After recent negotiations with its Southern neighbour, North Korea will be sending athletes to the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, beginning Feb. 8. Among the North Korean delegation are two athletes with a special connection to Canada: After spending last summer training with Canadian figure skating coach Bruno Marcotte in Montreal, Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik will compete in pairs figure skating at the Games.
Ryom and Kim approached Marcotte at the World Championships in Helsinki last year, and asked him if he would be willing to work with them. Marcotte agreed, and the trio spent eight weeks training together.
“I gave them a lot of technical advice, and some strategy advice as far as how to maximize the number of points [received when they] compete,” Marcotte said. “I did a lot of mental work with them, to work on their confidence and make them believe in what they could eventually accomplish.”
During training sessions, Marcotte communicated with Ryom and Kim through a North Korean companion who had figure skating experience and could speak English. Over the course of the eight weeks, Marcotte was impressed by the duo’s work ethic and aptitude for learning.
“Their willingness to [learn meant that] there [were] no boundaries basically,” Marcotte said. “You say what’s in your mind, and they just want to take it in [….] Their work ethic is great, but work ethic is [just] one thing […. Seeing] their mental approach to the correction, […] trying to apply the correction and trying to make the coaches proud by [being] better every day. That was something else.”
When it was announced that the duo would attend the 2018 Olympics, Marcotte was delighted. What’s more, Ryom and Kim qualified based on their own skill—the only athletes from North Korea to earn a spot in the Olympics through the traditional route. Once you strip away the politics surrounding their country, Marcotte explained, you see that they are world-class skaters.
“They deserve to be there,” Marcotte said. “Once people get to know them and see them perform, they’re going to find that they’re two very extremely charismatic skaters. They perform with so much passion and emotion that people will quickly forget where they’re from and why they’re watching them.”
After training with Marcotte, Ryom and Kim will be taking a piece of Canada with them to PyeongChang: For their free skate, the North Korean skaters are performing to the song, “Je ne suis qu’une chanson,” by Ginette Reno, a Quebecois icon.
“[Reno’s] voice is so powerful, as she sings with her heart and her emotion,” Marcotte explained. “It’s exactly the way we [felt that they skated].”
For Marcotte, sharing a little Canadian and Montreal flavour with the North Korean skaters was an extremely rewarding experience.
“I love to share my love for this town I live in, this country that I’m from,” Marcotte said. “Any time that the world can be exposed to a local flavour you know, whether it’s Leonard Cohen or Ginette Reno or whatever […] for me it’s always something special.”
In the face of the media buzz surrounding the two skaters, Marcotte emphasized that, ultimately, his focus was always on the skaters and what he could offer them as a coach.
“My role is […] to help them out to reach their dream, and at the end of the day, […] no matter what the situation or the media attention, that I don’t forget who I am and what is my job,” Marcotte said. “It’s […] to inspire them and [help] them be better athletes.”
Although Marcotte won’t coach Ryom and Kim in PyeongChang, he is still excited to support them in person while they compete.
“They asked me to be there for them in the Games, which I will,” Marcotte said. “I have actually two Canadian pair teams and a South Korean team that I coach, so it’s just a matter of managing everybody. But I will give them all my support any way I can over there.”