It was a golden moment that almost didn’t happen.
Between waking up with a 102 degree fever that morning, and suffering from a broken toe in his first bout that day, Jimmy Kim was ready to give up.
But after a few words of wisdom from his coach/father Grand Master Chan-Yong Kim, the 21-year-old Olympian fought through the pain and exhaustion that ravaged his body and instead became the first American male to ever win a gold medal in Taekwondo at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea.
His Journey to the 1988 Olympics Was Without Golden Expectations
It was the first time that the sport was included in the Olympic games, but for the Cerritos native competing in Seoul was the culmination of endless hours of practice and teachings under his father’s tutelage.
Kim's father, who is a 9th degree grand master in Taekwondo -- the highest degree that can be held – was at the time teaching his son along with dozens of other Southland students at his school formerly located in the heart of Little India along Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia.
“A majority of the support I received prior to the Olympics came from my father's Taekwondo school,” he said. “The students and families from his school gave me a ton of support before, during and after my Olympic experience.”
Having attended Leal Elementary, , and , Kim realized that as an Olympian he was representing the cities of Artesia, Cerritos and the United States on the world’s biggest stage.
But because of a loss the year before, he walked into the Olympics absent of any overwhelming pressure.
“At the time I was ranked second in the world,” he said. “I had previously been ranked No. 1 and had lost in the Finals at the 1987 World Championship in Barcelona and got a silver medal.”
But heading into Seoul, he expected to get “nothing less than a gold medal.”
Being ranked at the top of his sport from 1985 to 1987, Kim was no stranger to the pressure of being expected to win. And losing in the World Championship actually ended up being the best thing that could have happened to him.
“Although I was disappointed in getting the silver, in retrospect, it was actually a blessing in disguise,” he said. “After that loss, I came into the Olympics with less pressure and it allowed me to really focus and try to get back on top.”
That laser-sharp focus was evident in the fact that Kim arrived in Seoul 10 days prior to the start of competition and immediately began training six hours a day at a Korean army base.
“I was training just like I was in the states, so it wasn’t a big change,” he recalled.
But he also made it a point to enjoy his Olympic experience by attending the opening ceremonies with Team USA.
“I remember during the broadcast one of the cameras focused in on the American flag and there I was, so my family and friends at home were actually able to see me during the opening ceremonies,” he chuckled.
Further immersing himself in the spirit of the games, Kim spent the rest of his stay living in the Olympic Village along with the rest of the athletes from around the world.
“There was a lot of positive energy, especially in the Olympic Village,” he said. “I met a lot of famous Olympians there, the energy was great and being able to share dining tables with athletes from all over the world was really a fun time.”
Some of the notable American icons he came across included Carl Lewis (track and field), Flo Jo (track and field), Bart Conner (gymnastics), and Greg Louganis (diving) – gold medal winners whom he respected and hoped he would one day be able to share something in common.
The Flu, A Fever, A Broken Toe … The Gold
In the days leading up to the Taekwondo demonstration, Kim fell ill, and on the morning he was scheduled to compete, he woke up with a fever.
“Four days before I had caught the flu and the morning of the competition I had a 102 degree fever,” he said. Already feeling under the weather, things worsened when he injured himself in an early round.
“I had four bouts that day, one bout lasted about three minutes with three rounds of fighting, so that’s nine minutes total and in the first bout I broke a toe,” he said.
“I believe it was after the second bout that I actually had thoughts of not continuing because I was exhausted and had injured my toe. And in a sport where you have to kick a lot, it was pretty painful,” Kim said.
On the verge of giving up and calling it quits, the young Olympian turned to the man who had taught him everything.
“I spoke with my father and he reminded me that I had been working for a long time to get to that point. I remember him looking me in the eye and asking, ‘Are you wiling to give that up’?"
But it was not the first time his father had been looked upon to revive his fighting spirit. At the age of 15, Kim was competing in a tournament in Berkeley, Calif. when he fell and suffered a broken ankle.
“It was like that scene in Karate Kid, I was hopping on one leg,” Kim joked. “But my father made me finish, he wanted me to persevere. In Taekwondo you’re taught about the indomitable spirit – the spirit of never giving up.”
And much like the day when he was a teenager limping on a broken foot, Kim relied on that same unrelenting spirit to carry him through the rest of the Olympic event.
“My father instilled that spirit in me and reminded me that even though I was injured, I could still stand on one foot and fight.”
“Reflecting on all that helped me get through those final rounds at the Olympics,” he said. Ill and broken, he stood tall that day ultimately defeating Ali Sahin (TUR), Mansour Bagheri (IRI), Jose Luis Alvarez (ESP) and finally Kim Jong-Suk of Korea to win the gold medal.
When all was said and done, the exhausted champion said the first thought that came to mind was, “I’m glad it’s over.”
Although he has yet to tell his sons – ages 7, 10, and 11 -- about his unforgettable Olympic experience, Kim fully intends to push them just like his father did to help them develop character and the same indomitable spirit that pushed him to the gold medal podium almost 24 years ago.
“It’s something that I plan on telling my children … one of these days.”
(Click here to watch a video of Kim's historic win in the 1988 Olympics.)
Life After the Olympics: The Student Becomes The Teacher
Today, the UC Berkeley grad owns and operates, , in Laguna Niguel -- a breeding ground for future Olympians and young competitors.
“It’s really rewarding to be working with these kids,” he said. “I’m thankful and proud to have produced a lot of national champions and international fighters.”
When asked what advice he would impart to young kids with dreams to compete in the Olympics, Kim said he would tell them to always stay focused on the moment.
“What I always teach my students is that you cannot focus on results, instead you need to stay focused on what you need to do to perform well. Keep your sights on what you can control and not on what the results are going to be,” he said.
And for any young person trying to achieve a goal in sports, school or life in general, Kim says to embrace the journey for all the right reasons.
“It takes a lot of time and perseverance, and not just working hard at something, but also making sure you have the right guidance to help you get through the struggles and failures you will no doubt experience as you try to achieve your goals,” he said.
“My advice to young people trying to achieve something is to make sure that your heart is in the right place -- that your motivation and the purpose of what your doing is for the greater good of family and community.”
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is located at 30232 Crown Valley Pkwy., A1, Laguna Niguel, CA 92677. For information on hours and classes visit the school’s website or call (949) 363-6688.
Grand Master Chan-Yong Kim continues to teach local students at the located at 13345 South St Cerritos, CA 90703. For more information on hours and classes call the school directly at (562) 865-8080.* Keep up-to-date on all Cerritos-Artesia news, alerts and events by “liking” us on Facebook and following us on Twitter.