Biggest Olympic star you've never heard of

By STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency


Members of the Korean Media gathered at Vancouver International Airport Friday afternoon interviewing fans of Korean skater Kim Yu-Na who arrived in Vancouver Feb. 19, 2010. (CARMINE MARINELLI/QMI AGENCY)

VANCOUVER — There was a mob scene at Vancouver International Airport Friday with the arrival of Air Canada flight 101 from Toronto.

Touching down at British Columbia’s largest airport was arguably the highest-profile international athlete at these Games, with the possible exception of Russian hockey player Alex Ovechkin or American snowboarder Shaun White.

Defending world figure skating champion Yu-Na Kim is an absolute superstar in her home country of South Korea, and throughout the skating world. For the large Korean media contingent in Vancouver, her arrival was like the return of a conquering hero.

Of course, back in Toronto, where she lives and trains for much of the year, Kim is as anonymous as the next person, which, according to her coach, former world champion Brian Orser, is exactly what she needs. Orser has said one of the reasons why the 19-year-old skater has been able to develop into the class of the field in women’s singles skating is because she has found solace training at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club, away from the constant distraction of her adoring fans and the Korean media.

“When you’re with her in Korea, it’s like you’re traveling with Princess Diana; Yu-na’s that famous there,” Orser told the New York Times earlier this month. “But here, things are obviously quieter. It gives her a chance for a normal life. She can focus on what she has to do.”

Orser went as far as to say that Kim has lifted the morale of the recession-battered Korea since winning the world title last March.

Kim, the first woman skater to surpass the 200-point mark at the worlds, has won all five events in which she competed in in 2009, including the Four Continents championship in Vancouver.

She has become a spokeswoman for numerous Korean and international companies, which has made her a wealthy young lady. But her fame has come with a price. When she travelled to Toronto in 2006 to work with choreographer David Wilson, she was an uptight, unhappy young skater. But after working with Wilson and then Orser, who later became her full-time coach, she developed into a superstar and is the clear favorite to win the gold on Friday at the Pacific Coliseum.

Her popularity is such that the Korean federation held a media availability Dec.18 and has ruled out any formal interviews until after next week’s freeskate.

Yong-Hyuk Ahn of the Korean Olympic Committee told Sun Media Friday that there are no media conferences scheduled for the young skater at the Games nor will she stay in the Athlete’s Village, but will hide away at a Vancouver hotel instead.

If anyone has any chance of wrestling the gold away from Kim in Vancouver, it would be fellow Asian star Miki Ando of Japan, the 2007 world champion, and Montreal’s Joannie Rochette, who finished second at last year’s worlds.

steve.buffery@sunmedia.ca

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