Esther Kim had a lifelong dream to win Olympic Gold in taekwondo, which she had nurtured ever since she was a child and first began training with her father at his Houston, Texas studio.
When she was six, Esther met her soon to be best friend and close training partner, Kay Poe at a Halloween party hosted by the taekwondo studio. They were seasonal teammates at first, but as they grew, both girls spent more and more time together. They constantly hung out together, talked on the phone until their parents kicked them off, and planned all sorts of “minor league” mischief.
Early in their taekwondo training they made a pact with each other and Esther’s dad, Jin Won Kim, that if one of them made it to the Olympics, they would both feel like Olympians, and if one of them won a gold medal, then they would both feel like champions.
Their pact and relationship came to a surprising head in Colorado Springs last May (2000) when 20 year old Kim and 18 year old Poe had to fight each other in the finals of Olympic Trials to decide which one would go on to represent the United States at the Sydney Games. Best friends as opponents, with each standing in the way of the other’s dream. The situation was further complicated by what had happened to Poe in her semi-final match against another major contender, Mandy Maloon. With just two minutes remaining in the third and final round, Poe’s left knee had cracked into Maloon’s, leaving Poe rolling on the mat in excruciating pain with a dislocated kneecap. Hobbled by the collision, Poe still managed to end the fight in a draw and was awarded the trip to the finals because she had been more aggressive in the bout.
Now with the finals in front of them, and no additional time allowed by the judges to rest Poe’s injured knee, the two girls were about to face off against each other. As she sat in the holding area, downstairs from the crowd, Kim saw her coach-father carry her best friend down the short flight of stairs and deposit her in the adjacent chair. Poe’s knee was so bad she couldn’t even make the descent on her own power! Kim looked at her friend’s knee, swelling by the second and figured there was no way her best friend could fight. She thought of all the hard work Kay had put in and how her good friend had overcome a height disadvantage to become number one in the world in her weight class. Kim also thought about her own dream and her obsession over the years with winning Olympic Gold.
Then Kim made a totally unexpected, courageous and Olympian decision. Her father had always taught her that the true purpose of martial arts training was to better prepare the practitioner to lead a good life, not necessarily to win bouts. Her father had been drilling this into her and his students for as long as she could remember. Jin Won Kim placed a high premium on building character rather than just someone who wins matches. Being a champion in daily life was what was really important.
Kim told her friend that she was conceding the bout and the spot on the Olympic team to her because it was the right thing to do and because she felt her friend deserved the spot more than she did! If her friend won Gold than they would both share in the glory! Despite Poe’s protests, Kim refused to change her mind. Beating her best friend-opponent while she was this badly injured would not make Kim feel like a winner. This act of friendship and sacrifice would!
Kim’s courage and sportsmanship was truly unusual. There are very few parents, coaches and athletes today who could have pulled this off. Her values were rock solid, as was her understanding of what makes a true winner. Esther Kim is a true Olympian, a real heroine.