When Yuna Kim retired after her controversial second-place finish at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, many felt it was too abrupt an end to a brilliant career for the 23-year-old.
It turns out fans and the media were not the only ones who felt that way.
In a fascinating interview on The Skating Lesson’s YouTube channel recently, renowned choreographer David Wilson discussed in depth his relationship with the 2010 Olympic gold medalist and two-time world champion. Ice Time found Wilson’s insights both revealing and refreshing.
Talking with hosts Jenny Kirk and David Lease for more than 45 minutes, Wilson spoke in an honest and forthright manner about his emotions in dealing with the South Korean legend and his great disappointment at her decision to retire at 23.
Wilson, who has also worked with the likes of Yuzuru Hanyu, Daisuke Takahashi, Miki Ando and Midori Ito, detailed how he watched Kim grow from a precocious young skater into a driving force in the sport.
Wilson, now 49, began working with Kim in Toronto ahead of the 2006-07 season, shortly after she had become the world junior champion.
Jeffrey Buttle had choreographed Kim’s free skates the two seasons prior to Wilson taking over, and told his successor, “She is really talented, but she is not a very happy skater.” So Wilson said he did not know what to expect when he decided to take on Kim as a client.
“I spent the first three months, my main focus in life was to get her to smile,” Wilson recalled to The Skating Lesson. “Every day I tried to find a way to make her more than smile, to laugh.”
Wilson said he first noticed Kim’s ability to command an arena at the 2007 worlds in Tokyo, where Kim won the short program before finishing third behind Miki Ando and Mao Asada.
“She (Kim) has a naturally lyrical style . . .,” Wilson stated. “Yuna is a chameleon. … I have worked with some really fabulous skaters over the years and out of any of them she is at the top of the list in terms of how quick she learns and how immediately she can mimic what you show her.”
Wilson said that part of the reason for Kim’s success was her ability to interpret the music with her programs.
“She hears music on a level that rarely people do,” Wilson commented to Kirk and Lease. “She is never off of her music — ever. Like it’s intrinsically in her.
“I didn’t know she had these abilities beforehand, but they were there,” the Canadian said. “And it was like, ‘Oh, wow!’ ”
Kim’s fabulous short program to a medley from James Bond movies at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics was a defining moment in her career. Wilson said that the inspiration for it came from his famed fellow choreographer and longtime mentor Sandra Bezic.
“What about a Bond girl?” Bezic told Wilson in 2009. “You don’t know if she is good or bad. She can play the victim or have the gun tucked in her boot.”
Wilson also talked about the difficulty Brian Orser, who now coaches Hanyu, faced in taking on Kim as a student.
“Brian got thrown into a situation, like fast-tracking big time — Coaching 101,” Wilson noted. “Yuna was like his first real student. Can you imagine?”
Wilson confirmed that Kim was a great pupil.
“She took everything I said to heart,” he recalled. “She believed in me. . . . It’s so fulfilling when you get that from a skater. Not one day was she ever rude to me or temperamental with me. She’s an absolute dream to work with. She has so much integrity as a person.”
Wilson said that the team of he, Orser and coach Tracy Wilson turned Kim into a star.
“It was pivotal what we gave to her,” stated Wilson. “We transformed her and we turned her into a star. Not just a skater, a star. Now she’s making $50 million a year doing TV commercials. Don’t think that would have happened if I had not shown her how to be a performer.”
Wilson recalled that the split between Kim and Orser following the Olympics season was “like a nightmare.” Kim chose to keep Wilson on as her choreographer, but cashiered her coach.
Wilson said that the schism between Kim and Orser tore him up and he tried to get the sides to reconcile but was unsuccessful.
“It tore my heart out. It was awful,” Wilson said. “Both parties had their horns out. There was nothing I could do. To this day I still don’t understand what the problem was. I don’t get it.”
Wilson said that after Orser was dropped, Kim’s camp actually asked him to coach her. After Wilson declined, Kim hired Peter Oppegard as her new coach.
Wilson said as much as he valued being part of Kim’s team, it was “disappointing” how her career ended.
“In my mind, she was the kind of talent that was like a Kurt Browning (a four-time world champion). That would be transformative to the sport,” commented Wilson. “That would bring the glory days back for the sport. Not just for herself, but for all of us. That there would be movies. That there would be ‘Carmen on Ice’ . . . Big glorious, expensive productions with all of the most fabulous things. She might be singing and skating at the same time. Who knows?
“She was the kind of star that I thought would actually reboot figure skating for the whole world,” stated Wilson. “That didn’t happen because she moved back to Korea. She doesn’t even skate anymore. She doesn’t even want to do shows anymore. Mid-20s and she’s done. For me in the end it was really heartbreaking.”
Wilson thinks that because Kim can make so much money now just for endorsing products, she doesn’t see the point in putting all of the effort into skating.
“She’s 25 years old. She should still be skating. She should be giving back and making the skating culture more rich,” Wilson said.
Ice Time’s vision of Kim’s future was similar to Wilson’s. I saw her skating in shows in places like Las Vegas and Macau. I thought she would star in movies and be the second coming of three-time Olympic gold medalist and movie/show star Sonja Henie.
With two years to go until the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, one has to wonder if Kim might be moved to return and try to burnish her already incredible legacy. If the games were anywhere but South Korea, I would say that would be doubtful.
But with the situation being what it is, I think we may not have seen the last of Yuna Kim in competition.
Sad development: Youth Olympic Games and Japan junior champion Sota Yamamoto will miss this week’s world junior championships in Debrecen, Hungary, after fracturing his right ankle in a training accident on Saturday.
The 16-year-old Yamamoto, who was considered one of the favorites heading into the competition, was scheduled to depart Japan on Sunday. The Nagoya native placed third at last year’s worlds in Estonia.
The Japan Skating Federation has named Kazuki Tomono as Yamamoto’s replacement for the world juniors. The 17-year-old Tomono, who hails from Osaka, came in second behind Yamamoto at the Japan Junior Championships in November.
Daichi Miyata and Shu Nakamura will also represent Japan in Hungary.
Talented trio: Japan will send a formidable female lineup to the world juniors. Wakaba Higuchi, who took second at Japan senior nationals this season, heads up the team and will be joined by Marin Honda and Yuna Shiraiwa.
Higuchi, the two-time defending Japan junior champion, was third at last season’s world juniors.
Honda made the podium at the JGP Final this season with a third-place showing.
Shiraiwa, who was second behind Higuchi at the Japan juniors, led after the short program at the Youth Olympic Games last month, but settled for fourth place after struggling in her free skate.