WARSAW (Reuters) - When the Canadian coach Bruno Marcotte started working with a pair of Olympics-qualified North Korean figure skaters, he did not expect much warmth from them.
But after every training session, the pair, Ryom Tae-ok, 18, and Kim Ju-sik, 25, would come up to him and give him a hug.
“It was very personal, very affectionate,” Marcotte said on his recent trip to Warsaw. “They were not afraid to show their emotions.”
Whether the skaters will show up at the Winter Olympics in February in Pyeongchang, South Korea, remains unknown, with tensions running high between the two neighbours. The standoff over North Korea leader Kim Jong Un’s nuclear programme looms over games.
Should Pyongyang decide to send the pair, that could have diplomatic implications for the two neighbours that are technically still at war since their 1953 conflict. North Korea boycotted the 1988 Summer Olympics in South Korea’s Seoul.
Marcotte, who started working with the pair after the World Figure Skating Championships in March, said he doesn’t know if they’ll compete.
“We’re hearing so many stories,” the 43-year-old Marcotte said. “But it’s not something that they want to share right now with many people in the world.”
A former skater himself, Marcotte said he would love the pair to attend the Olympics, but added he didn’t talk about it much with them.
“It was more about how can we win a world medal, it was really about being the best team in the world,” he said.
He sensed, however, that the efforts and energy of Pyongyang were now behind the pair, who were the country’s first athletes to qualify for the 2018 games.
Marcotte, who works with a couple of dozen skaters from other countries, said he met with the pair earlier this year and they “chatted” a bit. In March, the North Koreans approached him with a proposition.
“I didn’t (have to) think about it,” he said. “The way they approached me was very friendly, very genuine.”
Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik spent with about two months in Montreal in the summer, training.
“I felt that there was a team with a potential but like a rough diamond - rough, but one that could be so good eventually,” he said.
With the pair working with top of the line equipment but not very big in stature, Marcottte said he thinks they need more power, more speed: the throws could be bigger, the twists could have more height, their single jumps after triple toe loops could be more consistent.
The pair, always travelling with a man from the North Korean skating federation who Marcotte says acts as their “link to the world,” as translator and chaperone, get along very well.
“Their ultimate dream is to become world champions,” Marcotte said. “Why not? It’s just a matter of opportunity, it’s a matter of them being consistent. The one thing that I did advise them was to compete more often internationally.”
Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber in Moscow; Writing by by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Toby Chopra