It’s not easy following in the footsteps of a sporting legend – but it helps when they are willing to guide you in the right direction.
Park So-Youn has taken over the mantle of South Korea’s top figure skater from Kim Yu-Na, and the teenager is grateful that the former Olympic and world champion is giving back to the sport following her retirement last year.
“Kim Yu-Na was the best skater in the world, who could move people with her performance – that I really respect,” the 17-year-old tells CNN’s Human to Hero series.
“Thanks to Kim Yu-Na, I think figure skating became a lot more popular and it’s so nice how the fans are a lot more interested now.”
Kim’s final appearance at the top level was the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where she had to settle for the silver medal.
By virtue of her second world title the year before, following a year-long break from the sport, South Korea earned three slots for Sochi – and Park snatched one of those at a national ranking competition.
“I really appreciate how Yu-Na gave me the chance to participate at the Olympics,” Park says.
“During the competition I couldn’t do my best because I was too nervous, but nevertheless I was really glad because I think it was a really good experience for me.”
‘A new hope’
Park, who has a background in ballet dancing, had been on the national team since the age of 13 and made her senior debut ahead of Sochi. While she was 21st at the Olympics, she improved with ninth overall at that year’s world championships.
“After going through big experiences such as participating at the Olympics and the world championship, I think I gained a bit of confidence,” Park says.
At the start of this year, she became national champion for the first time, having been runner-up four years in a row – the last two behind Kim Yu-Na.
It has led Park to be dubbed South Korea’s “hope of figure skating” – though she is still working to fulfill her undoubted potential.
“So-Youn has good qualities in both jump and power,” Kim told CNN. “Triple combination is her biggest strength and she also has great artistic value in her skating.
“She still needs to improve her skating skills and express the choreography more drastically,” added the 24-year-old, who won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. “I also hope So-Youn will be more confident in her ability.”
‘Dancing on ice’
Kim, as she does with other members of the national team, has helped Park execute her routines – which are designed by renowned choreographers Cindy Stuart and David Wilson.
“Cindy has been my choreographer since I was 12,” Park says of the American, who is also known for her work with Disney On Ice.
“We have a nice chemistry between us and, because she knows me, normally we decide on our routine easily.”
Canadian Wilson, like Stuart a former skater, worked with Kim and before that men’s champion Brian Orser.
“Whenever I get ready for the season I always go to the U.S. to design the program,” Park says.
“When the choreographer organizes the routine I come back to Korea to practice, and Yu-Na also helps me with it.
“This season they made the routine harder so I can look more mature, which also helped me in various other ways.”
Park says the increasing technical standards in skating mean she has to work harder than ever to avoid mistakes on the ice.
“The hardest part in figure skating is the technical part,” she explains. “All the jumps are quite hard, and the only way to raise the probability of success is to practice harder – so I’m practicing hard.”
Her next challenge is to transfer her domestic success to the international stage.
“She has a great bodyline and her own character of performing with grace and style, while her technical ability is safe,” says Peter Krick, the International Skating Union’s sport manager for figure skating.
Krick says he first took note of Park’s prowess in practice ahead of the 2015 Four Continents Championships in Seoul, where she went on to place ninth.
“She needs experience, and she needs confidence to present what she already is able to do,” Krick told CNN.
The U.S. and Japan sealed the top four women’s places in the absence of Russia, and Krick says those three countries will be the medal contenders at the 2018 Winter Olympics, though Park “has great potential and ability to come up very soon.”
Park, if selected, will have the weight of a nation’s expectations on her shoulders as the Winter Games will be held in Pyeongchang.
Krick says it would be a mistake to put too much pressure on her as the “next Kim Yu-Na” – who was the first woman skater to complete the collection of Olympic, World Championship, Four Continents and Grand Prix Final titles.
“Yu-Na Kim is a unique skater – she can’t be copied. So-Youn needs to follow her own character and she will be another great Korean skater, but not a copy of Yu-Na,” he says.
Kim knows all too well what it’s like being a national figurehead, and says Park will “probably feel big pressure” leading a relatively inexperienced skating team at Pyeongchang.
“Avoiding injury is the most important thing,” Kim says of the challenges Park faces. “I want her to skate every single day giving her best, in a confident manner.”
If Park can live up to her hero’s expectations, then South Korea will likely have a new international skating success to celebrate.