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U.S. Olympian Kay Poe (center) and best friend Esther Kim. PUBLIC DOMAIN

This feature was the cover story for the September 2000 issue of the KoreAm Journal, a magazine chronicling the Korean-American experience.

On the cover
A GOLDEN SACRIFICE
Esther Kim’s unlikely path to Olympic triumph

Inside
FRIENDS COME FIRST
Esther Kim’s act of sacrifice leads to a different path to gold

By Ed Odeven

As the taekwondo competitions heat up at the Sydney Olympics in late September, Esther Kim will be sitting in the stands and cheering for her best friend Kay Poe. If not for a fateful decision by Kim, the two women may have found themselves in dramatically different circumstances.

On May 20, two taekwondo standouts, Esther Kim and Kay Poe, were scheduled to fight in the flyweight division finals at the U.S. Olympic Trials at the United States Olympic Complex in Colorado Springs, Colo. Poe, however, had dislocated her left kneecap in the semifinals and was in no condition to fight Kim.

Instead of quickly defeating the injured Poe in the ring and earning a trip to Sydney, Australia, Kim, 20, acted with her heart. She forfeited the match and effectively gave away her dream to Poe, who would now have the opportunity to represent the United States in the 2000 Summer Olympics.

“I never really thought about it. It kind of came up in a heartbeat,” says Kim. “It was emotional. It was an unfair situation to fight your best friend who can’t even stand up. I felt it was the only decision to be made and I made it. I felt the right thing to do was bow out.”

Initially, Poe balked at Kim’s decision, but ultimately accepted her friend’s sacrifice at Kim’s urging:

“I told her, ‘You’re not asking me, I’m telling you. It’s unfair to fight like this. You will have the gold medal around your neck, and I feel inside I have a gold medal in my heart,’ ” says Kim. “There are other ways to be a champion. A real martial artist is a champion every day in life, too.”

In retrospect, Poe, 18, admits she’s uncertain if she would have made the same sacrifice by forfeiting the match had the circumstances been reversed.

“I really don’t know if I would’ve done the same thing. I guess that’s why it was so hard to accept it,” Poe says. “I just feel blessed. This is just amazing. It’ll make us appreciate each other even more.”

Kim’s actions and her friendship with Poe have been chronicled by media over the world, including The Associated Press and People magazine. Kim was recently named U.S. Olympic Committee Female Athlete of the Year. She was also recognized at a June banquet, hosted by USA Today in Arlington, Va., by the Citizenship Through Sports Alliance. She was one of 11 athletes given the Citizenship Through Sports Award, an honor bestowed upon individuals who “exemplify values of citizenship, sportsmanship, ethical conduct and community service.”

Influential people also heard about Kim’s sacrifice. Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), was so impressed with Kim that he invited her to attend the Olympics as Poe’s guest. As a result, Kim will now watch the taekwondo competition from Sept. 27 to 30 in Sydney Olympic Park at the State Sports Centre. The IOC’s invitation will give Kim, her father Jin Won and her brother an all-expenses paid trip to Australia.

Samaranch’s invitation was a surprise for Kim.

“It was very shocking,” Kim recalls. “Actually, he called and woke me up. When I found out it was him, I woke up the whole family. I think I got up too fast. I got light-headed.

“It really hit me, his giving me the opportunity to be at the Olympics. I feel like that’s part of a completion of my dream, my Olympic dream,” says Kim.

“I’ve worked so hard for the Olympic Trials. I feel now I can really say I know how an Olympian feels even without competing, because I feel a part of Kay’s going to be out there competing for both of us.”

And knowing her best friend will be in attendance should help Poe feel more relaxed.

“It’s a cool feeling. I need all the support I can get,” says Poe, who won her first U.S. National Taekwondo Championships gold medal in 1996 and has been a perennial medal finalist in various U.S. and international competitions ever since.

“We’ve always been like family,” says Kim. “I feel like I am fighting in the Olympics because of her will be fighting for me. I’ll be pushing for her, actually the both of us, as far as her performance out there.”

Kim and Poe have been best friends ever since they met 13 years ago at a Halloween party at Kim’s father’s taekwondo school.

“She was dressed up as a ninja, and I didn’t know if this little person was a boy or a girl because she was completely covered. All you could see were her eyes,” Kim remembers. “I later found out that she was mad at her dad because he dad made her cut all her hair off. She was really upset. That’s why she dressed up as a ninja.”

And the shy Poe was all alone at the party.

“I think my father or her father told her to come over and play with me,” Kim says. “I don’t know what I was doing, but I turned and some little girl slipped her hand in my hand. And she held my hand for the rest of the night.”

“After that I think we were inseparable,” says Poe.

***

Kim recent returned from a trip to Korea where she met members of the local press. All this attention has left the college student very little time to reflect on her life-changing decision and to contemplate the future. She says she’s uncertain if she’ll attempt to make the 2004 U.S. Olympic taekwondo squad.

“I haven’t had a chance to think,” she says during a recent phone conversation. “I think the more I talk about it and the more I tell other people about it, it kind of reminds me of what I did. So in a way, every day I’m looking back at it because I’m talking about it every day.”

Any regrets?

“I think with the decision I made we made it possible for two winners to come out of that division,” Kim says.

While many folks have praised and admired Kim for what she did, some people questioned her choice, including a former taekwondo master who now resides in Korea.

“He was upset with my decision,” Kim says. “He said, ‘Kay’s got plenty of time. She’s only 18. You’re at the peak age. She should’ve bowed out to you, blah, blah, blah…”

But that thought didn’t enter Kim’s mind.

“At the time I wasn’t thinking about that, and even now I still don’t regret anything. I still would not go back and change anything.”

Poe’s father was also surprised by Kim’s decision.

“Her father was very shocked,” Kim recalls. “He just kept asking me, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure? Are you positively sure?’ Right when I told him, ‘That’s it. I’m doing it,’ he just said it was the gutsiest thing he’d ever seen. (Poe’s) mother said, ‘You’ve showed us the wonderful character in you.”

***

Kim, born in Cleveland, settled with her family in Houston in 1984. Her father, a Korean immigrant, was actively involved with taekwondo in his native land and continued that occupation in the United States. In Houston, he opened his own school.

Although taekwondo provided the livelihood for Kim’s father, he never forced his offspring to get involved in it.

“He never made us kids do anything we didn’t want to do,” she says. “Whatever decision that we make, he’s always behind us 110 percent because we’re his children. He loves us unconditionally and he wants to support us and make us happy.

Well, except maybe for the piano.

“Every Korean kid does the piano,” she remarks. “We got caught up in that. I did piano for eight years. I quit because (taekwondo training) took up so much time. I couldn’t do piano because, you know how Korean parents are, they want you to practice two hours a day. I never had time to do piano.”

Kim got involved in taekwondo when she was a bored 6-year-old who spent a lot of time watching her brother and sister doing it. A childhood chum, Maria, also talked her into trying it out.

“She persuaded me pretty well. She told me how much fun it was. So I tried it, and started to love it,” Kim recalls.

As Kim grew older, she became increasingly focused and interested in taekwondo. In 1994, she quit all her other extracurricular activities and focused solely on being a top-notch taekwondo athlete.

In 1998, when her father moved his school to Austin, Texas, Kim and Poe began training on a regular basis with Seok Woo Kim, an influential figure in her life. According to Kim, this tough instructor pushed her and taught her many new moves that helped her become a complete taekwondo fighter.

In the past, Kim said she was just going through the motions during her matches.

“I think from ’94 to ’98, I was always scared to let go — to go in the ring and completely let go; just go out there and do my best. I don’t think I really had a fire going inside of me,” she recalls.

“(Grandmaster Kim) completely broke that. I can’t even tell you how bad he broke us in to the point where you had to want to fight. You had no choice. But it was something like, ‘Oh, this is what I was missing in life.’ And it was something new, something exciting.”

Fortunately, Kim and Poe had each other’s support and company to help acclimate to the demands of their master.

“If it weren’t for her support, we wouldn’t be here,” Poe says. “She’s a great partner. She’s real fast, always made it bearable.”

During these times of grueling workouts, Kim drastically cut back on her caloric consumption, and her mother expressed concerns for her daughter’s health. “In 1996, she wanted me to stop because I was cutting so much weight, and she hated seeing me starve and want food so bad,” Kim says. “The only thing I would have was raw vegetables and broiled chicken, and I couldn’t drink. It was bad.”

But over the years, Kim became enamored with the competitive spirit and discipline taekwondo offers.

“It’s just an awesome thrill to put everything together in the ring. I love it. You’re letting everything go,” she explains. “You’re out there for one reason, you’re out there for a job, you take care of business. It’s just an awesome feeling when you do take care of business. And even if you’re not (winning), you’re still learning from your experiences, still learning from your matches.”

Taekwondo has also taught Kim to be a hard-nosed competitor willing to ignore injuries whenever possible. “If I’m standing on both feet, I’m able to (fight),” she says. “That’s the mentality of it.”

Nowadays, when she’s not busy juggling the many obligations and expectations of this newfound fame, Kim is a college student at the University of Houston. She hasn’t declared a major yet, but lists sociology, business, drama and political science as options she’s exploring. In addition, Kim says if time permits, she’d also like to pursue acting. It’s something she really enjoys but hasn’t had time for.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even put an effort into meeting people,” she admits. “I’m not going to have time to hang out.”

Naysayers told Kim that high school should be about joining numerous school-related activities.

“Everyone told me you’re going to regret it if you don’t go to the prom,” she says. “You’re going to regret it if you don’t do all these extracurricular activities. … But I think overall it’s all been worth it.”

And despite their active lifestyles and sometimes conflicting schedules, Kim and Poe still find time to hang out on a daily basis.

Poe plans to move to New York City this fall to attend college. Yet even though Kim will be in Houston and Poe in the Big Apple, that special bond forged many years ago on Halloween won’t vanish despite the distance between them.

“We’ll always be in contact. We’ll always be close,” Poe says.

Friends really are more important than victories.