South Korea celebrates Kim gold

South Koreans watch a TV program broadcasting South Korea's Kim Yu-na as she performs during the women's figure skating competition at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. / AP photo

JEAN H. LEE, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) " For five minutes, all of South Korea held its breath " and then broke out into a deafening stampede of cheers as their Queen Yu-na made figure skating history.

The entire nation watched from offices, subway trains and packed restaurants Friday as Kim Yu-na added "Olympic champion" to her list of titles with a flawless, joyful free skate in Vancouver.

"Yes, you could say that some people are obsessed with Kim Yu-na, but we're like that as a country," said Yoo Sul-gi, 28, an intern watching the competition at a Seoul restaurant. "When we Koreans like someone, we really like them."

And as tears of relief flowed down Kim's face, there was not a dry eye in sight.

"I felt a lump in my throat when I saw Yu-na crying," said Lee Ji-soo, 24, watching the competition at a rink where Kim once trained.

"It was overwhelming," said teary college student Chung Jay-chul, 19, watching at a Seoul hospital where doctors and patients stopped to see Kim skate. "I kept saying over and over to my friend sitting next to me, 'That was amazing.'"

The Vancouver Olympics have been historic for the South Koreans, who won their first medals in speedskating in addition to the usual collection from short-track speedskating.

But it was Kim's bid for the figure skating gold that had the nation on edge.

All week, all anyone could talk about was Kim Yu-na and her rivalry with Japan's Mao Asada. Would Yu-na cave in under the pressure? Would Mao land her high-scoring triple axel?

The nation came to a standstill for 168 seconds when Kim skated her short program earlier in the week. Trading dipped at the stock exchange, office workers abandoned their computers and commerce came to a halt as everyone gathered around TV sets to watch.

"Yu-na: Perfect. South Korea is overjoyed," read one headline the next day as she took the lead.

Kim " determined, graceful, generous and playful " is South Korea's biggest sports star, with $8 million in endorsements and the kind of adulation reserved for royalty. You can eat Yu-na bread, wash your clothes with Yu-na fabric softener, drink Yu-na milk.

The cell phones she advertises are in hot demand, and the crown earrings she wears have made jeweler J. Estina a killing.

She has made experts of South Koreans largely unfamiliar with figure skating until she turned it into a local obsession. And coach Brian Orser is a star as well: He appeared in a TV commercial alongside his famous pupil, and broadcaster SBS aired clips of his rinkside jumps and leaps as Kim performed.

At Kim's high school in Gunpo, north of Seoul, students on spring vacation gathered to watch their most famous alumna.

They recalled how the school principal created a winter sports club for his gawky but ambitious young skating prodigy. He later set aside a Hall of Fame that includes Kim's first skates.

Hundreds flocked to Seoul's main train station hours early to stake out a spot in front of large-screen TVs, screaming "Go Queen Yu-na!" and "Go Korea! The one, the only, incomparable Yu-na!"

They waited, hands clasped in prayer, biting their nails and refusing to budge. The nervousness was palpable as she skated out, taking a big gulp as she got into position for her free skate to George Gershwin.

Girls watching on a big screen at Mokdong ice rink screamed and clapped every time Kim landed her jumps cleanly.

"When she was doing the flips and jumps, my stomach did just the same," said middle school student Yoon Ha-eun.

Her final flourish had the entire audience up on its feet cheering and trading hugs. Confetti fluttered in the air at news that she set a new world record again, a score Asada came nowhere near touching.

"She's just so breathtaking. You watch her and you feel like you're skating with her," said Kim Yeon-jeong, 31, who brought her two young sons to watch. "It's nerve-wracking for us " imagine how it is for her."

Those who couldn't make it to a TV set found other ways to watch. On subways, eyes were glued to cellphones broadcasting the competition live. Those without access leaned over to watch their neighbor's phone.

"She's such a remarkable girl. She's our pride and joy," said one woman, sheepishly drying her eyes.

Even President Lee Myung-bak watched Kim skate. He sent her a congratulatory message for winning the gold, his office said.

"I'm just amazed by her ability to stand up against the immense pressure at such a young age," said Lee Dong-woo, 30.

He hailed the girl from Gunpo who went from humble roots to become Queen Yu-na. "She embodies the Korean saying 'A dragon rises from the stream.'"


Associated Press writers Esther Hong, Hongkeun Jeon and Nathaniel L. Kim in Seoul, and Sangwon Yoon in Gunpo, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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