Last autumn, when South Korea's enchanting Kim Yu-na was struggling—winning competitions such as Skate America despite falling on a triple jump—her coach, Brian Orser, had a talk with her. "What I said was, 'I know what you're feeling, going into the Olympics with the weight of the country on your shoulders,'" he recalls of sharing his insight as a world champion who had carried Canada's hopes into the Calgary Games. "I could see her sense of relief. The last thing you want to hear in that situation is, 'You'll be fine.' In 1988 I couldn't go to the grocery store without someone saying, 'Go for the gold!' You have to take that positive energy and use it. The Olympics can be the vehicle to get the best out of an athlete."
And so it was for Kim, who gave a mesmerizing performance to become South Korea's first figure skating gold medalist and take her place alongside the greatest skating Olympians. In two programs involving 20 distinct elements over some seven minutes, Kim did not make a mistake. This is only the second Olympics to be judged by the new scoring system, but it's beyond question that Kim's 228.56 total (a record 78.50 for the short program, an unheard-of 150.06 for the free) will stand the test of time. She finished a whopping 23.06 ahead of silver medalist Mao Asada of Japan, whose own score would have easily won the gold four years ago. (Asada landed three clean triple Axels in her two programs, an Olympic first.) Kim was the essence of what the sport is supposed to be: graceful, athletic, fast and fun. As flirty and steely as Katarina Witt, as limber and fast as Kristi Yamaguchi, as easy and elegant as Peggy Fleming, she could not have given us more.
That it was all accomplished in an emotionally charged atmosphere—brought on by the sudden death in Vancouver of Canadian champion Joannie Rochette's mother two days before the short program began (POINT AFTER, page 76)—simply reinforced the greatness of Kim's skating. It also validated the decision of Kim's mother, Park Mee-hee, to pair her daughter with the genial Orser. They first met in 2006, when Kim and her mother came to Toronto to have choreographer David Wilson create a program for her. Kim, 15 at the time, was having problems with some of her jumps. Wilson asked Orser, who was just helping out, to take a look at them. Orser was still touring professionally, but after he'd worked with her for 20 minutes, Kim wanted him to coach her full time. "I said no to them twice when they asked me," Orser remembers. "I was still skating, and if you're going to coach, you have to jump in with both feet."
Kim's mother, who is never far from her daughter's side, persisted. "Yu-na and her mom basically coerced Brian into becoming a full-time coach," Wilson remembers. "When I asked why, her mother told me, 'Yu-na wants to learn how to be a happy skater.' She used to cry all the time."
Orser was the perfect tonic for the stressed-out Kim. "It's not just hard, hard all the time, like it was in Korea," she says. "I'm a happier person."
Kim, the 2009 world champ, has been the face of skating in her country, where rinks are being built and thousands of young girls are taking up the sport because of her. "She knows the Korean people's expectations," says her agent, Koo Dong-hoi, "and that makes Yu-na nervous."
But when Kim took the ice at the Pacific Coliseum for her short and free programs, that feeling disappeared. "I was not nervous at all," she marveled afterward, admitting her tears at the end of her long program were the first she'd shed in an ice rink in joy. Then, glancing at her gold medal, she smiled a smile that was filled with peace. "I've been dreaming about this moment so long. I can't believe this is not a dream anymore."