Kim Yu-na heads into free skate the heavy favorite for figure skating gold

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 25, 2010; D05

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- Japan's Mao Asada is the only woman on the planet who can land the difficult triple Axel jump. When she hit it cleanly in the women's Olympic short program Tuesday night, she drew cheers and gasps from the crowd.

But she still finished second to South Korean wonder woman Kim Yu-na.

As she ponders how to erase Kim's 4.72-point lead in Thursday's deciding free skate, she must be wondering: Now what?

"What Yu-na has is what the judges are looking for," three-time world champion Michelle Kwan said after watching Wednesday's practice session.

"Every little girl in the world is going to want to be her," '84 Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton said.

"She'll be known as one of the all-time great technical skaters," said Kwan's former coach Frank Carroll, the coach of American skater Mirai Nagasu.

Of course, it's not over yet. The competition between Kim, the reigning world champion, and Asada, the woman who owned the title the year previously, takes shape with some hints of the quad-versus-no-quad argument that dominated the men's event -- only the breakdown of this matchup is far more complex.

It's not that Asada, 19, has elevated technical achievement in the sport and Kim, 19, is lagging behind. Though Asada intends to bring out two triple Axels in the free skate, Kim will counter with her triple Lutz-triple toe combination -- which is so challenging, Kwan said Wednesday, she could not imagine attempting it in an Olympics.

"What's harder, a triple Axel-double toe, or a triple Lutz-triple toe?" Kwan said. "How do you compare them?"

The judges Tuesday gave the advantage to Kim; they rewarded her with 12 points for her combination, 1.90 points more than Asada got for hers. Kim can be described, basically, as executing everything she does better than anyone else that does it. You don't need to know a thing about the sport to see that her jumps are higher, faster, cleaner. She has scored off-the-charts "grades of execution" -- bonus points that help a skater crush the field.

Kim took a significant lead, 78.50 to 73.78. Canada's Joannie Rochette, 24, stands in third place with 71.36, Japan's Miki Ando (64.76) is fourth, and American up-and-comers Rachael Flatt (64.64), 17, and Nagasu (63.76), 16, are next.

"Usually, I think there's more like a 10-point difference" between Kim and second place, Asada said late Tuesday night through an interpreter. "It's a little closer than what is usually the difference between myself and Miss Kim Yu-na, so I hope for the free program, I can do my best."

Asada, however, must confront a number of issues. Despite her mastery of the Axel, she has been confounded by the triple Lutz; it is nowhere to be found in her long program. Her triple Axel, meantime, can seem to bring a fast-paced program to a halt. She did not receive high grades of execution when she landed that jump in combination with a double toe Tuesday.

"I thought the triple Axel was nice," said Carroll, also the coach of Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek. "But I thought the double toe was at a standstill."

Kim, on the other hand, seemed literally to fly through her program, maintaining her speed even while soaring through the air.

"When you look at the speed, the quality, the air position, the flow on the landings, the quality of her spins, her flexibility -- and you throw on top of that the 'program component scores;' she's got choreography going on -- she makes it look effortless," Hamilton said. "This is where the sport is headed. This is how it's evaluated now."

After Tuesday's great skate, Kim looked invincible, but hope remains for skaters seeking an upset. That hope can be described in three words: She could fall. She crashed to the ice during her morning practice Wednesday while attempting what has given her headaches now and then this season: the triple flip.

Of course, Kim had fallen hard attempting the jump in practice Tuesday, hours before landing a flawless one that night.

"She could make a mistake" and win the gold, Carroll said. "I'm not sure she could make two mistakes."

Kim botched the triple flip in her long program at Skate America in Lake Placid in November. She had built such an enormous lead in the short program, she still won the title there, but Flatt became the only woman this season to outscore Kim in the free skate.

After the performance, Kim admitted the pressure of being the sport's queen had gotten to her.

On Tuesday, however, she said pressure was not a problem.

"What I'm going to do [Thursday] is not pressure [myself] too much to do an Olympic gold medal," Kim said through a interpreter. "When I got here, when I was practicing, I didn't think that this is the Olympics, or I have to be perfect. . . . I don't know why, but I wasn't really thinking this is the Olympics. It wasn't a special feeling; it was just the same as other competitions, so I was very comfortable."

Flatt and her coach, Tom Zakrajsek, watched a tape of the short program Wednesday morning to see the competition they had missed Tuesday night as they prepared for Flatt's late skate. With Kim and Asada on their "A game," Zakrajsek said, Flatt studied their performances purely to learn.

Even so, Flatt and Nagasu will be attempting to squeeze onto the medal podium. Should they fall short, these Games will be the first in 46 years that the United States has not claimed a women's Olympic medal in figure skating.

"We have talked about wanting to get a medal, get on the podium," Zakrajsek said. "That's what competition is all about . . . Anything's possible in this judging system."

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