By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; D08
VANCOUVER, B.C. -- Reporters, judges, coaches and diehard figure skating fans came out for the women's figure skating practice sessions Monday afternoon, assembling in clusters around Pacific Coliseum and then picking apart the field. Who looked good? Who looked shaky? Who skated with confidence?
There is no event more anticipated at the Winter Games than the women's figure skating competition, but it's often the least likely to go as expected. South Korea's Kim Yu-Na, the reigning world champion, is the overwhelming favorite. And, for the record, she skated flawlessly in her last practice on the eve of the Olympic women's short program.
But it cannot be comforting to Kim, 19, that the gold medal favorites at the last three Olympics have not, in fact, actually won the gold. The women's Olympic figure skating competition, perhaps more than any other, has provided grand opportunity for underdogs as favorites have crumbled -- or, at least, stumbled -- under the heavy pressure.
"This," Kim's coach, Brian Orser, said, "is different than any other event on the planet."
And Kim is different, at the moment, than any other skater on the planet. Known as "Queen Yu-Na" in her country, Kim moved to Toronto to train with Orser to escape the rock-star hype that has led to countless endorsements and extraordinary scrutiny since she won the International Skating Union Grand Prix Final in 2006.
Kim "knows there's pressure," Orser said. "It's understandable. She knows she has a huge fan base in [South] Korea, and they adore her and want her to do well. She's able to acknowledge that and put it aside and still focus on her job."
Kim, who remained in Toronto for the first week of the Games, gave a hint Monday that she was ready to take on all challengers. In her first practice session with rival Mao Asada of Japan, Asada skated first and showed off a perfect triple Axel-double toe loop combination. The combination turned heads; Asada is the only woman in the world who performs a triple Axel.
Even Orser admitted to sneaking a peak at Asada, the 2008 world champion, while she skated.
"It's human to pay attention to what others are doing when we're on the same sheet of ice and practicing," he said.
But when asked if Kim were ready for Asada to start dropping triple Axels, Orser got a touch defensive: "We always prepare for everybody to do their best. If other athletes have a triple Axel-double toe, that's still worth less than a triple Lutz-triple toe [that Kim performs]. We can't pay too much attention to that."
Of course, like everyone else in the rink Monday, he was paying attention to it.
Kim, though, came right back. When Asada finished, she countered with a complete, and flawless, long program. And unlike Asada, who skated bits of her short while skipping some footwork sections, Kim did a full performance, carrying it through from start to finish.
"If today is any indication, I think she's fine," said NBC analyst and 1984 Olympic gold medal winner Scott Hamilton, one of those watching. "Yu-Na did her long program clean the second [Mao] finished as if to say, 'I'm ready.' . . . That's a big statement."
Don't think, Hamilton noted, that there isn't any gamesmanship going on at figure skating practices. He recalled taking the ice at a practice rink in Sarajevo, Bosnia, at the 1984 Winter Games and executing a flawless run-through of his free skate. When he finished, he looked up and saw his main rival, who happened to be Orser, flat-out staring at him.
"He was standing there looking at me as if to say, 'Is that all you got?' " Hamilton recalled. "It was the first time Orser had seen me skate. I don't know if he intentionally did that, but that was the way I took it."
Orser ended up beating Hamilton in the long program, though Hamilton claimed the gold medal anyway.
Hamilton, the favorite, overcame the pressure, but plenty of recent women's stars have not. At the 2006 Winter Games, favorite Sasha Cohen made big mistakes and Shizuka Arakawa took the gold. Four years before, Michelle Kwan, Irina Slutskaya and Cohen all made critical errors and the third-ranked American, Sarah Hughes, rocketed to the gold. In 1998, Kwan skated tentatively and Tara Lipinski stole the title.
Orser said the strong practice effort Monday would help Kim move past any lingering nervousness.
"With each day, you become more comfortable," he said. "It's the Olympic Games, the first practices are usually a little tense. I think today was a turning point."
The history of the event, of course, suggests that plenty of women could challenge Kim. The other medal favorites are Asada and Japan's Miki Ando, the 2007 world champion. Canada's Joannie Rochette, who was second at the world championships and whose 55-year-old mother died suddenly Saturday night, will be the sentimental and hometown favorite.
Americans Mirai Nagasu and Rachael Flatt, meantime, surely will take inspiration from Hughes and Lipinski.
None of the favored skaters seemed to willing to open the door to distractions Monday; all blew through the specified interview zone without taking any questions. But during a news conference Saturday, Ando offered a window into her approach to trying to challenge Kim.
"I think she has something I'm missing in terms of her expression and her jumps," Ando said. But, "in the Olympics in particular, you cannot really predict what will happen at the end. The athletes who are considered the strongest may fail."