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Former friends have become taekwondo rivals

A year ago this month, taekwondo's Esther Kim and Kay Poe made international headlines when Kim surrendered her Olympic berth to her injured best friend.

In Sydney, the fairy tale fizzled when Poe, the gold-medal favorite, lost in the first round.

Since then, something else was lost too: the friendship the two shared since grade school.

But a rivalry is percolating for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Both compete in the same weight class (103.4 pounds and under). The U.S. team sends only one fighter per division.

At this weekend's U.S. National Team Trials in Colorado Springs, Kim, who last June refused to fight an injured top-ranked Poe for the 2000 Olympic Team spot, sent a message.

It had less to do with a withered friendship than a lifelong dream, once denied.

The message? Next time, don't expect any favors.

"Esther feels like 2004 is her time to go to the Olympics," her father said.

At the Olympic Training Center on Friday, Kim and Poe, from Houston, faced off against each other in the first match of the day in the round-robin preliminaries. Poe won. The post-match hug was perfunctory. Poe smiled and said, "Good job."

During the day they kept an eye on each other's fights. Chances were good they'd meet each other in the final, with a berth in November's world championship on the line.

But it wasn't the same as last year. It probably never will be.

"I've never had as much fun with anyone," Poe said.

"I miss our friendship," Kim said. "Laughing and crying together. Being able to say anything to each other. A lot of things have changed."

Including Kim. She's better at this sport than she was a year ago. For months, she has trained 4-5 hours a day. On the mat, she is closer to Poe than ever before.

Off it, it's another story. Neither woman can put her finger on when, exactly, they started to drift apart.

Maybe it was the fact Kim started catching up, or that Poe hates the spotlight, or it's too hard to kick your friend in the head, then get together for dinner afterward.

Once inseparable, they now have separate coaches, train at different gyms, hang out with different friends.