Phenom! Google tells me it’s “a person who is outstandingly talented or admired; a star”.
I have heard the word applied to two young women. No doubt it has been used of others. Both are athletes. I’ve heard leading commentators say of each, following spectacular performances, “Wow!…(long pause)…What else can you say!”
This was in relation to their athletic prowess. I have heard, perhaps more wonderfully, similar things said of each in relation to her character and personality.
They have a surprising lot in common, starting with their country of birth, South Korea.
I am writing of twenty-five year-old retired Korean figure skater Yuna Kim (“Stella”), and eighteen year old Kiwi golf supremo, Lydia Ko.
Just a few of the facts about each one’s achievements:
Korea had no history of notable figure skaters when Yuna started at age five. Natural skill and determination – to the point of significant injuries – led to rapid achievements and superstar status in Korea and beyond. She won the World Championship in 2009, and brought her country to a halt when she won Olympic Gold in 2010, setting a world record score which still stands. After semi-retirement she won the World Championship again in 2013 and Olympic Silver in 2014. In every competition she entered she secured a medal – the majority, Gold.
Yuna’s athleticism was outstanding, but even that was matched or out-shone by her exquisite artistry, musicality and grace on the ice.
Yuna is royalty in South Korea, rich through endorsements, but more richly respected and loved for her humble attitude, good nature, and generosity.
Lydia’s achievements, like Yuna’s, are far too many to list. (Look up the achievements of both in Wikipedia!) As with Yuna, many claim Lydia is the best ever in her field, and just refer you to the stats.
Lydia seems to be the youngest record holder in everything golf-related. She is currently the world’s number one, the youngest ever at eighteen. Youngest, by far, to win a major tournament; youngest to earn a million dollars prize money; youngest winner of multiple professional titles to date – with many years ahead!
These achievements are not just in women’s golf. Her firsts out-first the men as well.
As teenagers, both Yuna and Lydia have been named in Time Magazine’s hundred most influential people awards.
If there was such an honour, each would win the commentators’ (and just about everyone else’s) award for being a champion person.
Together with the plaudits for both regarding their sporting prowess, commentators have liberally interspersed superlatives concerning their personalities and character. Humility, friendliness, kind-heartedness, good humour. These are descriptors commonly used for both – alongside focused, determined, professional and indomitable.
Perhaps the most frequent references have been to Yuna’s and Lydia’s apparent ease at maintaining composure and grace under pressure and in the face of defeat. “How does she manage to be so calm and self-possessed?” broadcasters and bloggers wonder. “Zen Buddhism?” one queried.
A clue may be openly on view during sporting performances and in everyday life. Both right hands sport rings of similar appearance, Yuna’s on her pointy finger, Lydia’s in the middle.
They are rosary rings, each with a small cross and ten tiny bumps with which, at times, to mark the flow of prayer.
For some, these religious items could be dismissed as superstitious tokens. For both these young ladies I sense this is not the case. I think the rings reveal profound faith and spirituality, which display their depth in the qualities on show for all to see and wonder at. I base this conviction on observation and what each has said.
Yuna – with her mother – was baptised Catholic in March 2008. She had been on the verge of quitting skating because of major spinal injury. Time spent with Catholic therapists and fellow patients, including a priest (“with whom I established a trusting relationship”) sustained her morale and comforted Yuna.
Revealed in L'Osservatore Romano, 12 August, 2014, is Yuna’s soul. “I would say that what impressed me most was that they were not trying to convert me. Theirs was a disinterested act for a girl who was going through a difficult time in her life and in her professional career; they sought to give me the best possible advice in accordance with their vision of the world. Gradually, won over by their approach and their words of comfort, I started to reflect on the faith. It was 2008. I was 18 years old.
“It was the hardest time in my life and also for my mother, who had made so many efforts for me and for my success, and I was in a critical situation in which there seemed to be no light at the end of the tunnel. My back problems had been recurring for two years, it seemed as though I would have them forever. At a certain point you find yourself at a crossroads. You ask yourself if it is really worth going ahead and, if it is, where you can find the strength to continue to hope. I needed to be able to count on something or someone. Faith in Catholicism gave me all this.”
Asked, “Can possessing a deep faith also, involuntarily, become an advantage for attaining success in a sport?” Yuna responded: “I can’t speak for others. With regard to my own situation it was a great help to me in dealing with my injuries but it also gave me the mental ability to face pressure from the media and from critics. Today, thanks to taking this path of faith, I am better able to accept a failure.”
When, to the dismay of commentators, Gold was awarded to a Russian skater at the 2014 Olympics hosted by Russia, Yuna’s acceptance with poise and grace became the focus of universal admiration.
As for praying: “I pray every time, before every competition and during it. It is a way of showing God my gratitude for everything that life has given me.”
Concerning failures: “the world doesn’t come to an end if you don’t win a competition, there’s a remedy for everything. Then if you never seem to find the remedy, well, that’s just God’s will; but you should never give up hope.”
Regarding the rosary ring she always wears, Yuna was asked, “Does it give you a sense of security?” Her answer: “Yes, I remember that God is with me at every moment and this gives me great strength.”
What has the Kiwi Korean had to say?
“I don’t believe in golf gods,” Lydia told Golf Digest, 20 January, 2014. “Good bounces and bad ones are random. I'm Catholic and believe in God − the big God − and what's important is to believe that He believes in you. If you don't believe in God, that's fine, too. There are many perspectives in the world.”
Lydia was also featured in a story in Golf WRX, 1 July 2014, titled “Wisdom beyond her years: Lydia Ko talks golf, family, friends and faith.”
The author writes, “Equally important to Ko’s ability to keep herself centred is a strong Catholic faith: a faith that enables her to handle all the pressure, as well as to put anything and everything into perspective.”
Lydia herself says, “Having faith gives me a sense of belief, tranquillity, serenity and comfort. It constantly brings me back to reality. We are all the same human beings at the end of the day, living in the same world.”
Yes, for both these phenoms I perceive genuine faith, not superstition, on their fingers. I detect beyond the rings, and symbolised in them, a source of that Zen-like attitude, peace and joyfulness, for which both are renowned. Their own words reveal it.
Physique, natural talent, dedication to task, determination, hard work – all these have contributed to the making of phenomenal athletes. Family, friends and faith appear to be the main contributors to phenomenal characters.
Michael O’Connor has written previously about Newcastle’s internationally renowned skater, Kailani Craine.