Japan Skates' interview with Brian Orser on his training of Yu-Na Kim at Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club October 24, 2007

By Mark S., (c) Japan Skates 2007.

For photos from the interview, please click HERE!

An interview with Korean superstar Yu-Na Kim has been on Japan Skates' "wish list" ever since the World Junior championships in Kitchener, Ontario, in February of 2005.  Her free skate to "Papa Can You Hear Me?" made believers out of us.   Two-and-a-half years later, Yu-Na has more than delivered on her promise in the senior ranks.  She is the world bronze medallist, a favourite to medal at the next Olympics, a hero in her native Korea and one of the top rivals of the Japanese team.

Immediately following the 2006 season, Yu-Na started training with Canadian skating legend Brian Orser at the Cricket, Skating and Curling Club in Toronto.  The partnership was made long-term following last year's Skate Canada in Victoria.  I had made Brian's acquaintance back in early August while scheduling the interview at the Cricket Club with Yukina.  When I saw him at Thornhill Summer Skate later in the month, I asked if we could talk to Yu-Na and he agreed to an early October interview, after she had wrapped up some appearances in Korea and her photoshoot for International Figure Skating magazine.  Our reasons for wanting to interview Yu-Na were primarily our admiration for her skating and an interest in her life in Canada and partnership with Brian.  We were also sure that Japan Skates' readers would be interested in learning more about one of the world's most important skaters, and one whose story will no doubt be entwined with that of the top Japanese lady skaters in the coming years.

As it turned out, the timing of the interview ended up being a little too close to the start of the competitive season for Yu-Na's and her family's comfort level, but she graciously agreed to a meet-and-greet session with us, with Brian generously offering to do the interview on her behalf.  In this conversation, I sought to learn more about Yu-Na and her relationship with her coach.  I avoided asking for specific details on her back injury and the jump combinations she was preparing for this season, since 1) this information is on public record (or soon will be) and 2) I did not want to make the interview appear to be a mere information-gathering session for a resource that deals with her toughest competitors.  I hope that the conversational and friendly style of the meeting will appeal to our readers and help them get to know and appreciate better this dynamic coach-student partnership.

JS:  Japan Skates
BR:  Brian Orser

JS:  What led you to becoming Yu-Na's coach?  Was it her decision, or the Korean Federation's?

BR:  She came here to work with David Wilson for last year's free program.  That was just the beginning of May, and she came for three weeks.  Her coach at the time had asked me to work on triple Axel and triple loop and to keep an eye on her, so I did, and I taught her each day.  And then, after she was finished with her program, I found out from our skating co-ordinator that she had just signed up for the whole summer.   So that was good.  And we were over on the curling rink; that's a small rink so she never even got a taste of the (figure skating) rink.  She wanted to stay, so I adjusted my schedule to fit her in, and she stayed for the summer.  At the end of the summer they had asked me to be her coach, and I had to say "no" at the beginning because I still had touring obligations, and it's hard to run around and go back and forth and do things.  So I had to turn down that opportunity.  But they still wanted me to go to Skate Canada with her.  And at Skate Canada they asked me again to be her coach.  Her mom, that is, her mom and Yu-Na through a translator.   They call all the shots.  So after a few times that she'd asked me to coach, that's when I really made my decision to do my last tour and make the transition.  Because I already had this job here; I was directing the program here at the club and everything was pointing to being a full-time coach.  And with Yu-Na... they were quite persistent, so I made the decision and said "yes".

JS:  I sounds like you had a good personal rapport and chemistry with Yu-Na during your trial period.

BR:  Yeah!  It was interesting because there was a language issue because obviously I don't speak Korean and she wasn't speaking English at the time.  So.. it was kind of nice, actually!  We had sort of worked with the visual, physical movements that I could just tell by eye contact whether she understands what I'm trying to get across. And she is technically so sound there was not a whole lot I needed to do.  What I find I do mainly is now I'm just kind of managing, and making sure that she is on track, and that she has everything that she needs to be the best in the world, whether it's physiotherapy, and with ice, and just a really good condition and a place for her to work.   Listen to Brian

JS:  How is her English now, and her confidence?

BR:  Her English is great!  It's funny but actually she came here about a month before Worlds.   In the final stretch to Worlds, she had had her braces taken off, and she was like a different person.  She had such confidence and she was smiling.  And most of those pictures when she was a junior, she never smiled with her mouth open and now she has a beautiful smile and she has a really good relationship with her mother and she seems to be a much more mature young woman now, and not a really good junior girl.    Listen to Brian

JS:  Is she living here with her mother?

BR:  The mother, and she has her trainer, who is also her massage therapist, her physiotherapist.  So that person plays a lot of roles.  She does all of her training with her, she gets her warmed up, she warms her down, she keeps her on schedule - where she needs to be, she helps manage the pain from her back.  So this is one thing she didn't have last year.  So it's been such a huge difference.

JS:  In addition to you and her therapist, is there anybody else involved in her training?

BR:  David Wilson does the choreography.  And Astrid Jensen, she helps with the spins; she's one of the other coaches here.  So we have someone who's the "spin doctor" and making sure that everything is to the levels and to the requirements that are needed, because the ISU are changing the rules, you know, weekly, and I know at Skate America there are some things up for review and some clarification on some footwork issues, so we're always trying to stay on top of that.  So we're always making adjustments, and David Wilson is always making adjustments in order to make sure we've got all the levels.

JS:  They say that to teach is to learn twice; what have you gained from the experience and your relationship with Yu-Na?

BR:  Well, I've just been so fortunate to have such a great talent and the only thing I need to do with her is I have to slow her down some times.  Because she has come from a history of working so hard and so many hours, I think the mentality has been for them "more is better" and you get to a level where less is better so you're well rested.  I mean, you have to train hard, of course.  And I'm also, just from my own experience being a world champion, and training, and what it takes...  She certainly has what it takes, so I just help manage her, and keep her happy, and create an opportunity for her.

JS:  (Gigi asking) Is she in school here?

BR:  I  know that after world's last year, she had to stay back at home and do some exams.  I don't think she's pursuing school right now, unless she's doing it by correspondence.   So the only schooling would be doing the English lessons.

JS:  The time limit for you coaching her...is that open right now?  Indefinite?

BR:  I believe the goal is through Olympics...that's been the plan so far!  You know what, I really know that I've helped her a lot and it's working and she has improved a huge amount from last year to this year in every area.  And collectively we do that... it's not like I'm out there cracking the whip.  I recognize the area that needs to be improved, and I help make that happen, whether it's getting the right spin person in, or somebody to help with the spirals and to make sure that David is on track.

We then took a break as Brian, David and Yu-Na checked out the newly-delivered costumes for her short program.  They were enthusiastically received!

JS:  What went into her deciding on her music for this season?

BR:  In the short program, it's a waltz by Strauss ("Die Fledermaus").  It's just very lyrical and I think it's perfect for her, especially for a short program which is the spins and the spirals, and then of course the elements, the tricks, as far as the jumps go, it all fits in perfect for her.   And then we found this really great version of "Miss Saigon" for the long - it's a piano concerto version of it.  It's powerful and it's intense and it's lovely and she knows the story, so that's the free program.

JS:  It sounds like has a fair bit of input.  Did she choose the programs?

BR:  Ah (chuckles)...we encourage her to look for music and then David usually has the best ideas, so we always have to create an environment to make a really great sales pitch.  So we never say "This is it", we kind of help her build a program that's fabulous and we put it on the ice and we skate around to it.  David is really good at doing the sales pitch, so when he believes in something, it's full steam ahead!

JS:  It's hard to turn that down, I'm sure!

BR:  Yeah, when he has that much enthusiasm!  So he just put both these programs together.  She had another idea for the short, but David had the idea for the waltz, which she had not even thought of.  So we had maybe ten or twelve waltz ideas, so we narrowed it down, and they were all good choices, and she loves them.  They're really stunning.

JS:  This season, is there one area of improvement that she's looking to achieve?

BR:  Ah, the spiral sequence is much better this year... it's just the flexibility, and just her consistency... she's much stronger this year, physically stronger; she's taller.   And she's just really solid this year.  Last year, heading into some of the events, you know... you kind of hold your breath in a couple spots.  This time, I have just all the confidence because of the training, and she backs up the training... I mean she just did a clean short and long in the last session.  And she'll go out in the next session and do the same again, two longs and two shorts, boom boom!  And then she runs through all the jumps afterwards, and she'll do the stroking afterwards, and I do it with her, so it's good for me too.  She just has incredible stamina.

JS:  You mentioned her growth spurt.  Have you had to readjust anything?  Has it been difficult for her?

BR:  No, it's been great.  Because of the trainer and the physical therapist, I think they have been strengthening alongside of her growth spurt, so there hasn't been one problem at all and it hasn't thrown off her jumps at all.  The extra training that they have been doing, which has been daily for three or four hours a day, it shows up in the jumps.   But she's just really solid.

JS:  Is there a specific goal in terms of scores or placement this season?

BR:  She'll never commit to that.   I've heard her do interviews, and I've read some interviews, and she always seems to be very flattered when she gets the great scores, and she's always surprised.   When they ask if she wants to win, she just wants to skate well.  It's admirable... do I think she wants to win?  Of course I think she wants to win.  I think she has that in her, as far as her desire to compete... to win, her desire to know exactly what her competition is doing, and where they are, she knows (chuckles)!

JS:  (Gigi asking) So in your training plans, you actually go through other people's programs, and analyze what she needs to do?

BR:  No... we analyze a little bit what is being done with other people, and I think she is constantly on YouTube.  But I was the same way too, I always had an interest in what Brian Boitano was doing, you know, what his program was and what is music selection was and what his choreography was like and who did it, and where they're training, you know?   And she does the same...that's just because she's a good competitor. And you can't dismiss that, you have to be on top of that, especially nowadays.

JS:   Can you describe a typical training day in Yu-Na's life when she's here in Toronto?

BR:  Well, I see her only at the rink, and socially we don't mix at all...  We've gone to dinner a couple of times when maybe her agent's in town, but David has socialized more with her and has taken her to see some theatre, but I only see her here.  I'm always in here in the morning because I teach in the morning and I'll see her wander in around 10:15 to be on the ice at 12:15.  She has two hours of off-ice training and warming up, then she'll do an hour and a quarter on the ice, hard, intense, and then she'll have her break right now, which is lunch and a rest.  Then she comes out and skates again for another hour and a half.  Then they go back to the gym again for at least an hour.  Then they'll go home, and I'm guessing they'll do massage and any kind of hands-on treatment.

JS:  And this will be five days, or six days?

BR:  Five days of that type of thing, and on Saturday we do a half day.  So she'll come in and she'll do a light warm-up or light training off the ice and then she'll do a one hour session on the ice.  And then... I have no idea what they do!

JS:  It sounds like she leads a fairly normal social life for a teenaged girl.

BR:  Yeah.  She must do some things on her computer.  I don't know if she has really any friends...  I know that she live in a community not far from here where there's a large Korean community.  I don't even know where, I've never been to their place.  They arranged all that on their own, they got their own car, they did all that, they were very organized that way.  They have all my flights and everything all organized for the competitions.

JS:  The injuries that have nagged for last year or so, is she basically beyond those?

BR:  I don't think she'll ever be beyond them, but she works ahead of the problem.  She doesn't wait until she's really injured, where last year, when she was home, around the Grand Prix Final time, is when she really got injured, and she tried to work through it, but she didn't have her massage person and her trainer and so that's where it just got beyond... it got out of control .  Now she's in control of this.  We have a pattern.  At the beginning of the week it's great.  What's today, Wednesday?  I always check before we start how's the injury, we do a scale from one to ten.  So today there was a little bit of pain; tomorrow there'll be a bit more, and then Friday it will be even more.  So we also have to plan our competition days and our weeks, and what days to rest so we can do a long program without any pain.

JS:  About the competitions... are you happy with her assignments this year?  Is she happy with what she's been given?

BR:  She's not happy with them!  She wanted to be closer to here, which is what she calls home now.  She was hoping to get a Skate America or Skate Canada...and everybody wants to do Paris!  But she had those last year, so you know what, she has to pay her dues, and she's probably low girl on the totem pole when it comes to that selection.  Because probably Mao got her first picks, and Miki got her first picks.  But she'll be fine.  It's a long way to go.  We have to go to China, and then we'll stay in Korea after that for a week, and then go to Moscow.  So we actually have all kinds of options on where to go in between, whether to go away to Russia to spend a week there, or we thought about going to Germany for a week, or going to Seoul for a week.  So we decided to go to Seoul.

JS:  It's closer to home.

BR:  Yeah, at least she gets to go home and she knows where she's going to be; I just want to make sure we know where we're going to be training and we can get the ice in a half-decent environment.

JS:  How does she deal with the tremendous surge of interest from those in Korea?

BR:  She's flattered.  It's overwhelming sometimes for me, because as you know this is a private club, so I have to be careful about people coming in, but there'll be three or four times a year when the Korean press will come.  It's organized through her agency, but we'll have three or four TV stations, then we'll have some print people, then we'll have radio people, so we'll have maybe fifteen or twenty bodies coming through the club, with the members kind of looking around like "What's going on?"  So they come out and they film her, and they also go to the gym with her, and they do the interviews with us.  At least it's organized, but there's a huge interest, that's for sure, and she handles it very well.  But I'm finding now that sometimes I have to be the "bad guy", and because we're into the final stretch of these Grand Prix's, she really wants to be just focused on her stuff.  And that's her.

JS:  Is she developing a lot of grace when dealing with the media?

BR:  Yeah...well you know what you're going to find this year?   I think it was a little frustrating for the media before, other than the Korean media, that she was just so painfully shy, but now... I know she has a sense of humour and she can answer the questions with confidence, so you'll see a difference in her...I know that, with her confidence level.

JS:  Does she feel that there's any pressure on her as a role model for Koreans to look up to?  I know you can sing a few bars of that tune... how does she feel about that?

BR:  She knows that she is a role model for all the Korean kids and also the sport of figure skating in Korea.  How she feels about that I don't know, but she does have that awareness, I know that.  Cause I've been with her now twice to Korea, and it's really incredible, and then these days with the number of kids that are skating now.  Here at the club we had, I think, eleven kids that came that skated here from Yu-Na's club, little ones, and then another nine or ten that went up to Barrie and skated in that club.  So you've got over twenty kids in summer that came and spent ten or eleven weeks, and they skated every ounce of ice they could.  Incredible!  And there were some good skaters, actually.  There was one little boy that's really, really good.  I mean, this kid's only ten years old.   But I bet you Yu-Na was doing some great things when she was ten!

JS:   Do you if she considers one performance or competition to be her career highlight to date?

BR:  She probably agrees that it was the short program last year.  That was really the only really great show-stopper that she had, I think.  She had a couple of good short programs, but not.... I mean, all the long programs were all different, from one to the next to the next.  But last year, that was a little bit frustrating, that was all because of the triple loop that she now seems to have pretty well under control, knock on wood!  So our plan this year is just to "stick to the plan".  We don't need to have all these options of "if I miss this and I do this"... she could have potentially got herself into a lot of trouble last year at Worlds because she made a few changes that could have been disaster, so she's training to do it right the first time.  That's the plan!

JS:  Do you know of any heroes or role models of Yu-Na?

BR:  No I don't actually.  I have no idea.  I've also heard that she has a great singing voice!  I didn't know that...I've never heard her sing.  I heard that about her.

JS:  Any superstitions?  Warming up?  Things she does repeatedly?

BR:  I haven't noticed anything.  Because I'm quite superstitious myself so I'd pick up on things.  We're very low-key, and that's where I came from, and that's the way I know we've got a pretty good rapport... because I'm low-key.  That's why her mother, through a translator, has said that's why they want me is because I don't say much.  I'm not in her face telling her how to do things, and fixing the Lutz or whatever, you know.  I'm there for her, and I do a lot of things around here to get things done for her.

JS:  (Gigi asking)  What is her learning style?  What works better?

BR:  Just her drive, her desire.  I think last year she was frustrated because of her injuries so she couldn't move forward as much as she wanted to.  This year, they feel that the injury in control, that they can continue to move forward, and there are no setbacks.  When she had a setback last year before Worlds, I felt so bad for her, because we could only skate twenty minutes, and that was it.  She'd literally have to get off the ice cause she couldn't even put her weight on her foot because of her back.  So it was frustrating, and I was just wanting to get her there, and hopefully adrenaline could take over.  So this year she's just moving forward and getting better.  And also this year we started working with Evelyn Hart, the very famous Canadian prima ballerina.  So there's Karen Kain and Evelyn Hart in the same genre.  And we've been bringing Evelyn in to work with Yu-Na, and it's been so great.  And they'll do sessions of three hours.  And Evelyn was like "What can I do with her?" and I said "Just you wait" and they just started working together and it was so magical, it was beautiful.  And they got it.  Yu-Na got it with her, Evelyn got it with Yu-Na and they just spoke the same international language of movement so it was really great.  So we just worked on tiny little details.  Evelyn would be on the floor over here and Yu-Na'd be on the ice.  And they've worked on tiny little things and bring out some props and things for her to feel movement; it was great.

JS:  Do you know any of her friends in skating?  I always ask the girls this.

BR:  I don't know.  But that's going to develop.  And I know that she is fairly cordial with the Japanese girls, but when I'm at an event she's usually with her mom.  But,  I mean, she just turned 17.

JS:  Regarding the rivalry with the Japanese team, it really doesn't affect her in terms of how she deals with them? 

BR:  Certainly fuels her, that's for sure! (laughs)

JS:  (Gigi)  But in a good way!

BR:  In a good way...it's great, you know what, it's like with Brian Boitano and I... at least it was only one of him, thank God!  She's got two to deal with, at least, anyway.  But it just brings the sport up.   The levels just keep going up because they're challenging each other.  Can you imagine by 2010, where these girls are going to be?  They both...all three of them have that drive.  I think two of them are a little more driven, but it's going to be great.   It's great for the sport.  I can reminisce a little bit with Yu-Na about my relationship with Boitano, and how much it just would drive me.  There were days when I really wouldn't want to get on the ice, and I thought "I bet you he's on the ice right now"!

JS:  Just a couple for you Brian.  (Referring to his rebuilt wrist)  I hear you have to make airports aware of your new hardware when you travel!

BR:  Yeah, it's fine.  It was just a little bit of a setback.  I was  just teaching and slipped, it was just one of those things.

JS:  Do you have any other students?

BR:  The girl down at the end in the red dress, she'll have a great year this year... and I have the pairs team that we saw earlier, and I have Yu-Na.  And I work with all the other kids. but I've taken on my own students pretty much.

JS:  You seem to really be at peace with your decision to stop touring and do shows.

BR:  Yeah, I'm doing this show (laughs)... someone caught me at a weak moment (referring to "Skate For The Heart" that weekend in Connecticut).  So I said 'yes' to them... kicking and screaming "I don't want to go!"  (all laugh)

Japan Skates would like to thank Brian Orser for giving us this interview at such a busy time for him.  We'd also like to thank Yu-Na for meeting with us, posing for some photos and signing autographs.  Her mom had a good laugh at the photos we had given her as a gift, which were taken at the 2005 World Juniors in Kitchener (where she had shaken like a leaf when I asked for her photo in the corridor!).

Gigi and I were invited to stay and watch her training session, which saw her work on some spins and transitional steps and successfully land a triple Salchow, triple Lutz, triple loop, triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination, and a double Axel-triple toe loop combination.  All just breath-taking to watch.  Thanks to both great champions for their time.  Yu-Na couldn't be in better hands, and we wish them both all the best.


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