Esther Kim and Kay Poe arrived at a Houston sports club last Thursday ready to kick up a storm. It was the pair's first day in a gym together since the U.S. taekwondo trials in May, at which Kim, the No. 2-ranked U.S. Olympic flyweight, relinquished a sure berth in Sydney to her injured best friend, Poe, the world's No. I, by bowing out of their final match. In Houston, after three warmup kicks, Poe felt a pop in her left knee—the same knee she had hurt in the trials. She took Kim's arm and walked gingerly out of the aerobics room and over to the stair machines. "If she has to, she can just kick with the other leg for today," Kim said.
After four weeks of rehab, Poe's toughest foe is time. She will need all her kicks in Sydney. On Thursday, Poe spent 30 minutes climbing, then returned to the aerobics room, telling herself, I won't listen for more pops. Soon her feet were flailing the kicking paddles. "I knew Kay wasn't hurt enough to stop," said Kim. "I know her like she's my sister."
At the trials Kim made the sort of sportsmanship-affirming gesture usually reserved for siblings. Poe, 18 and the overwhelming favorite in her weight class, had dislocated her left patella when she banged knees with Mandy Meloon in Their preliminary match, which Poe won. Kim, 20, joined Poe in a holding area and helped ice her friend's knee an hour before the two would face each other for the Olympic berth, Then she saw Poe's futile attempt to stand, and the words just came out: "Kay, what if I just bow down to you when we get in the ring?" Poe said no, and the pair spent the next half hour fighting about not fighting.
"We have to fight," Poe said.
"Don't argue," Kim said.
"Shut up. Quit apologizing."
"I don't know, just shut up."