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Yuna Kim completes nearly seven-year journey with lighting of Olympic cauldron

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – They chose to share stories of Yuna Kim’s difficult times. “Maybe my favorit...

Posted: Feb. 9, 2018 3:50 PM
Updated: Feb. 9, 2018 3:50 PM

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – They chose to share stories of Yuna Kim’s difficult times.

“Maybe my favorite memory of skating with Yuna was right before she went to the [2010] Olympics,” said U.S. figure skater Adam Rippon, who shared a coach, Brian Orser, with Kim in 2009 and 2010. “We had lunch with Yuna and Brian. And Brian sat down and said, ‘You know what, we’ve done all the work, we’re ready to go.’ And I remember she just did a simulation [of her programs]. She didn’t skate very well. And she was like, ‘Yeah, I’m ready.’ I was like, oh, wow, she feels great. I think that was my favorite memory. … I just saw it in her eyes that she was ready.”

Orser, too, recently recalled one of those times training in Toronto before the Vancouver Games.

“We were having a rough day, and I think it was just the two of us on the ice, but I just took her to the middle of the ice, and she's got her manager downstairs and her mother and her trainer, and everybody seems to be an expert in the Olympics, but I just said, ‘I'm the only person in this rink that knows how you feel,’” said the Canadian Orser, who like Kim skated with the hopes of a nation on his shoulders at the 1988 Calgary Games. “I know what you're feeling, I know what you're going through, and my job is to take some of that on, and I really get it with you. … Then I could hear her shoulders drop, and she could take a deep breath because then we were in it together, so it's not just her and Korea and the Olympics.”

It was Kim, South Korea and the Olympics at 10:10 p.m. in PyeongChang Olympic Stadium on Friday. Temperatures were in the high 20s. It felt like the warmest evening of the week.

As the 35,000-capacity stadium could have predicted, the iconic figure skater lit the cauldron, the symbolic opening of the Games. In a long white dress and skates on a tiny sheet of ice, she became the first woman given the honor alone since 2006 and the youngest solo lighter since 1994.

Kim’s moment was nearly seven years in the making. In spring 2011, she began a 19-month break from competition, in part to lend a hand to the PyeongChang Olympic bid in its final stages.

Terrence Burns, an Atlanta native, was the lead bid strategist for PyeongChang.

He had actually served in that role for the Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014 bids, which edged PyeongChang by three and four votes, respectively, in the previous two host city votes. The third PyeongChang bid needed some native athlete star power after trotting out Italian skier Alberto Tomba in its last defeat.

Lightning struck between its second and third bids. Kim became world champion in 2009 and Olympic champion in the Winter Games’ marquee event in 2010.

In 2009, Forbes Korea named her the No. 1 celebrity in the country based on professionalism, popularity, income and influence. She traveled with two bodyguards.

“We knew we were going to use Yuna,” Burns recalled this week. “Everybody was pressuring me to use her. I was getting a lot of pressure to use her early, that we weren’t good enough [without her].”

Burns welcomed the addition of a woman whose popularity was likened as part-Elvis, part-Jordan in South Korea.

The two losing PyeongChang bids stressed peace on the Korean peninsula, even reunification.

“She’s exactly what we were trying to express in breaking the stereotype of the previous two bids,” Burns said. “She was young, worldly. She represented the new Korea, which we were desperately trying to get across. It wasn’t old Korean men in suits on stage anymore.

“She personified that. It's why we saved her to the end, actually.”

Burns was convinced that the third bid, going against Munich and Annecy, France, was strong enough without Kim to just about reach the finish line. The figure skater could help put it over the top.

After Kim took silver at the 2011 World Championships (donating her winnings to Japanese tsunami relief), Burns had fewer than two months to prepare her to speak at the IOC base in Lausanne in May. Seven weeks after that was the final presentation and vote.

“You’re trying to test her English without being blatant about it,” said Burns, who added that he wrote every word of every speech at those last two presentations. “Her English was perfect. She was poised, well put together.

“She probably didn’t need a lot of practice, but she was always asking for more. I want to do it again. I want to do it again. She really got it. She understood what was at stake. She understood this was a little different than getting paid for a commercial. This was for the country. She was just endearing. She was humble, truly.”

The bid team flew to Togo in between Lausanne and the July 6 finale and vote in Durban, South Africa. Burns thought it was Kim’s first trip without her mom.

That could have given him pause to think that this 20-year-old was essentially the bid’s closer in front of some 100 IOC members.

“I remember trying to tell her to employ that charm that she has on the ice,” he said. “This is an exercise in supplication.

“This is very unlike any speech you’ve ever given. It’s not a speech to corporate leaders or why you became Olympic champion. This is a persuasive emotional argument.”

In Durban, Kim delivered a three-minute, English-only address with poise and precision.

“I've been training harder for today than for most of my competitions,” Kim said on stage before lifting her right hand and pinching her index finger and thumb together for this next line: “I'm still a little bit nervous. You are making history today, and I get to be a small part of it.”

Kim said she was an example of a living legacy of advancing winter sports in her country. She said awarding the first Winter Games to South Korea would give hope that Olympic hopefuls wouldn’t have to travel halfway around the world to train.

The athlete turned ambassador.

“For her to do that in English, I don’t think she’d ever done it before, that kind of speech, a powerful, emotional speech,” Burns said. “We worked on eye contact, smiling in the right place, being self-effacing, being sweet. You only have to tell her once, and she got it.”

Kim cried after then-IOC president Jacques Rogge announced PyeongChang as the winner. She was standing next to the South Korean president and PyeongChang bid chairman.

“We all had tears in our eyes,” Burns said. “She’s used to making history, but it was a different way of making history.”

A Gallup Korea poll resulted in 46.5 percent of people saying Kim played the most important role in the victory, according to Yonhap News Agency.

Burns wouldn’t put it all on Kim. He said the other bedrock was Theresa Rah, the bid communications director and former TV personality who spoke in both Olympic languages (French and English) in her Durban speech.

But what Kim did at her age, in the middle of her athletic career, is almost unparalleled.

Burns said it reminded him of his friend Janet Evans, passing the 1996 Olympic flame to Muhammad Ali in Atlanta.

“She has to feel that not only part of Olympic history because of what she’s done,” Burns said, “but part of Korean history in a way that’s unassailable.”

Nick McCarvel contributed reporting to this column.

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