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

LD: Day 2

Rebecca Cao DiplomatThis post is part of Le Diplomate series, in which I will chronicle my travel joys and tribulations as an intern for the U.S. Department of State at the U.S. OECD in Paris.

Well, I hadn’t planned on blogging every day, but now that I have so much time on my hands, I might as well! I just came back from a lovely stroll around my neighborhood with my best friend, a 35-mm Minolta camera. Although I had wanted to take candids of the intriguing Parisians on the streets, this proved particularly difficult without a digital camera. My thought process: oh hey, what a great outfit! Picture, picture, picture. Focus lens. Shoot, need to adjust exposure. Ah, now aperture. Wait, where’d she go?! Aw, man.

At one point, I stationed myself outside the Victor Hugo Metro stop, where I’d seen tons of people emerge last night. As soon as I positioned myself, though, everybody disappeared! Just my luck. Eventually, I wandered back to my apartment on Rue de Longchamp and managed to get a good shot of an elderly woman moving slowly enough for me to catch her.

The view from the Victor Hugo metro stop.

I made several observations during my trek. Firstly, Parisian fashion isn’t incredibly outrageous or anything. It’s not like everyone’s wearing stilettos and red lipstick 24/7. People just make more of an effort to be presentable. The women are huge fans of blazers and the men can actually pull off scarves. One major difference I noticed is that Parisians dress to show off their clothes, not their bodies. On a sunny day like this, everyone in Ann Arbor would be pulling out their shorts and low-cut tank tops, but in Paris most people are in long shirts and pants.

Secondly, I noticed a particular dynamic that’s very different from what I’m used to. Though the 20th century did much for American women, I still feel that the U.S. is quite a patriarchal society. In France, however, the men tend to disappear into the background while the women are in the spotlight. When I was in Spain, I saw many more attractive men than I see here. I don’t think this is because Spaniards are hotter than Frenchmen; it’s because Frenchmen aren’t as visible. Thirdly, the empowered Parisian woman’s strength also extends to her family. On one hand, the average American mother has little control over her average American teen daughter. On the other hand, the well-dressed, confident, and savvy French mother is way cooler than her awkward teen daughter, who has much to learn from her maman. Whereas youth and immaturity are glamorized in America, age and wisdom are revered in France.

Now, it is time the women’s final of the French Open! Yesterday, while I was watching the Nadal/Ferrer match, it started to pour outside and then I was surprised to see that there was a rain delay on TV too. The fact that I am a mere walk from Roland-Garros is still blowing my mind.

What are some cultural differences you’ve come across in your travels? Did those lead you to appreciate or criticize your own culture?

À bientôt,

R

LD: Bonjour Paris!

Rebecca Cao DiplomatThis post is part of Le Diplomate series, in which I will chronicle my travel joys and tribulations as an intern for the U.S. Department of State at the U.S. OECD in Paris.

After a nightmarish week in which I finally received my security clearance, booked my flight to Paris (leaving on Wednesday!), scrambled to find housing, was scammed by an Englishman, and eventually established housing plans with a Frenchwoman I sincerely hope is real, I now await my departure. Right now, this wait entails procrastination on the packing front and cheering on my boy Tsonga in the French Open.

In fact, Roland-Garros is a mere 25 minutes from my apartment in the 16th arrondissement. If I were rich, or had not gotten scammed perhaps, I would have died at the opportunity to watch the French live. Only, of course, Tsonga makes it through this match against Wawrinka.

Right now, I’m trying not to think too much about my impending arrival in Paris because I probably wouldn’t be able to sleep then. Although I’ve known about this internship since December of last year, it wasn’t until I purchased my plane ticket that I actually believed I was going. Now, the fact that I will be in Paris the day after tomorrow is just blowing my mind. I’ve traveled before, but always with family, and to either China or Taiwan. The only time I’ve been to Europe is to Spain on a study abroad trip, with a group of Americans.

I feel like this is my first real traveling experience. I will be entirely on my own, which excites me now but will probably end up being quite a challenge. It’s an absolutely amazing feeling — to dream for so long, to study a language, to understand a culture, and to finally be able to experience it all in person.

You see, my two concentrations (Romance Languages and International Studies) serve different purposes. Whereas the former is personal, the latter is professional. On one hand, I study languages because I love them and no matter how many exams and papers I have to endure, they never become work. On the other hand, I pursue International Studies because I want to become a diplomat and sometimes exams and papers are very painful.

In this case, for my internship in Paris, I simultaneously get to go to la ville of my dreams and have the job of my dreams. This is as good as it gets for me, I realize, because officers in the foreign service don’t get a cushy assignment like Paris until decades into their career. I will thoroughly enjoy this while it lasts, and remember to share it with all of you!

Do you feel like you’re living your dreams? What are your summer plans?

Au revoir,

R

P.S. Tsonga won! Allez les bleus.

Li Na Won the French!

Li Na made history this morning by becoming the first Chinese woman to win a singles Grand Slam title. She will advance to no. 4 in the world, tied for the highest spot ever achieved by an Asian player. At 29 years old, she’s also the fifth oldest Grand Slam winner. I didn’t get to watch the match, electing to faire la grasse matinée (sleep in) until now.

Did you watch the match? What are your thoughts on this historic win?

Ciao,

R

Nadal Trounced Murray!

Roland Garros is rolling to the finals! I was pleased to see that Nadal had effectively trounced Murray in the semi-finals today. I’m not a huge fan of Nadal’s, but he has earned my respect for making Federer cry and it’s always wonderfully entertaining to watch him pick at his perpetual wedgie. However, I hate Murray with a passion. I’m not a fan of the way he plays and his face just screams douche-bag to me. If I’ve offended any Murray fans, I’m sorry. And you can take pleasure in the fact that my favorite player is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, A.K.A. underachieving frustration of the decade.

Also, in more tennis news, Li Na is in the women’s final. Yeah China, represent! She is a very fascinating player who plays like none other–because she doesn’t have the sheer power or height advantage of players like the Williams sisters and Sharapova, she relies on quick thinking and strategy. I’m excited to watch her play at 9:00 am tomorrow against Francesca Schiavone. Francesca is one of my favorite female players, though, so I guess I’ll just have to root for a good contest.

Finally, Federer and Djokovic is coming up later this afternoon. I think the match is on the Djoker’s racket. Prediction: Djoker in straights.

*UPDATE* Holy crap I totally jinxed Djokovic. Fed and Djoker look like they’re on their way to a five-setter.

**UPDATE** Wow, I didn’t get to see much of the match but from what I saw it was awesome. Congrats to Fed on pulling through; looks like we’ll have another Fed/Nadal showdown in the finals!

Do any of you follow tennis? Who are your favorite players?

À bientôt,

R