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Joannie Rochette captivates crowd, trails Kim Yu-na and Mao Asada after figure skating short program

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 24, 2010; D01

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- Two women awed the crowd Tuesday night at Pacific Coliseum while another nearly brought down the house -- in tears. As South Korea's Kim Yu-na and Japan's Mao Asada laid down back-to-back extraordinary programs to kick off the competition in women's Olympic figure skating -- with the edge to the reigning world champion Kim -- Canadian Joannie Rochette skated a clean and emotional program just two days after her mother's sudden death from a heart attack.

Kim and Asada ended their programs with smiles and fist punches; Rochette ended hers by dissolving in tears as the crowd rose for, by far, the loudest ovation of the night.

At the conclusion, Kim carried a commanding, but not invincible, lead entering Thursday's deciding long program. She earned a world-record total of 78.50 points from the judges. Asada, the 2008 world champion who has struggled this season, received 73.78 for second, and Rochette claimed third with 71.36 points. Japan's Miki Ando, the 2007 world champion, stood in fourth place with 64.76.

"The pressure I had was not as much as I expected," Kim, 19, said shortly after skating through an interpreter. "The battle was not so much."

The battle, of course, will continue Thursday.

"Five points," Asada, 19, said, "isn't a lot."

The night offered so much. It featured the drama of a full-throttle duel between the favorites, Kim and Asada, both of whom put forth powerful, clean and difficult programs. It showed American Mirai Nagasu, just 16 and skating in her first Olympics, fighting through a bloody nose early in the night; she landed in sixth place with 63.76.

It offered American Rachael Flatt, 17, who skated her heart out in a hot pink dress to "Sing Sing Sing" late in the night and received a total of 64.64 points for fifth place.

And it showcased Rochette getting on the ice as she said she would, and nailing her program on top of it. When she received her marks, she blew kisses to the roaring, adoring crowd and touched her heart.

"It was very nice to have the warm welcome," Rochette said in a statement. "It was hard to handle, but I appreciate the support."

Asked about her emotions, she said simply, "Words cannot describe" them. She did not speak directly to reporters, but gave her comments to a figure skating official.

Rochette, 24, landed a triple Lutz-double toe combination, a trip flip and double Axel, and skated with grace and elegance. Before taking the ice, she stood at the boards saying, 'okay' and nodding her head as she received last-minute encouragement. Her mother, Therese, suffered a heart attack the night she arrived from Montreal for these Games. She was 55. Rochette learned of her mother's death from her father at 6 a.m. Sunday and never considered not skating here.

"I was so proud of Joannie," said Kim's coach Brian Orser, a Canadian Olympic silver medalist. "I can only imagine how tough it's been for her. I just know the skating fans in our nation carried her through. There were a lot of heavy hearts."

There also were plenty of Japanese flags and South Korean banners -- many of which said "Queen Yu-na" -- in the arena Tuesday, and they began waving with a frenzy as Asada and Kim took the ice for their six-minute warm-up. Asada skated just before Kim and started off with her secret weapon, the triple Axel, which no other female skater can do. She nailed the difficult jump in combination with a double toe, but struggled to get around on her triple flip. But she smiled throughout her program, executing extremely difficult spins and a stylish program.

When Asada finished, she looked both delighted and relieved, tapping her heart with her right hand.

"I'm so happy today," Asada said. "It was one of the best performances I've done, so I'm really happy about it. I was really nervous, even from at the hotel, but once I started skating, I slowly calmed down, and it was all good."

Kim, meantime, began smiling even before she landed her last jump, a double Axel. Moments after Asada had put down a major challenge, Kim followed with a flawless and dynamic skate of her own. She had soft landings on all of her jumps, including a triple Lutz, triple toe loop combination and triple flip. She showed off a beautiful spiral sequence and difficult spins. She finished the program to a James Bond medley by pretending to shoot a gun and, indeed, she had given the night her best shot.

"My confidence is very good for this Olympics," she said. "And my condition is the very best."

Despite Asada's triple Axel, Kim crushed Asada on her technical marks, earning 44.70 to 41.50. Asada received a low grade-of-execution for the triple flip (getting 5.70 instead of the 6.70 Kim scored), and scored 10.10 points for the triple Axel combination. Kim earned a higher grade of execution for her combination, and thus scored 12 points for it. She also edged Asada with 33.80 points for program components; Asada claimed 32.28.

Before the points-oriented judging system was introduced at the 2006 Winter Games, it was virtually impossible for anyone outside of the top four skaters to hope for the gold medal. Now, leaps from fifth or sixth to first are not considered inconceivable, but Kim isn't figured to face much of a threat from anyone but Asada.

The two Americans, however, hope to fight their way onto the medal podium. They are desperately trying to avoid being the first U.S. women's team to fail to win an Olympic medal since 1964, the Winter Games that followed a plane crash that killed the entire U.S. figure skating squad.

Flatt landed a triple flip-triple toe combination, but wobbled on her triple Lutz. She received 36.80 for technical scores, and 27.84 for program components.

"I'm ecstatic about how things went," Flatt said. "I think my long is a better program for me. I'm more confident with it. But I don't care about the results. I just want to go out and perform it well."

Nagasu skated first among the skaters with medal hopes, and got an awful feeling shortly after she started: that of blood inching toward her lip. She has had problems with nosebleeds since she arrived here, she said, so she knew immediately what was up -- or, rather, down.

"Halfway through my program, I felt like, just: 'Stop running down my nose!' " she said. "[Then] I was just like, 'Don't think about it.' "

It was, however, a distraction. Nagasu did not exude the high energy and sublime grace she showed at the recent U.S. championships, but she showed off her flexibility with a lovely layback spin and, most importantly, she stayed off the ice, hitting a clean triple flip and double Axel. Nagasu also fell short of one goal; she had vowed to try a high-scoring triple-triple combination, but instead she did a triple Lutz, double toe loop.

"The landing was a little bit funky [on the Lutz], so I think I made the right choice," she said.

It certainly cost her valuable points.

When Nagasu's music stopped, she looked as if she had been punched in the nose. She ignored the pool of blood in her nostrils as she took her bows. The 37.00 and 26.76 she received from the judging panel combined for an international season best, but not as high as she scored at the U.S. championships.

"I definitely wish I didn't have a bloody nose," Nagasu said. "I still did the best I could . . . From today's performance, I don't think I can reach the podium, so I'm a little bit disappointed."

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