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Monday, September 18, 2000
Athlete who stepped aside for friend tells tale

 SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- How many times have we heard athletes say it? Sure, we're friends, they explain. But out there in the ring, or pool or court or field, it's all business.

 Not for Esther Kim.

 The striking 20-year-old taekwondo athlete from Houston has become famous for a very different kind of sports story, one of sacrifice in the name of friendship. She told it to Oprah, and now she's telling it at the Olympics, an honored guest at these games.

 On Monday, facing a roomful of journalists, Kim and her best friend, Kay Poe, were all giggles and stolen glances. Long gone were the tears that engulfed them on May 20.

 That was the day they faced a terrible quandary. They found themselves pitted against each other in the final match of the flyweight category at the U.S. Olympic trials. Only one would get to represent the United States in Sydney.

 But this wasn't just a story of two pals having to compete for a prize. There was a twist. Poe, 18, had dislocated her kneecap in the previous match. As she sat with Kim in the holding area, the two of them holding ice on her knee, the joint began to swell. She could barely walk, let alone fight.

 So Kim announced her plan. She would bow out so her friend could go to the Olympics.

 "Kay has always pushed a little harder and wanted it a little more," she explained at the time.

 It was especially heartbreaking for Kim's father, Jin Won Kim, who was her coach and also Poe's. But the longtime taekwondo teacher supported his daughter's decision, and told her he was proud.

 Now, all three are in Sydney. It didn't take long for the story to travel to Oprah Winfrey, who hosted the young women on her television show, and then to Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, who invited Kim to come to the games.

 At the IOC's general meeting here, the tape from the Oprah show was played and Samaranch kissed Kim on both cheeks, expressing the hope she'd compete in four years, at the summer games in Athens.

 For now, Kim seems content telling her tale, and to judge from the news conference, more practiced at it than Poe. She insists she has no regrets -- though she admits she wishes they both could compete.

 "For the first time in my life, I felt like a champion," she said of the moment she made her decision. "I felt like I had a personal message from God, saying, 'I've got a bigger and better plan for you.'

 "She may have a gold medal around her neck. But I'll have one in my heart."

 To cynics who suggest a real athlete wouldn't give up the fight no matter what, Kim's father had an explanation.

 "In taekwondo, winning isn't everything," he said of the karate-like martial art that is heavy on kicking. "I've taught for 26 years, and in these girls I feel I can see the results."

 Kim plans to be there when her pal fights Sept. 27, and she said her dream -- "more than anything" -- is to see Poe bring home the gold.

 "Having two dreams in one body will make (her chances) that much stronger," she said.

 As for Poe, she admitted with refreshing frankness that she isn't sure she'd have made the same sacrifice.

 "Actually to be totally honest, I can't tell you that," she said. "Because I know that if Esther were hurt, she'd still be looking out for me."
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