What Yuna Kim Taught Me About Success

As a competitive figure skater in the mid-2000s, I was coming to terms with my dying hopes of becoming an Olympic figure skater just as Yuna Kim was rising to fame. Although it was disappointing to give up on the dreams I’d had for years, to waste the countless hours I’d spent at the rink, in the ballet studio, in the gym, my “retirement” gave me a newfound freedom. I’d yearned for that freedom — it was one year into my training that I asked to quit for the first time. Then, my mother had urged me to change coaches and she’d promised things would get better. When the pressure only built and my days revolved around my practices, I’d asked to quit again and my mom responded that once I landed my double axel, I could quit. My double axel never came and, at the ripe old age of 13, I placed fourth in my last singles competition and joined the local synchronized skating team instead.

In retrospect, I never had a chance. I started private lessons at 9 years old and landed my axel a year later, which is fast by all standards. But, at 10 years old, Yuna Kim had landed her first triple. Two years later, she won the South Korean national title. I was never going to make it to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. Yesterday, as I watched Yuna Kim cry after her free skate, I realized that I was glad I never had the talent, timing, or dedication to be an Olympic figure skater. Kim once said in an interview that she was “born with a good instrument, maybe more so than talent” and she felt lucky that her “coaches noticed early on and helped [her] develop that”. You know, I’m beginning to think that her body — her good instrument — was more of a burden and her fortune was more of a curse.

My first competition ever. Nov. 1, 2002.

Though Yuna had claimed that the Sochi Winter Games were different for her because she had nothing more to prove, it was clear that she still felt the need to prove something. Unlike Plushenko, who had emerged from retirement to have the time of his life, Yuna looked miserable. She was not well prepared for the competition, only her fifth international level event since Vancouver. She did not seem to be having fun at all. When she wept after receiving her score, those were not tears of joy. When she announced her retirement, she had a “good riddance” attitude. When asked about her silver medal performance, she answered that she no longer had the motivation for gold that she had four years ago.

The question is: why in the world did Yuna participate in Sochi? Why didn’t she go out on top in Vancouver? Why did she return when it clearly wasn’t out of love for the sport? In contrast to Carolina Kostner, who’d waited four years to redeem her disastrous Vancouver skate, Yuna’s comeback seemed futile. Not futile in the sense that she had accomplished nothing, but futile in the sense that she gained little from it on a personal level. I imagine that the explanation is simple — she competed in Sochi because she could. Because she still had the ability to win silver, because she could have taken gold if she’d pushed herself more or if Adelina Sotnikova hadn’t skated the program of her life.

Yuna Kim and others like her have taught me an important lesson. When you have the capacity to accomplish great things, you will make history if you dedicate your life to your gift. But at what cost? Sometimes, it’s okay to recognize your talent and choose to do nothing with it. Or to only share it with your close friends and family. When I’m feeling the most cynical, I wonder if the primary requirement for greatness is a fundamental unhappiness. Only when driven by dissatisfaction or fear or insecurity, do people become presidents, billionaires, athletes.

My whole life, my parents have drilled another lesson into me: you must not waste your talent. When I showed promise for art, my mom signed me up for painting classes. When I started writing my first novel in fourth grade, my mother urged me to submit to short story contests. When I decided to apply for law school, my father began to wonder about my starting salary. In the past few years, I’ve struggled to find my own idea of success. For a while, I pursued my parents’ version of it, and the result was a destructive ambition that left me unfulfilled even as I achieved much. Now, as I’m preparing to graduate with an uncertain future ahead of me, I’m pursuing a different success. Success, to me, is being able to enjoy all of my accomplishments. It’s being able to enjoy the accomplishments that only I know about. It’s being able to abandon a goal, not because I don’t have the ability for it, but because I am not obligated to fulfill my every potential.

What is your definition of success? Do you think you’ve achieved it?

À la prochaine,

R

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