Esther Kim and Kay Poe arrived at a Houston sports club last
Thursday ready to kick up a storm. It was the pair's first day
in a gym together since the U.S. taekwondo trials in May, at
which Kim, the No. 2-ranked U.S. Olympic flyweight, relinquished
a sure berth in Sydney to her injured best friend, Poe, the
world's No. 1, by bowing out of their final match. In Houston,
after three warmup kicks, Poe felt a pop in her left knee--the
same knee she had hurt in the trials. She took Kim's arm and
walked gingerly out of the aerobics room and over to the stair
machines. "If she has to, she can just kick with the other leg
for today," Kim said.
After four weeks of rehab, Poe's toughest foe is time. She will
need all her kicks in Sydney. On Thursday, Poe spent 30 minutes
climbing, then returned to the aerobics room, telling herself, I
won't listen for more pops. Soon her feet were flailing the
kicking paddles. "I knew Kay wasn't hurt enough to stop," said
Kim. "I know her like she's my sister."
At the trials Kim made the sort of sportsmanship-affirming
gesture usually reserved for siblings. Poe, 18 and the
overwhelming favorite in her weight class, had dislocated her
left patella when she banged knees with Mandy Meloon in their
preliminary match, which Poe won. Kim, 20, joined Poe in a
holding area and helped ice her friend's knee an hour before the
two would face each other for the Olympic berth. Then she saw
Poe's futile attempt to stand, and the words just came out:
"Kay, what if I just bow down to you when we get in the ring?"
Poe said no, and the pair spent the next half hour fighting
about not fighting.
"We have to fight," Poe said.
"Don't argue," Kim said.
"Shut up. Quit apologizing."
"I don't know, just shut up."
On Thursday, Kim recalled sitting next to her friend in the ring
after having bowed down and thinking, This is the first time in
my life I really feel like a champion. The next week IOC
President Juan Antonio Samaranch invited Kim to attend the Sydney
Games, with her father, at committee expense.
It's been 11 years since the Halloween party at which Kay
introduced herself to Esther, took her hand and didn't let go
until the party ended. From then on the two shared notes on
homework and boyfriends and rarely missed meals together. Recalls
Kim, "We'd laugh like we never laughed around anyone else."
On Thursday, perhaps on a sugar high from three shared desserts,
Kim and Poe started conducting a giggly grilling of their
interviewer, leaving him red-faced and overmatched. "Sorry, I'm
only like this around Esther," Poe said. "Sometimes it takes
friends to bring out the worst in you."
Or the best.
COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS COVATTA Poe has always been able to lean on Kim, who sacrificed Sydney for her.