Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Goodbye, Farewell & Thank You: Yu-Na Kim

With so many of my favorites bowing out of the sport this year, I thought it'd be a good idea to give my thoughts on each one and why I'll miss them so much.  Being that she was the first to announce her retirement officially, I'm going to start with the Queen herself...Yu-Na Kim.

I didn't follow skating in the 2006-2007 season.  I was still distraught from Michelle Kwan's departure from the sport in Torino.  For me, life (or rather figure skating) no longer had meaning.  No one would ever capture my attention the way Michelle had, so why bother?  I did, however, decide to tune in to the world championships that year.  It was more out of habit than anything...

That's when I saw this girl.  I had no idea who she was.  She was a little rough around the edges: not the best lines, a little clunky in areas but I could tell there was immense talent there. I was so intrigued by how expressive she was on the ice.  She was skating her SP to a tango and was killing it.  I loved the way she connected with the music as well as the audience and the judges; she was fast and her jumps were awesome; her program was so musical and exciting; plus, she just dazzled me with her performance. My exact words at the end of this program: "Who is this girl?"

That was my introduction to Yu-Na Kim.

I did some research on her and learned her story:  she was from South Korea, had been competing with Mao Asada since her junior days, was a world junior champion and had won the Final that year.  I went back and watched her previous programs from over the years and realized what a great performer she was.  I was already a fan of Mao at the time but seeing Yu-Na and learning her story, I decided I didn't have to exclusively support one skater (which was what I did when Michelle competed).  And so, I became a fan of Yu-Na Kim.

That next season Yu-Na showed up at Skate America with her new "Danse Macabre" SP and blew me away all over again.  That was when I really knew I was witnessing greatness.  Watching her journey from slightly awkward skater to regal queen and world champion was really remarkable.  Her presence on the ice was nothing short of awe-inspiring.  She was in total command whenever she stepped out there and I just couldn't take my eyes off of her.

Her programs were so well-constructed and she performed them with so much attention to detail as well as commitment to the choreography and character of the music.  I saw so many of the things I loved about Michelle reflected in Yu-Na and the way she performed.  When I found out Michelle was Yu-Na's idol, I realized why I immediately connected with her skating.  

Yu-Na was untouchable in 2009-2010.  I had no idea how she was going to top herself after her "Danse" SP and then she revealed her sultry and playful side with her "Bond" SP.  I just couldn't even handle the fabulousness that was Yu-Na Kim...she blew me away again!  Her "Gershwin" FS was relaxed and elegant and the proof that a program can be tailored to the IJS and still be artistic and beautiful.  Yu-Na's level of skating was just so far above and beyond everyone in the field that year.  There was no doubt in my mind that she would be the Olympic Champion.  To have witnessed that epic moment in Olympic history and to see her achieve her dream was a very special moment I'll always remember.

Yu-Na's return to competition in 2011 was another special moment I'll remember.  After having been gone all season long it was clear that she could have easily won worlds...if only she'd put some mileage on her programs.  In my opinion "Homage to Korea" was the most unique and beautiful FS she ever had.  Even though the program wasn't as polished and tested as it needed to be, it had all of the makings of a masterpiece: the music, the choreography, the personal meaning behind was an epic program.  To this day I'm still extremely sad she never got the chance to perform this FS to its potential.  

After worlds that year, I was sure we wouldn't see Yu-Na on competitive ice again.  She had nothing left to prove in my mind.  With all of her endorsement deals, skating shows, charity work and even being a key part in the bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics, I couldn't imagine Yu-Na putting her life on hold to train for another Olympics.  After all, she'd already won every major title there was to win.  What else was there to do?  So when she announced her return to competition, I was just as shocked and thrilled as everyone else.

As a huge Yu-Na fan I have to admit that post-2011 I saw change in Yu-Na.  Her skill level was as amazing as it had always been, but there was something different about her that I couldn't put my finger on.  In my opinion, that spark that really intrigued me when I first saw her at worlds in 2007 was gone.  Yu-Na was still skating very well, hitting her jumps and performing beautifully...but there was something very hollow about it to me.  Yu-Na's "Les Miserables" FS at worlds in 2013 was absolute perfection: the jumps, the delivery, everything was perfection.  I found myself in awe of her execution...yet unmoved by her performance.

Going into the Sochi Olympics this year, I felt that Yu-Na had the best shot for gold.  I hated that she ended up missing the Grand Prix series and, in retrospect, I think that may have hurt her chances in Sochi because she had no momentum going in.  However, the fact that she could be absent for the majority of the quad and yet still command the same attention and respect and never be out of the medal conversation is a testament to her skill and influence in the sport.

In my opinion Yu-Na's "Send in the Clowns" SP is the best SP she had post-Vancouver.  It was a change of pace to see Yu-Na go the lyrical and soft route especially when all of her previous SPs had been either powerful/upbeat or dramatic.  I thought her performance in Sochi was gorgeous.  She cast this spell of calmness and reflection... It was the first time since 2011 where I actually felt her while she was skating.  There was a real sense of freedom and serenity about the program that touched me.

The FS to "Adios Nonino" was excellent but I don't think it left the kind of impact she needed to leave.  It was a quiet and subtle tango instead of a powerful and commanding one.  It was lovely...but again, the fire and spark were missing for me.  Though the performance didn't sparkle the way I wanted it to, there was no denying that for the second time in her career Yu-Na had delivered on the biggest stage in the sport.  The results were highly disputable (as we all know) but I maintain that no medal can take away from what Yu-Na did that night.  Again she shows up at a major event without the benefit of a season's worth of mileage and still manages to turn in perfection.  Her ability to handle the pressure and deliver in spite of it is simply remarkable.  

In a post-Sochi interview, Yu-Na talked about how difficult it was to motivate herself for these past two seasons and how physically and mentally exhausting it was for her to push herself to train and compete without really having a goal.  That interview helped me to understand the change I'd seen in her skating.  That fire to succeed and desire to win Olympic gold is what fueled Yu-Na before Vancouver.  Once that goal had been achieved, Yu-Na had to find something else to motivate her to continue.  For the past two seasons she managed to deliver even better than she did pre-Vancouver in terms of hitting the elements and performing cleanly...but that spark never really returned.  I kept wondering why despite her flawless performances I was left feeling underwhelmed.  It really frustrated me and even made me a little sad because I adore Yu-Na, yet I just couldn't connect with her skating anymore.  Now I understand why: her heart wasn't into it.  Something else was motivating her but whatever it was, it wasn't as powerful as that fire she had in the beginning...and to me, it showed.

Though I feel like that spark I fell in love diminished after Vancouver, Yu-Na continued to amaze me.  Her steadiness, focus, competitiveness and ability to deliver under pressure is unreal. Without a doubt, she is the greatest competitor of this era.  To turn in so many strong performances time after time under the expectation and the pressure of being the favorite is truly an incredible feat.  I marvel at how she dealt with the pressure of carrying her country's hopes on her shoulders.  Throughout it all Yu-Na handled herself with dignity, class and grace...just the way you'd expect a queen to behave. 

So many younger skaters look up to and admire Yu-Na.  Not only has she been a incredible athlete for the sport, she's done so much outside of skating that continues to inspire people.  Yu-Na has achieved extraordinary fame as a figure skater and has used that fame as a platform to reach out and help others.  She is an International Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF and has donated money for disaster relief in Haiti and Japan as well as to children with disabilities.  In addition, Yu-Na takes an avid interest in the skaters who will carry on the legacy she has started in Korea by mentoring them as well as donating money to the national team.  

To me, Yu-Na Kim is a concrete rose.  She came from a country with zero figure skating history, harsh training conditions and limited resources, yet against all odds, managed to grow into a phenomenal champion, an amazing woman, and one the most respected and admired figures to ever grace the sport.  

Goodbye, farewell and thank you, Queen Yu-Na.

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