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South Korea's new skate star You Young recalls her Singapore roots

Young (centre) with her Singapore ice- skating friends in a photo taken at JCube ice- skating rink in Jurong East in 2013.
Young (centre) with her Singapore ice- skating friends in a photo taken at JCube ice- skating rink in Jurong East in 2013.PHOTO: YOU YOUNG

Youngest winner of Korean national figure-skating title misses her friends, food and schooldays in the Republic

Sitting in front of a computer, a little Korean girl in Singapore watched, mesmerised, as figure skater Kim Yuna turned in a dazzling display at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, where she won a gold medal.

Inspired, six-year-old You Young pestered her mother to let her try ice skating. Her mother took her to the only ice rink in Singapore at the time - Kallang Ice World - where she discovered her passion and talent for figure skating.

Two weeks ago, Young - now just four months shy of 12 years old - rewrote figure-skating history in South Korea by becoming the youngest person to win the national championships, achieving the milestone almost a year earlier than her idol, Kim, who retired in 2014.

Young, who wowed the judging panel and audience alike with her energetic and flawless Indian-themed performance, has been hailed as the next Kim, with Olympic hopes pinned on her.

Kim, who was present at the championships, was full of praise for her budding successor, saying Young is doing better than she was at the same age.

Young moved back to South Korea in 2013 to train professionally, but a part of her heart is still in Singapore, where she spent her formative years. "I miss Singapore and my friends," she told The Straits Times at Taeneung International Ice Skating Rink, located in north-eastern Seoul, where she trains up to five hours every day.

 Young (centre) with her Singapore ice- skating friends in a photo taken at JCube ice- skating rink in Jurong East in 2013.
South Korean figure skater You Young performing at a rink in Gyeonggi province, near Seoul, last November. - PHOTO: COURTESY OF M29A1

Speaking in a mixture of English and Korean, she named Chinese curry and roti prata as her favourite Singapore food, and the infinity pool at Marina Bay Sands, her favourite place. She spoke fondly of her three years at Bukit Timah Primary School, the weekends she spent lounging by the swimming pool with friends, and the after-school hours she put in perfecting jumps and spins, first at the Kallang rink and then at a rink in Jurong East.

Recalling her first ice-skating attempt in Kallang, Young said it was a bit scary, but mostly a happy and enjoyable experience.

She said she also loved going to school in Singapore. "I could go buy food by myself and there's a dentist within the school too," she said.

But since she returned to South Korea, Young has been training full-time - up to seven hours a day - and is being homeschooled by her mother Grace Lee, 46.

Ms Lee said her daughter found it hard to adjust to life back in South Korea initially as she had grown up speaking mostly English and Mandarin in school, and some Korean at home. But things got better as her Korean improved, along with her skating skills, and she started making new friends.

The family had moved to Singapore in 2006 as Ms Lee wanted her children to get a bilingual education. Young has two older brothers, now aged 23 and 20. The older one is preparing to enlist for national service here, while the younger one is attending university in Singapore. Their father lives in Indonesia where he owns a business.

The decision to return to South Korea was made after Ms Lee saw how much her daughter's figure-skating skills improved after training for a month in her home country during the school holidays.

"It was just a hobby for her when we were in Singapore and there were no systems to groom figure skaters there," said Ms Lee.

"Over here, there are many professional teams. Young wanted to skate more, so a bigger place would be better for her."

The young girl is now set to follow in her idol's career footsteps after signing a three-year management contract with Kim's agency, All That Sports, last week.

She has also been granted a special exemption to train at national training facilities despite not meeting the minimum age of 13. The Korea Skating Union also said it would grant her a scholarship.

But if Young feels any stress from the media and public attention, she does not let it show. Off the rink, she is like any regular teenager, digging into a cup of spicy noodles one moment and popping a macaroon into her mouth the next.

Ms Lee said her daughter destresses by playing the piano and reading up on the latest make-up and manicure trends. Young keeps in contact with her Singapore friends and former coaches via social media. On Facebook alone, she has more than 1,100 friends.

The ice-skating community in Singapore has been abuzz with excitement over Young's achievements, with many telling this reporter that they are proud of their former rink-mate.

Ms Melinda Ang, 24, an administrative assistant, said Young was like everyone's little sister on the rink but, despite her young age, she was always trying to learn new and difficult moves.

Student Rekha Chattopadhyay, 19, added: "She was very disciplined, and mature for her age."

Mr J.P. Tanchico, 30, who used to coach Young at Kallang Ice World, described her as a cheerful, enthusiastic and fearless little girl who "loves what she is doing and doesn't give up".

Another former coach, Mr Raymond Cheah, 62, said she was a budding genius who mastered the axel jump - the most difficult single jump in figure skating - in just two weeks.

Asked what keeps her going when the going gets tough, she replied: "It's my dream to become like Kim Yuna and I know I have to work hard to achieve the dream."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2016, with the headline 'S. Korea's new skate star recalls her S'pore roots'. Print Edition | Subscribe