Growing up, my family eagerly awaited our bi-yearly fix of the Olympics. Our sports? Gymnastics in the summer and figure skating in the winter. Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci held our amazement with daring moves and perfect scores. And, although we never had sheets of ice where I was raised, the likes of Dorothy Hamill made us giddy as they glided effortlessly across the frozen surface. In later years, we followed Nancy Kerrigan, Michelle Kwan and Katarina Witt. In the middle of this era of competitive skating came a powerhouse out of France named Surya Bonaly. She was the perfect blend of everything we loved to watch, a veritable gymnast on ice.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and many a young girl on blades twirls in spandex, with dreams of conquering a double axel. Minnesota, with its perennial ice, practically breeds ice skaters with sticks or skirts. One of these young local skaters is Maple Grove resident Sunny Choi. She is 12 years old but has risen steadily in the ranks to become the Intermediate-level Ladies State Champion. I took the opportunity to meet with Sunny and her parent, Tom and Jae Choi, one chilly afternoon at the Maple Grove Community Center ice rink.
Pictures of Sunny reveal her smiling face, with her dark hair pulled back into a bun. In person, she looks the same. I remind myself that she is only a seventh grader (at Maple Grove Junior High) and I wonder if the bun serves as an easy uniform for everyday life.
She shares a shy smile, not quite sure what to do in front of a reporter. We sit in a quiet nook and I ask her why she skates. She pauses, introspective, and then says, “It’s fun. I want to, because I want to.”
She seems demure, but after I ask a few questions of her parents, it’s clear that Sunny Choi takes skating seriously. “She drives what she wants,” says her dad, Tom.
She began at age 4 at the Maple Grove Community Center skating school. “We noticed she really enjoyed it,” says her mom Jae. “She tried soccer, but she didn’t like getting dirt in her eyes.”
“And the heat!” Sunny quickly adds.
“We tried swimming,” Jae continues, and Sunny adds, “I started sinking right away.”
No matter how she got there, after finding just the right sport, Sunny has achieved results beyond her years.
Her father reveals Sunny’s competitive nature. “Sunny had a friend who was better at doing spirals, and Sunny wanted to learn,” says Tom. “When she realized her friend had a coach, Sunny asked for a coach.” Skating school director Mandy Pirich became Sunny’s coach and laid a solid path to her present success.
That path includes waking between 5 and 5:30 a.m. every morning to train at the rink before going to school. She skates at least two hours total every day, usually more, and more in the summer. When she is invited to a sleepover party at a friend’s house, she slips out in time to be in bed by 8 p.m. “I was born to be a good sleeper,” Sunny says. She often turns down get-togethers with friends in order to focus on skating.
No doubt her dreams are filled with jumps and spins. Last summer, in an effort to accomplish a double axel, she increased her private lesson time and started technical jump lessons with nine-time French champion, three-time world silver medalist and five-time European champion Surya Bonaly, who had recently moved to Minnesota. Sunny had her eye on doing triples, and there’s no better coach for the art of spinning than Bonaly. “Surya is the combo queen,” Sunny assures.
Sunny was the first Minnesota student taken on by Bonaly as a head coach. For a girl with aspirations to someday skate on Team USA, this was a serendipitous moment. I ask what makes Bonaly different. “She just knows. She catches it,” says Sunny. “It’s like magic.”
“When I land a jump the way I’m supposed to…I have a bad habit,” she demonstrates, arms spread at her sides, and then the proper placement with one arm out and the other forward.
“Whenever if I do something good, she has something else to do,” Sunny says. She thrives on being given more challenges.
I truly want to know what makes a coach “magic.” I ask: “What does she say to you to make things work?” Sunny’s answer comes immediately. She says simply, “Those are secrets.”
And there is something mysterious about the relationship between any athlete and coach. How they communicate, develop routines, motivate the athletic and artistic spirit to create something beautiful on ice.
The Trouble With Triples
Sunny moves to the novice level this year, which means she can compete internationally. “She’s perfect at double axels. Now she needs to do triples,” her father says. Triple salchow, triple loop, triple toe and lutz stand as the ultimate achievements in form, no matter the number of revolutions involved. “It’s just my mindset. I’m still learning triple toes,” Sunny says. She’s now doing the double toe well.
Sunny’s goal for this season is triple-triple combinations, meaning one triple jump immediately followed by another triple jump. The next winter Olympics, in 2108 in Korea, will be full of female skaters doing triples. When the 2022 Beijing Olympics rolls around, Sunny will be 17 years old (nearly Bonaly’s age when she first competed in the Olympics).
Lofty Goals, Careful Approach
So, what makes this scenario different from that of other aspiring athletes? In the middle of the interview, I realize that this is not a stereotypical, hard-driving family, who sacrifice everything on the altar of ambitious dreams for a stand-out child. This is a family who has made ice skating their focus because their daughter loves to skate.
Actually, Sunny wants to be an architect. She’s drawn houses since she was little and watches HGTV in her free time. She doesn’t define herself by her wins and losses on the ice, and I sense that it is a pair of very supportive parents who have allowed her to live a life that is extraordinary while being a normal junior high student. “Whether she ever makes Team USA or not, we will be proud of her,” Tom says.
Bonaly has witnessed this same kind of family bond and support. “I see when Sunny comes on the ice that she is loved by her family. Sometimes her mom gives her a hug before a lesson,” she mentions, as we walk along the older sheet of ice at the community center. “Some skaters come here to get away from their parents. Being on the ice is an escape.”
Bonaly was also supported by her parents. They left full-time jobs and a beloved farm in sunny Nice to relocate to chilly Paris, so Surya could train with a national French coach who had discovered her at age 11. The move is roughly equivalent to the one she has just made.
After living in Las Vegas for 16 years, Bonaly moved to Minnesota to be near her boyfriend. “My friends say, ‘What are you doing?’”’ Bonaly remarks. But the ring on her left hand (she and her boyfriend got engaged the week before our meeting) testifies to their love.
An Early Start
Bonlay’s rise in the figure skating ranks was quick. By age 15 she had made the national French team. The next oldest skater was two to three years older. “They were always making exceptions for my age,” she says.
She went on to win many National, European and World Championship titles. However, she is probably best known for her appearances in three Olympic Games. Her first took place in Albertville, France. “I had the pressure of the whole country watching me,” she explains. “I just do my job. My mental state was easy. If I skate good, I’m OK.” But a minor error landed her in fifth place. “I felt crushed by the media,” she says. “I was happy,” but she was led to believe that she’d let down her country.
For 10 years, she didn’t watch that Olympic performance until someone sent her the tape and she popped it into a player. “I was crying and crying. I didn’t skate badly after all,” she says. “I had a block in my brain” concerning her performance that day.
I hear echoes of Sunny’s remark concerning a fixed mindset about the triple toe jump. Finally, I am beginning to understand why this skater and this particular coach might be a perfect match. They are both easygoing. They both skate because they enjoy it and have a strong support system. But most of all, they both have an innate drive.
“When Sunny doesn’t do [skating techniques] right, she can be really [angry],” Bonaly explains. “She won’t say anything. When she’s getting frustrated, her cheeks get pink. I have to say, ‘Chill, relax’. She works her butt off until the minute the Zamboni is coming.”
“Sunny is good, but we cannot fall asleep,” Bonaly explains, as competitors from around the world are always improving, too. “This morning, Sunny did a triple flip,” she is quick to add.
“She’s small because she is 12, and she has a small body, like a feather on ice,” Bonaly continues. “But next year, more flexibility and all the triples. Sunny’s two years ahead of others her age. She has a good chance to make the USA team.”
It’s an assessment that Sunny would be flattered to hear, briefly, as she waves to her mom in the stands and tries that double axel, triple toe combination one more time.
View a rare video on YouTube of Surya Bonaly completing a back flip, immediately followed by a triple toe loop, at the age of 12—coincidentally, the same age that Sunny Choi is now. On YouTubue, search for “Surya Bonaly, 12 years old.”
A Sunny Choi Timeline
- 2004 Born
- 2008 Basic skating at Maple Grove Skating School
- 2010 Began competitive skating
- 2012-2013 4th place, MN state championship pre-preliminary girls
- 2012-13 Silver, Regionals pre-preliminary (around 70 other skaters competing)
- 2013 -14 Silver, Regionals preliminary
- 2015-16 1st Champion, MN State championship Juvenile girls
- 2106 Silver, Regionals Juvenile girls
- 2016 10th place, Midwest sectionals Juvenile girls
- 2016 Intermediate Ladies Champion, MN State Championship
- 2016 Pewter medal winner, 2017 Regional Figure Skating Championships
- 2017 (Nov.) 5th place, Midwestern Sectionals in Colorado Springs, CO