South Korean figure skater Cha Jun-hwan performs his free skate program during the Korea Skating Union (KSU) President’s Cup at Mokdong Ice Rink in Seoul on Oct. 16, 2016. (Yonhap)
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Nov. 28 (Yonhap) — South Korea, or any other nation, for that matter, may never see another Kim Yu-na, the 2010 Olympic figure skating gold medalist, a two-time world champion, and a transcendent superstar.
Kim, who retired after adding an Olympic silver in 2014, was as complete a figure skater as there had been, a technically sound performer who almost always topped the competition in artistry and choreography marks. Simply put, Kim is a once-in-a-generation athlete.
But South Korea can at least take solace in the fact that some teenagers have made significant progress in the past few months. They have also raised hopes for a strong performance at the 2018 Winter Games on home ice in PyeongChang, and also at the 2020 Winter Olympics in Beijing, by which time most of these skaters will still be teenagers.
Leading the way of the youth movement is Cha Jun-hwan, who recently made a small piece of Korean figure skating history.
Cha, who turned 15 on Oct. 21, has won two events during the 2016-2017 International Skating Union (ISU) Junior Grand Prix of Figure Skating season, becoming the first South Korean man to do so. In winning the third Grand Prix leg in Japan in September, Cha also set a new ISU junior scoring record with 239.47 points — 79.34 points in short program and 160.13 points in free skate.
Cha has qualified for the Grand Prix Final in France in December.
Cha is coached by renowned Brian Orser, who once worked with Kim Yu-na and now counts Yuzuru Hanyu, the 2014 Olympic men’s gold medalist, and Javier Fernandez, the two-time reigning world champion, as his students.
In Japan, Cha successfully landed a quadruple salchow, something that Orser had said would be key to Cha’s development. He became the first Korean male skater to land a quadruple jump in competition in 12 years.
The jump could also be a double edged sword, as Cha injured his right ankle and hip while practicing it earlier this month.
And Cha battled through pains to capture the Korea Skating Union (KSU) President’s Cup, a senior event, on Oct. 16, and landed that quadruple salchow in free skate.
The consensus is that if Cha keeps improving at the current rate, he could crack the top five in PyeongChang, and possibly reach the podium in Beijing, when he’ll be 20 years old.
South Korean figure skater Cha Jun-hwan performs his short program during the Korea Skating Union (KSU) President’s Cup at Mokdong Ice Rink in Seoul on Oct. 14, 2016. (Yonhap)
In an interview in June during his visit to Seoul, Orser said Cha could become “one of the guys to compete with” in PyeongChang.
“The timing of peaking will be good for him. His age is going to be definitely an advantage at the Olympics,” Orser said. “The way he’s progressing is really phenomenal. I think he’ll be poised to do really well at the Olympics.”
Orser works with Cha in Toronto, where the young skater is also aided by, in the coach’s words, “some pretty amazing quadruple jumpers.”
“He’s also started landing quadruple toe loops,” Orser said of his pupil. “He learns pretty quickly.”
Cha said he’s all about staying in the present and not getting caught up with placements or scores.
“I know people are already looking forward to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, but for now, I’ll try to do the best at the Grand Prix Final,” Cha said. “My goal at the Grand Prix Final is to complete all the programs without major mistakes. I won’t worry about the scores or rankings.”
He said Orser has helped with his jumps and also made him more expressive on the ice. Cha once was a child actor who also appeared in commercials, though he denied any connection between his acting background and artistic expression on the ice.
“I am an athlete now, and I’ll be focusing on my athletic career,” Cha said. “I don’t know if my acting career has helped in that regard. I’m trying not to think much about what I did in the past on TV.”
On the women’s side, another teenage sensation, You Young, stunned the domestic figure skating scene in January, when she became the youngest national champion at 11 years and eight months.
South Korean figure skater You Young performs during the Korea Skating Union (KSU) President’s Cup at Mokdong Ice Rink in Seoul on Oct. 16, 2016. (Yonhap)
The performance prompted Kim Yu-na herself to declare, “You Young is way better than I was in elementary school.”
You, now 12, won the KSU President’s Cup on Oct. 16 with 181.42 points, though she finished third in free skate score with 118.45 points.
You, a technical wizard, recently became the first Korean female skater ever to attempt a quadruple jump in competition.
At a national event for elementary school skaters on Nov. 6, You attempted a quadruple salchow as her first jump in free skate, replacing a triple salchow. She under-rotated it and landed on both skates, but that You even put it in her program was a daring stroke.
“You Young is still working on her quadruple jump and she still has a lot of work to do before she can put it in her program at larger competitions,” said an official at You’s agency, All That Sports. “But this was an event for young prospects with almost no pressure to put up high points. It was significant that she actually tried to land it in competition.”
There is one technical element that You has pulled off in competition to great effects.
South Korean figure skater You Young performs at an ice show, “All That Skate,” at Mokdong Ice Rink in Seoul on June 6, 2016. (Yonhap)
She has been landing almost all of her jumps with a variation called “Tano,” named after former Olympic medalist Brian Boitano. The Tano jump involves extending an arm overhead during a jump, instead of having the arms folded at the chest. It is more challenging than an ordinary jump and thus gives skaters additional points for successful execution.
You first attempted a Tano jump in March, and has since been extending her arm above her head on every jump except her double axel.
You has been pushed by the 13-year-old Lim Eun-soo, who led everyone in free skate with 119.90 points at the KSU President’s Cup and ended in third place overall.
You will start competing in the ISU Junior Grand Prix series next season, but Lim, in her first junior season, has already reached the podium.
Lim finished third in the seventh Grand Prix stop in Germany in early October, after placing fourth in Slovenia at the fifth Grand Prix event in September. Though she couldn’t qualify for the Grand Prix Final, which is open to the top six skaters based on Grand Prix ranking points, Lim still showed plenty of promise.
South Korean figure skater Lim Eun-soo performs during the Korea Skating Union (KSU) President’s Cup at Mokdong Ice Rink in Seoul on Oct. 16, 2016. (Yonhap)
Lim set her personal best with 63.83 points to rank second after the short program. She managed 109.38 points to only rank fifth in free skate, ending in third place overall at 173.21 points, her best score at an event held outside South Korea.
She made a series of jump mistakes, under-rotating the second jump of her opening triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, and falling down on a triple loop later in her program.
And while trying to land her double axel-triple toe loop combination, Lim lost her balance and touched the ice with her hand.
She did get extra execution points for other jumps later on.
Lim said her first senior season was “a great learning experience.”
“After posting such a high score in the short program, I think I got ahead of myself in free skate,” Lim said of her Grand Prix performance. “I think I have to work on keeping my emotions in check during competitions. Getting my name out there internationally was a major gain this season.”
Both You and Lim are so young that they won’t even be eligible for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games. Skaters must be 15 before July 1 of the preceding year in order to compete at the Olympics. You will be 13 and Lim will be 14 by July 1, 2017.
On the other hand, they will be 17 and 18, respectively, in July 2021, the year immediately before the Beijing Winter Games. It’s an age when they will likely be hitting their prime, and nearly five more years of seasoning should do wonders to their already solid package.
South Korean figure skater Lim Eun-soo performs at an ice show, “All That Skate,” at Mokdong Ice Rink in Seoul on June 5, 2016. (Yonhap)