Feature | Figure Skating

Yuna Kim and her life-changing Vancouver 2010 gold

It's been 11 years since the Korean completed the so-called "Super Slam" with Olympic gold in Canada. Here's the impact that medal had on her life and career.

By ZK Goh ·

Picture the scene: you're 19 years old, world number one, about to skate in the free program of the Olympic Games figure skating competition, and you've already won just about everything else there is to win except the Olympic crown.

Now add to that the weight of an expectant nation's shoulders, as your biggest rival and competitor represents one of your country's greatest historical adversaries.

Despite all that, Yuna Kim – who faced this exact scenario at Vancouver 2010 – somehow put all that aside to skate the best routine of her life, setting a record score that would stand for seven years.

It's no exaggeration to say that winning gold in Vancouver changed the South Korean's life.

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Yuna Kim the serial winner

Everyone knew all about Yuna Kim going into Vancouver.

She was no unknown; she had made her mark winning the South Korean senior national championships in 2003 aged just 12, and won both the Junior Grand Prix Final and World Junior Championships in 2005-06.

Her senior career up to that point had been equally successful: she was a seven-time Grand Prix winner, three-time Grand Prix Final champion, and the reigning Four Continents and world champion.

In fact, Skate Canada was the only senior ISU event she had entered without winning (having finished third at the event in her debut senior season in 2006-07, Kim would not be assigned to that Grand Prix again). She was a serial winner.

"Queen" Yuna was already wildly popular in South Korea, especially after her 2009 World Championships win.

But things were about to get a lot more hectic.

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National expectation

In Vancouver, Kim avoided the public eye, choosing to stay in a small hotel away from the Olympic Village.

On the ice, it was a different story. With Japan's Asada Mao – the 2008 world champion – also hotly favoured to challenge for gold, Kim had the added pressure of bearing the weight of the Japanese-Korean historic rivalry.

"It's true that I represent my country, but skating for my country is too much of a burden," Kim admitted in an email interview last year with NBC Sports.

"As an athlete representing Korea, there was pressure to give my country the gift of a gold medal."

A technically-brilliant short program set to a James Bond medley, which included a triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination to open, set the stage for her tête-à-tête with Asada.

While Asada made history of her own, landing the first triple Axel in a ladies' short program at the Olympic Games, Kim's score of 78.50 was nearly five points clear of her Japanese opponent's.

Yuna Kim's short programme - Women's Figure Skating | Vancouver 2010

Another Yuna Kim's silky performance in her Olympic breakthrough year

"Pretending to be fearless"

A marker had been laid down, but Kim wasn't going to get complacent.

Skating to George Gershwin's Concerto in F, she put together four minutes of pure perfection on the ice in the free program.

It was an enchanting routine, capped at the end with Kim breaking down with emotion. "I'd been pretending to be fearless, but I think the moment the program was over, the pressure that had built up inside me came bursting out," she explained in the NBC Sports interview.

While Asada landed two triple Axels, the Japanese made errors elsewhere in her routine and did not come close to Kim.

"That was the only time I ever burst into tears after a performance," Kim said. "It was a whirlwind of emotions."

The South Korean's free skate score of 150.06 was the first time anyone had broken the 150-point barrier in ladies competition; that record would stand for six years until Evgenia Medvedeva scored 0.04 points more at the 2016 World Championships.

Her total score – 228.56 points – made her the first female skater to score more than 220 points. Again, it was a record that would not be broken for years until Medvedeva did so in 2017.

The win also made Kim the first skater in any discipline to win both junior and all four major senior international titles since the introduction of the Junior Grand Prix Final in 1998.

Presidential audience and coaching split

Life-changing? Absolutely.

Despite Kim being based in Canada at the time (she trained under Brian Orser at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club), she – and coach Orser – immediately crossed the Pacific for an audience with the then-South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak.

The media whirlwind around the poster-girl-turned-national-hero was unrelenting; an acrimonious split between skater and coach later that summer (after Kim had won silver at the Worlds behind Asada) did nothing to keep her out of the headlines.

South Korea watched Kim's moves closely; her decision to pair up with her childhood coaches in 2012 was commented on, but it led to gold at the World Championships in London, Ontario, the following March – her last major title win.

While that win made her a heavy favourite to defend her Olympic gold in Sochi, controversial scoring resulted in her winning silver behind home skater Adelina Sotnikova. The Korean Skating Union's protests were rejected.

However, in the interview with NBC Sports, Kim said she did not feel bitterness.

"I already became the Olympic champion," she pointed out, adding that in Sochi, "winning was not my only goal.

"It was my last competition, and it was a long, hard journey to be there. I was just so happy to finish it."

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PyeongChang 2018 roles

Kim remains widely popular in South Korea, and she remains one of the highest-paid athletes in the country through her sponsorships even in retirement.

She also remains a source of inspiration to new skaters coming through the ranks; Lausanne 2020 Youth Olympic Games champion You Young has spoken of looking up to Kim when she first took up the sport.

You won silver at the 2020 Four Continents, the first medal for a South Korean at an ISU event since Kim's world title seven years prior.

Kim also stays involved with her sport, running the 'All That Skate' annual exhibition alongside her mother.

Between the 2010 World Championships and the start of the 2012-13 season, Kim only competed once, at the 2011 Worlds. Her focus, instead, was on being an athlete ambassador for PyeongChang's candidacy for the 2018 Winter Olympics, which the city was awarded in July 2011.

That work carried over to the Games – Kim was selected as the final torchbearer, and Olympic cauldron lighter, at the Opening Ceremony.

It was a magical moment, a timely reminder that Kim remains an almost-ethereal figure to South Koreans.

For her fans, she'll always be "Queen Yuna".

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