By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
“I have tried to imagine what it would feel like, after all these years, to carry the Olympic flame that will soar high above my home country in the winter of 2018. Perhaps it will feel like I am racing for my country in the Winter Olympics, but this time, I will be home being cheered on by my countrymen, at long last.”
On Feb. 8 in Gangneung, South Korea, Kwi Jin Kim, 73, was surrounded by 16 cheering family members who traveled from Seattle, Germany, and Seoul to watch her carry the Olympic torch on its way to Pyeongchang.
Kim (whose married name is Baik) was a long track speed skater for South Korea in the 1964 (Innsbruck) and 1968 (Grenoble) Winter Olympics.
Young country, young career
South Korea was established in 1948, after years of brutal Japanese rule, prior and during World War II. With Japan’s unconditional surrender in 1945, Korea was partitioned into North and South. The establishment of two separate governments followed.
In 1964, when Kim competed in her first Olympics, South Korea was one of Asia’s poorest nations, a primarily agrarian country with a low standard of living.
In her application letter to carry the torch, Kim wrote, “In 1964 and 1968, due to the history and the economic state of the ‘little known country,’ only two female speed-skating representatives could be sent.
We trained on a frozen lake, outside amid mountains. I remember very distinctly being alarmed at how smooth the Olympic ice was in comparison to where we trained. Looking back, it is both humorous and pitiful to think how naïve I was.”
Kim was South Korea’s Women’s Speed Skating Champion and Women’s 3000-meter Record Holder in 1962, 1963, 1965, and 1967. In 1963, she was also a participant at the 56th World Championship in Nagano, Japan. In 1968, she was South Korea’s Women’s 1500-meter Record Holder. Her best finish in the Olympics was in 1964, where she ranked 19th in the world in women’s 3000.
Kim left Seoul, South Korea in 1974 with her husband and young son, immigrating to the United States. They settled in Brier, Wash., and live there for 33 years before moving to Los Angeles.
“We lived a life that I know many immigrants did from that era, filled with hard work, fear of the unknown, missing home, and struggle — but also joy and success for the lucky among us,” Kim wrote in her letter. “I raised a family and together, every four years, we watched the Winter Olympics. … Words cannot express how excited I was, I was unable to settle my excitement for days after watching Sang-hwa Lee win the 500-meter gold medal for the first time. She did what I could not, and it made me beam with pride for her and what it said about the state of female, long-track speed skating in the Republic of Korea. We have come a long way.”
Fire and family
Based on Ancient Greek tradition, the Olympic fire is a godly element that is central to life.
In ancient Olympics celebrations, a fire was continuously fueled to keep burning throughout the celebrations.
The Pyeongchang torch was designed by Young Se Kim. It is 700 millimeters in length, which represents the altitude of Pyeongchang above sea level (700 meters). The 2018 torch relay started in Athens on Oct. 24, 2017 and ended in Pyeongchang on Feb. 9, 2018.
There were 8,005 torch bearers. Bearers are often former Olympians like Kim, current athletes, and popular celebrities of the host nation, or people chosen for their community and social achievements. Bearers apply to carry the torch, though some do pay money for the honor.
When asked if she was afraid about anything while carrying the Olympic torch, Kim said in Korean, “Why would I be afraid? I was surrounded by my family.”
“It’s pretty amazing seeing my gomo (aunt) run the Olympic torch for Korea,” said Paul, her nephew. “I knew she was a boss, but never before had I seen her on such a large stage!”
“My aunt is the heart and soul of our family,” said Joe, also her nephew. “She has sacrificed so much for us and asks for nothing in return. She’s incredibly humble. In fact, it wasn’t until I was much older that I learned about what she has accomplished in her life.”
Kim’s adult children still reside in the Seattle area. Her daughter, Haewon Baik, lives in Capitol Hill with her husband, Jeremi Wooten. Kim’s son, Sean Baik, lives in Ravenna with his wife, Veronica Lee-Baik, and their son, August Lee-Baik.
“I feel extremely proud and happy that someone, who is so busy taking care of everyone else, gets to be honored and taken care of by the country she grew up and represented,” said Sean. “Also so grateful my son got to see a completely different side to his grandmother.”
Earlier on Sept. 20 in New York, South Korean President Moon Jae-in presented Kim with an Olympic gold medal during an unveiling ceremony for the Winter Olympics.
“Like all meaningful moments, it offers perspective,” said her nephew Eddie. “It makes me look at the special achievements of her life and their scope. It’s humbling and inspiring, especially because of the way she carries herself with regards to it all, with a sense of confidence and strength, but without flaunting it.”
Kim was also a part of the Olympics Opening Ceremony on Feb. 9. She and seven others carried out the Olympic flag before the final lighting of the Olympic torch and cauldron. Four carriers, including Kim, represented South Korea’s Olympic past. The other four carriers were current Olympians and Olympic hopefuls, representing the present and future.
“It’s incredible to see her receive this kind of praise and recognition in front of the world,” said Joe. “When I spoke to her a couple weeks ago, before flying to Korea, I was congratulating her on this honor, and she said to me (in Korean), ‘It’s a very special honor, so let’s all gather together in Korea and let’s all share in this honor together.’ Even in an occasion where the praise is all for her, she wants to share it with her family.”
Though she is bi-continental, Kim’s loyalty is clear. When asked who she is rooting for, she said, “I’m really excited to see Sang-hwa Lee compete this year (on Feb. 18) and hope she wins another gold. South Korean speed skating team! Fighting!”
Joe Kim contributed to this report.
Stacy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.