By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Oct. 2 (Yonhap) -- When it comes to an act to follow or a bar to clear, few athletes have it tougher or higher than South Korean figure skaters.
Their gold standard is Kim Yu-na, the only Olympic figure skating champion from South Korea. She also won two world championships and a slew of International Skating Union (ISU) Grand Prix titles. Kim, now retired, never missed the podium at her six world championships and two Olympic Games and won gold medals at three of her four ISU Grand Prix Finals appearances.
And that's just what she achieved on the ice. Away from the rink, Kim was a pop culture icon and an omnipresent figure in television commercials as a highly sought-after brand spokeswoman. Kim also served as an honorary ambassador for PyeongChang's successful bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympics.
To be fair, it'd be difficult for anyone to match Kim's feats, for she's a once-in-a-generation type athlete. But in 2019, a new wave of young skaters has emerged in South Korea, hoping to follow in Kim's footsteps and leave their own legacy.
These are skaters born in the mid-aughts, meaning they aren't quite old enough to have memories of watching Kim skate to an Olympic gold medal in 2010 as it unfolded.
Lee Hae-in, still only 14, is one of them. And she has already done something only Kim has accomplished -- win two consecutive ISU Junior Grand Prix titles.
Kim was the first to do so during the 2005-2006 season. And Lee joined that exclusive company last weekend in Zagreb, Croatia, where she earned a personal-best 203.40 points to win the Croatia Cup for her second straight Junior Grand Prix crown. Lee's first victory had come on Sept. 6 at the Riga Cup in Latvia. At both competitions, Daria Usacheva of Russia finished as the runner-up to Lee.
And who was Lee's inspiration?
"Before the short program, I watched clips of Yu-na's past performances," Lee said after her victory in Latvia. "I am glad I've been able to accomplish something that she did earlier."
It seems grossly unfair to put too much pressure on an athlete this young, but Lee is fully embracing her label as the "next Kim Yu-na."
"I am really happy to hear that," Lee said, "When some of the older skaters were hearing that before, I was envious. I know Yu-na also won her first Junior Grand Prix when she was 14. Now that we have something in common, I am quite pleased."
That Lee was the third South Korean to reach the Junior Grand Prix podium at three consecutive events is also impressive. At the season-opening event, Grand Prix de Courchevel in France on Aug. 23, Wi Seo-yeong, 14, was the runner-up to Kamila Valieva of Russia. And in Lake Placid, New York, on Aug. 31, the 13-year-old Park Yeon-jeong got silver medal behind Alysa Liu of the United States.
This has already been the most successful ISU Junior Grand Prix season for South Korea, with one event plus the season-ending Grand Prix Final remaining. And that's saying something because the country has produced at least one medalist in the ladies' singles in each of the past four Junior Grand Prix seasons.
Choi Da-bin, now 19, won two bronze medals in 2015. The 16-year-old Lim Eun-soo won a bronze in 2016 and a silver in 2017. In 2018, Kim Ye-lim finished in second place twice, while You Young had a bronze. Lee Hae-in herself finished in third place once.
Choi, Lim, Kim and You have all graduated to the senior ranks, but they have yet to make much noise at that level. Choi won a gold medal at the 2017 Asian Winter Games, but she hasn't skated since PyeongChang 2018. Lim, Kim and You have won medals at lower-level competitions, but Lim's bronze at the Rostelecom Cup during the ISU Grand Prix season last November remains the only podium finish from the trio as seniors at a higher-tier event.
Lee and Wi are eligible for the senior Grand Prix series for the 2020-2021 season, as they will be 15 by July 1 next year. Park, born in January 2006, has two more years before she can start competing in senior events.
In the meantime, they'll all have to prove that they haven't just caught lightning in a bottle and that they can continue to develop into competitive skaters.
All three are technically sound with no visible weaknesses.
Lee has a fair bit of Kim Yu-na in her in the way she takes off for triple jumps so effortlessly. Wi is a wizard with spins and the lithe teen cuts a graceful figure. Park also takes after Kim in that the teenager also performs an Ina Bauer -- in which a skater glides on two parallel blades and bends backwards -- as an entry into a double axel.
Kim developed into an elegant, expressive skater in her late teens, but she still had a bit of gawkiness as a junior. It wasn't until Kim began working with choreographer David Wilson that the sassy young lady in her broke out of her shell in time to win the Olympic gold in Vancouver.
In some ways, Lee, Wi and Park are more polished and artistically accomplished than Kim when she was their age. Skaters of the current generation have access to better choreography and artistic training at an earlier age than before, and that is part of Kim's legacy.
But figure skating has never been solely about artistry. After all, you still have to land your required jumps and perform your spins. And the technical side of the sport has rarely been more at a premium than in recent years.
This is where the three young South Koreans have the most work left to do.
In Lake Placid, Park finished 21.52 points behind Liu, who landed a quadruple lutz during her free skate. The 14-year-old American also performed a triple axel, which requires three and a half rotations. Liu is the first to complete a quad jump and a triple axel in the same program.
In beating Wi by more than nine points for the title in France, Valieva executed a quadruple toe loop jump in free skate.
Valieva, 13, picked up her second Junior Grand Prix win of the season on Sept. 14 in Chelyabinsk, Russia, where she inserted two quad toe loop jumps into her free program. Though she didn't execute the second of those jumps cleanly, Valieva still won the title comfortably with 221.95 points, 17.7 points better than fellow Russian Kseniia Sinitsyna. It was the second-highest score ever earned by a junior in the ladies singles.
Figure skating has become such a numbers game -- the harder the elements, the higher base value they carry. And trying to pull off demanding jumps can be worth the risk because, even if you get a few points deducted for shoddy execution, you still may end up with a higher score than if you land easier jumps cleanly.
Lee, Wi and Park don't even attempt triple axels in their free skates, let alone a quad jump. Liu and Valieva are in a league of their own, but the Koreans have more than made up for whatever technical deficiencies they may have with non-jump elements.
Chi Hyun-jung, Lee's coach, who worked with Kim Yu-na as a junior, said Lee is skating in a very different world than Kim did 15 years ago.
"We're now seeing juniors attempting quad jumps, but Hae-in has to take things slowly," Chi said. "She's working on her triple axel but she's not quite there yet. There is a risk of injury, so we'll ramp up training after this season is over."
Chi said Lee's biggest asset may be her stoic personality.
"She is always so calm and she doesn't get rattled," the coach said. "And she's a quick study. She mastered all the triple jumps, except for triple axel, by fifth grade."
Lee agreed with her coach, saying she doesn't let mistakes affect her performance. She also said she was aware of the level of her competition but she will try to progress at her own pace.
"I have to keep working on perfecting the jumps that I am able to do," she said. "And from there, I'll try to go for more difficult elements."
The trio of Lee, Wi and Park, plus another triumvirate of Lim Eun-soo, You Young and Kim Ye-lim, are collectively the best female skaters in the post-Kim Yu-na era. The two groups are only two or three years apart in age. They'll all be eligible for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, though spots on the national team will be limited.
Asked about the budding rivalry among her countrywomen, Lee said, "I am learning so much from great skaters. I compare my performances with theirs and when I ask them about things that I want to improve on, I get great advice from them."
As for possibly representing the nation at the Olympics, Lee said she hasn't thought much about it yet.
"I am focusing on finishing this season well and qualifying for the Grand Prix Final," she said. "I don't know about winning a medal at the Olympics. I'd love just to be able to skate there."