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By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, March 27 (Yonhap) -- When South Korean figure skater Kim Yu-na won the ladies' competition at the recent world championships in London, Canada, at least one Korean-Canadian supported her, both figuratively and literally.
James Lee, an industrial designer born and bred in Vancouver, created the medal podium used at the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships earlier this month. And even to untrained eyes, it was apparent that Lee's work wasn't your typical, run-of-the-mill, square-shaped podium.
In an e-mail interview with Yonhap News Agency, Lee explained that he wanted to "create something that was dynamic, but at the same time graceful." His finished product ended up being a podium that symbolized the essence of figure skating, with the three sections for gold, silver and bronze flowing into each other as a single, twisting ribbon.
"The inspiration of the design of the figure skating podium came from the fluidity of the movement of the skaters on the ice," Lee said. "I started literally tracing the path of a skater as they jump and twist in the air, and this path of their movement, I feel, epitomizes the agility, strength and grace of the sport."
Lee said he couldn't have been more thrilled to see Kim on the top of his podium.
"Words can't express how happy it makes me that I could have had even such a small role in her story," he said. "And I hope to one day tell her in person what an inspiration she is to me and my practice. Although professional sports and design are two completely different things, there is a comparison to be made with my process and how meticulous and dedicated Kim Yu-na obviously is in her training and competing."
This wasn't actually the first time Lee saw Kim atop his podium. Lee had also designed the medal podium for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, held right in his backyard in British Columbia. Kim won the ladies' figure skating competition there, too, with the world record score of 228.56 points.
After doing some freelance work, Lee said he was approached in April 2009 by the creative director of the Vancouver Winter Games organizing committee who had seen Lee's work online. Lee was hired, in his words, "on the spot."
Lee spoke of "extra pressure to deliver on time and without errors" at the Winter Olympics. But he came through, much as South Korean athletes did in competition, as they captured six gold medals for the country's most successful Winter Olympics.
Though Lee grew up in Canada, he said he still considers his Korean heritage "an important part of who I am," and that helped him appreciate the accomplishments of South Korean athletes in Vancouver even more.
"To be able to watch all the Korean athletes that won medals during the games, especially with my family, was surreal," Lee said. "Although I was given an all-access pass to all the venues and events, what I really wanted to do was share the experience with my family and friends. Being here in my home town, seeing the world congregate in one place to celebrate, and I also had the benefit of having two countries to truly root for -- Canada and Korea."
A year after the Olympics, Skate Canada, the Canadian governing body for figure skating, came calling.
"(Skate Canada) had approached me to take part in a re-branding they were implementing," Lee recalled. "They had a medal ceremony podium that they had been using since the late '70s and thought that I would be the best person to design a piece for them that they could use for future figure skating events, starting with the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships in London, Ontario."
When Lee was approached by Skate Canada in 2011, Kim Yu-na was taking a hiatus from figure skating, mulling over her future career options. Lee recalled that when Skate Canada first called, the first thought that popped into his head was, "What if Kim Yu-na competed again and won on one of my podiums?"
And that's exactly what transpired. Kim announced her return to competition last summer and set her sights square on the 2013 world championships. She dusted the field to win her second career world title with 218.31 points, 20.42 points better than the runner-up Carolina Kostner of Italy.
Lee said he'd like nothing less than an opportunity to express his appreciation to South Korean athletes.
"I would tell them how inspiring they all have been to me and I'm sure (to) all Koreans," Lee said. "It's incredible to me what they can do and how focused they all are (on) their goals, and this is something that I will always try to fold into my process."
Lee said he would now like to prove he is a versatile designer.
"I'm taking a bit of a break with sporting events, which isn't to say I'd turn anything down if approached with the right opportunity," he said. "But I don't want to turn into a one-trick pony."
Lee said he is working on furniture and a prefabricated architecture project. He also said he hoped to someday find work in South Korea.
"I'm thinking about baby steps, and finding some contract work over there (in South Korea) would definitely be on the priority list of things to accomplish this year," Lee said. "I would one day love to help elevate Korea as a nation that sets a kind of standard for international design."
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