in that short time. It's usually the hard times that linger in my memory the longest because I've experienced that much more than a brief moment of glory. In the end, I've gradually achieved what I wanted. There were some tough times, but with one step at a time, I didn't have any big slumps.

I consider myself very lucky and I'm very grateful. But there is still a whole life left ahead of me, so I want to live well. Yes. I want to live well.

HANCOCKS: Now, with all your time taken up with training, with traveling, with TV work - when do you get time for you to have some fun? Do you get time to have fun or relationships?

KIM (through translator): I was very busy after the Olympic season, but this year I've had some personal and training time. So, I'm spending time with friends and family members that I haven't been able to see.

HANCOCKS: So, what do you do to relax with your family and friends when you have the time with them?

KIM (through translator): In Korea, I'm in a position where I can't freely roam around. Although there is some difficulty, I can go to restaurants to eat and chat with my friends. The usual things that people do.

HANCOCKS: Now, here in Korea, you're usually referred to as "Queen Yuna". I mean, how does that make you feel? The fact that there's such intense support and pressure here?

KIM (through translator): I'm happy they call me that, but it also comes with the responsibility to perform that much better. When I hear that, I guess it gives me more confidence. I'll just have to keep skating well to maintain that nickname.

HANCOCKS: Now, thousands, if not millions of girls around the world look up to you and many of them aspire to be like you. Who do you aspire to be like? Who's your mentor?

KIM (through translator): In 1998, a year or two after I started skating, I saw Michelle Kwan at the Nagano Olympics. I liked her a lot. And I could remember every part of her performance. She was the world champion many times over a long period. And although not a gold medalist, there is no skater as respected and recognized as her. So I wanted to become someone like her. Now, I've achieved all the dreams I initially planned and I felt very honored to have my role model come to my performance as a guest. And we performed together. It was like a dream.

HANCOCKS: So, a question that all your fans will want to know the answer to. How much longer do you think you will be competing?

KIM (through translator): I'm now only focusing on the bid for the Pyeongchang Olympics. Only after that can I think about the future. But, as of now, nothing has been decided. I'm only focusing on the Pyeongchang bid.

HANCOCKS: Yuna Kim, it's been a pleasure. Thank you.