In this post, I would like to talk a little bit about Yebin Mok. Yebin was a very promising Korean-American skater from the early 00s who competed against some of the absolute greats of ladies skating of all time including Michelle Kwan, Sasha Cohen and Sarah Hughes. Sadly, her career was tragically cut short by injuries and personal struggles.
An incredibly talented young woman pursuing the conventional dream of sporting success and glory, she had her life consumed and derailed by the very sport she had devoted herself entirely to. However, the rediscovered passion for the beauty and joy of figure skating following her retirement allowed her to take ownership back and be happy once again.
Yebin was born on April 19, 1984 in Seoul, South Korea. She emigrated to the USA together with her family at the age of seven. At first, life in the USA was not easy for Yebin: the language barrier made it very difficult for the seven-year old to communicate with her peers, but thanks to her determination, she managed to learn English quickly and was speaking the language in a few months.
Yebin first started skating in 1994 and quickly found that figure skating was her calling in life. Making progress in the sport quickly, day dreams of Olympic glory would cross her mind during those early years. Her strive for perfection and constant hunger for victory were further fuelled by the internal desire to make her parents proud – after all, it was the great promise that she displayed as a young skater that prompted them to make their stay in the USA permanent.
Mok saw early competitive success with two consecutive wins at the Junior Olympics in 1997 and 1998 (the Junior Olympics back then were the equivalent of the US Junior Nationals, by the way). Unfortunately, at the same time, she also had her first experience with serious injuries which would bother her later on – in the summer of 1998 she suffered a stress fracture in her back which kept her off from training for three months.
Junior days and Senior Career
Coached by Frank Carroll, Yebin made her senior debut at US Nationals in 2001 and finished 10th. She would repeat her placement at the 2002 Nationals as well. From a young age, Yebin was noted for her huge, technically excellent triple lutz, the great quality of her spins and superb edge work. Sadly, videos of these performances don’t seem to be available on the internet, but Sandra Loosemore, who ran the extensive Skateweb database and published multiple reports of skating events in the US back in the 90s and early 00s, noted of Mok:
(On her performance at the 2001 US Nationals): “I hadn’t seen Mok since 1999, and I was blown away by the overall quality of her skating at this competition. Her triple lutz is inconsistent, but it’s gigantic, a true lutz with delayed rotation like Chen Lu or Nancy Kerrigan. Wonderful edge quality, carriage, and spins, too.”
Around that time, Yebin also made her debut on the Junior Grand Prix scene. In 2000, she had a respectable showing by finishing 4th in Germany and winning a bronze medal at the grand prix in the Czech Republic. Further injuries pursued Miss Mok when in the autumn of 2000 she experienced problems with a pinched nerve in her back. She had earned a spot for the World Junior Championship in Sofia, Bulgaria, but was forced to withdraw after the qualifying round.
Yebin did not participate in many events for the remaining of the 2001-2002 season after finishing 10th at US Nationals. This did not impact her competitive progress though since a turning point in her career came next season.
Yebin managed to achieve further success on the Junior Grand Prix circuit by winning another medal at the China JGP. Additionally, 2002 marked her senior debut with a successful appearance and a silver medal at Golden Spin of Zagreb. Yebin herself describes the experience of skating at Golden Spin as what she expected “heaven to be like”:
“I skated perfect every practice session, every triple jump, every spin, and nothing could make me fall and everything was so easy. I felt so invincible. And there, I decided this is what heaven is like.”
Skating last in the final flight during the short program of 2003 US Nationals, Yebin delivered a spectacular performance to Saent-Sans’s “The Swan” from Carnival of the Animals. What sets Ms. Yebin apart, as mentioned before, were her amazingly huge triple lutz, powerful but effortless flow across the ice, her graceful posture and lines and the absolutely beautiful layback spin at the end.
With a huge smile on her face, Yebin closed the short program night with a standing ovation and with an ecstatic scream in the Kiss and Cry as she received her marks.
Going fifth into the free skate, Yebin had a decent, if not a little flawed skate to Aram Khachaturian’s ballet “Spartacus”. Performance and choreography wise, there could be a little more to be desired in the program above but Yebin’s great qualities (in terms of jumping, spins and simplistic elegance on the ice) and potential cannot be denied.
A sixth place finish concluded Mok’s participation but the competition had brought her a very positive experience as a whole – not only did her amazing performance in the short get her praise from skating authority Dick Button and brought her confidence and plenty of new fans, but also guaranteed a second trip to Junior Worlds.
Yebin took advantage of the opportunity but was not able to medal there – some mistakes in the free program left her in fifth place. But yet, despite some shortcomings performance-wise, she still managed to display her wonderful skating qualities and gain international competitive experience, an invaluable asset for every skater.
The Junior Worlds was won by Yukina Ota – another absolutely wonderful, mesmerizingly artistic skater who could have had a fabulous career but never managed to live up to her potential due to injuries (to be covered soon on this blog, by the way, so stay tuned!).
Despite not being able to go to the big championships or not medaling at Junior Worlds, this season was by absolutely no means unsuccessful for Yebin. Time was on her side as she was still only 18 and starting to gain momentum – with the right approach and with a little bit of luck, she would have easily been able to fight, and probably even gain a spot on the Worlds team next year. However, as we shall see with many of the skaters covered here, the great opportunities that should have been would abandon her just as she was starting to rise to the top…
Finishing 6th at the US Nationals guaranteed Yebin two spots on the senior grand prix, marking what would have been her international debut on the big scene. Unfortunately, a stress fracture in her lower back would force her to forfeit this opportunity and skip the entire grand prix season. By the time of the 2004 US Nationals Yebin’s injury was interfering so badly with her skating that she was not able to land a clean jump during the short program and was forced to withdraw after. As a result of the withdrawal she would have so sit out the rest of the season and start from the regional selection events if she wanted to have a chance of competing on the big scene again.
It is worth to note that despite the injury and severe jump problems, Yebin’s short program performance to Bolero was still praised by fans in terms of the quality of the remaining elements and artistic impression (sadly again,videos of the performance are hard to find). S. Loosemore, a big fan of Yebin at the time, had the following to say about her 2004 Nationals performance:
“The jump problems were due to her back injury, but everything else in this program was of superior quality. Probably a smart move for her to withdraw after the short, as she had nothing to gain by trying to continue and winding up as far down in the standings as she was obviously going to.”
The stress fracture had forced her to miss five months of training. Further injury problems plagued her straight after that – ganglion cysts requiring surgery developed on her ankles costing her four more months of training time.
The long recovery periods had a damaging effect on her skating and mental health. She claims that the frustration from those injuries had sent her on a downward spiral of mental and eating disorders. On her last appearance at US Nationals in 2005, Yebin finished only 16th after experiencing difficulties with jumps in both programs.
A perfectionist by nature, Mok strived to gain control over her life and body after not being able to follow her regular training regime. She altered her eating habits drastically and developed an obsession with calorie counting. Further frustrations coming from unsuccessful practices following injury recovery brought her more worries and stress, causing her to develop an obsessive compulsive disorder. During those times, Yebin says that during a typical training day, she would keep track of every small detail in her regime, up to the exact time of when she went to the bathroom and the amount of breaths she took.
All of a sudden, the very sport she loved so dearly and had dedicated her entire life to was no longer a passion – it all felt like an all consuming burden threatening to wreck her mental and physical well being. This ordeal was brought upon her in the pursuit of the dream of conventional sporting success, namely being an Olympian one day – a dream Yebin recalls felt like it wasn’t even hers from the start’.
Struggling with depression, OCD and bulimia, Yebin was not able to experience joy from figure skating any longer. Suddenly life had become a fierce competition that she only thought she could win by drastically changing herself to appeal to everybody. The battle to attain a perfect physical image and be successful in the eyes of others turned any minor training difficulty and frustration into an infinite failure in her eyes.
The constant binge-purging cycles left her feeling very bad physically and emotionally during practices, and as a result, she could not focus and her skating would suffer. A turning point in her life came in 2005. In a desperate attempt to make herself sick and purge, Yebin drank a large amount of alcohol. Once her parents discovered her in that state and learned about her eating disorder and suffering, they were in absolute shock: her family urged her to quit skating for the sake of her well-being. With their support, Yebin was able to take the steps towards recovery and move on to the next step in her life.
Retirement and Re-discovery for the love of skating
Not much information was available on Yebin’s last competitive days. Following the injury problems and the ensuing turmoil in her life, Yebin decided not to compete during the 2005-2006 season. She attempted to make a return to competitive skating in 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 but was not able to place high enough on the regional selection events in order to qualify for US Nationals again.
Following her competitive retirement, Yebin tried to distance herself from skating by getting involved in a number of side jobs and hobbies: having been home schooled during her skating career, she went to community college to have a true school experience for the first time in 7 years; she tried some part time jobs like being a hostess and ice cream scooper; she tried to find a new passion in drawing, writing, ballroom dancing and yoga. Alas, she soon found out that no activity could fill in the void figure skating had left in her life.
Therefore, the return to skating was inevitable – but this time Yebin was back in a new role. Being free from the pressure of competitions, she turned to professional skating as a participant in Holiday on Ice. The move brought Yebin the joy she had yearned for for years – skating in shows allowed her the freedom to experience the sport as an art form, as a means to bring beauty, inspiration and transcend the audience to an otherworldly dimension.
Having the opportunity to interact with audiences and the creative freedom to construct her own performance programs also brought Yebin a wonderful chance to put the abilities she had developed throughout her career into good use and to further develop and re-invent herself as a figure skater.
The rediscovered love for performance and art allowed Yebin to see a more complete picture of a skating performance where jumps are only a part of the whole story: by her own words, the perfect blend and fusion of technical elements and choreography is what makes a skating performance a truly ethereal, effortless and joyful experience to both watch and perform – something she feels like she was not able to realize when being caught in the frenzy of competitive skating. In this relaxed environment Yebin admits that skating to her is “pure love, expanding and forgiving”
Yebin performed for a number of years in shows like Holiday on Ice, Royal Carribean Cruises, Magic on Ice and Broadway on Ice. In addition to finally being able to pursue her passion for a living, Yebin has also worked as a skating choreographer and ballet and yoga instructor. As of present, she is involved as a creative director at Toyota Sports Centre at El Segundo, California as well as a skating coach.
In an interview given to SkateGuard blog (awesome blog by the way, please check it out if you haven’t had the chance to yet and/or are really into vintage skating) Yebin expresses that her biggest dream would be to open a skating school where young children can have their talent and passion for figure skating nurtured and develop themselves into whatever direction they desire, be it competitive skating, professional skating, choreography or something else. I truly hope that being so closely involved in the creative side of skating has allowed Miss Mok to come closer to achieving her goal.
As we can see from the story above, Yebin’s journey through the turmoil and redemption of figure skating is not uncommon at all – this story illustrates the life an extremely talented young woman who had immense potential, which if nurtured and developed in the right way, could have brought her far. She had grace, poise and power in her skating, amazing effortless flow across the ice, a jumping ability that if coupled with developed consistency could shoot her to the top (the spectacular lutz especially comes to mind), beautiful spins and an aura of maturity in the way she approached her choreography. It is very encouraging to know that despite never being able to utilize her potential at competitions, this wonderful lady has managed to display her talent and continue improving by finding the best outlet for that in the form of skating shows.
Yebin’s Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yebin_Mok
Article on Yebin’s career transition, Ice Network: https://web.archive.org/web/20160304062647/http://web.icenetwork.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20120605&content_id=32801402&vkey=ice_news
An in-depth interview with Kore Asian Media (Aug 10, 2012): http://kore.am/august-issue-yebin-mok-returns-to-the-ice-after-struggling-with-eating-disorder/
Interview with Yebin from 2013 (in Korean and English): http://blog.daum.net/sadprince57/1843
Interview with Skate Guard blog (Aug 13, 2013): http://skateguard1.blogspot.com/2013/08/interview-with-yebin-mok.html
A beautifully touching and captivating article Yebin wrote about her career and how she found fulfillment in professional skating: https://web.archive.org/web/20130323023214/http://iamkoreanamerican.com/2012/06/12/yebin-mok/
Profile on Yebin Mok, by Barry Mittan (Oct 19, 2004): https://goldenskate.com/2004/10/twirlings-loss-is-skatings-gain/