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South Korea's Kim Yu-na wins gold in women's figure skating

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 2010; D01

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- With nimble leaps across the ice, elegant spins and a flowing, graceful program that seemed to reach out and touch the audience, South Korea's Kim Yu-na scored a knockout victory in the Olympic women's free skate Thursday night, claiming the first Olympic figure skating gold medal ever for her nation with a jaw-dropping score that set a women's world record.

Moments after Kim made it clear no one would touch her in the standings, Canadian Joannie Rochette, once again, moved everyone in Pacific Coliseum, and surely around the globe, too. Four days after the death of her 55-year-old mother, Rochette put out an emotional, nearly mistake-free program that kept her on her feet, and then pulled the crowd out of its seats.

Kim's excellence earned her a stunning 228.56 points overall, which allowed her to crush Japan's Mao Asada for the gold. Asada earned 205.50 points for the silver, and Rochette hung on for the bronze medal with 202.64.

In their first Olympics, Americans Rachael Flatt, 17, and Mirai Nagasu, 16, smiled their way through strong, virtually flawless skates, but they also became the first U.S. women's team not to claim an Olympic figure skating medal since 1964.

"Before the performance, I expected to get maybe somewhere around 130," Kim said, answering some questions in English and others through a translator. "If I did really well, somewhere around 140. When I saw my score, I was very surprised, because it is usually the score men in figure skating get. . . . Today, all of the things I wanted to do, I was able to do."

Kim's point total was higher than that accrued by American Jeremy Abbott, who finished with 218.96 in the men's event, although the comparison is not straightforward because of differences in the scoring and requirements.

After her music stopped, Rochette extended her hands to the sky and mouthed a thank you to her mother. Unlike after the short program, Rochette made it through the night largely composed.

"I gave everything I had in that program," Rochette said, giving her first interviews since her mother Therese died suddenly from a heart attack the night after arriving here. "I was so empty. I had no energy really the last two days. My legs were shaking, but I thanked my mother for the strength she gave me to perform.

"I want to thank everyone who supported me. It was a very rough couple of days, and I want to thank everyone around the world."

Nagasu, the last skater of the night, took the ice immediately after Rochette had left it. She still managed to climb to fourth place with 190.15 points on the strength of a clean -- but not quite difficult enough -- program. Flatt landed in seventh with 182.49 points, behind Japan's Miki Ando (188.86) and Finland's Laura Lepisto (187.97).

"For me, it wasn't the place I wanted to skate," Nagasu said. "I knew no matter what [Rochette] did the crowd would be crazy for her. I just thought about how much I wanted to get here. It's been my dream since I was a little girl."

When the top six skaters entered the rink for their six-minute warmup, many in the crowd of 11,000 pulled out their cheering weaponry: South Korean, Japanese and Canadian flags -- and a few U.S. ones -- danced and waved from the first row to the rafters. The fans were divided among the queen of South Korean skating, a cadre of Japanese stars, and a Canadian medal hope in mourning for her late mother.

Kim, 19, skated to Gershwin in a blue dress, and the crowd sat in nervous silence as the piano piece began. She quickly cut the tension in the arena by nailing her opening triple Lutz-triple toe combination and following that up with a clean triple flip -- the jump that had been her nemesis over the last few months. From there, Kim attached difficult elements in a gold medal-winning ballet. She hit three difficult combinations and executed a program that included six triples and three double Axels.

When she finished, the crowd leaped to its feet, and Kim, after throwing her fists in the air, bent over and cried. Her coach, Canadian Brian Orser, a two-time Olympic silver medal winner, leaped behind the boards. Kim received 150.06 points.

"I'm very happy," Kim said. "I'm especially happy about the score. . . . Today, I was more confident than ever and I was not nervous at all."

Rochette, 24, began the night in third. After drawing an enormous ovation from the crowd, Rochette hit a triple Lutz-double toe-double loop combination, but fell out of a triple flip. She hit seven triple jumps overall but couldn't quite overtake Asada, receiving 131.28 points for the effort.

"Of course, I didn't really feel like skating," Rochette said. "My mind was not there, but I'm glad I did it, because I know, in 10 years when the pain has gone away a little bit, I would have wished I skated. I know my mother would have wanted me here."

Asada, 19, took the ice amid the frenzied celebration over Kim's magnificence. Showing the same fighting form she showed in the short program, Asada put out a great program at the start to Rachmaninov's "Bells of Moscow," but she made a few critical mistakes. She hit a pair of her signature triple Axels -- she's the only woman who can do them. But she fell out of a triple flip, then stumbled near center ice and hit a single toe loop.

She, and the crowd, knew full well that performance wasn't enough for the gold. She earned 131.72 points.

"I made some mistakes today, so I do have some regrets," Asada said through an interpreter. "But I'm very happy I was able to get a medal."

Ando, 22, wore an emerald green dress and performed as Cleopatra. The only woman to ever land a quadruple jump in competition, Ando stayed off the ice, but she did not show the speed or flair of the top skaters. The reigning world bronze medal winner, Ando scored 124.10.

Flatt skated first among the top skaters. Wearing a scarlet dress and trailing Kim by 13 points, Flatt seemingly nailed her program, which included seven triple jumps, and then sold it for all it was worth. Known for her consistency, Flatt did not disappoint, though she lacked the artistic presence to flat-out awe. When Flatt's marks were announced, the crowd hissed and booed. Thanks to downgrades on two triple flips -- a problem she thought she had conquered this year -- she scored just 117.85.

"I was just stoked" after I finished, Flatt said. "I didn't care what the points were at that point, but obviously I do now."

Nagasu finished the night with a rousing performance as Carmen. She hit a triple Lutz in combination, a double Axel in combination and showed off a lively, exuberant program. She missed the bronze medal by just over 12 points.

Lepisto, who finished sixth at last year's world championships, stood in 10th place after the short program, but she executed a clean and elegant skate that seemed to give her a medal shot with all of the top skaters still remaining. She hit a triple toe-triple toe combination, landed five triples overall and nailed two double Axels while carrying herself with balletic grace. She scored 126.61 for the effort.

South Korea had never won an Olympic figure skating medal of any sort before Thursday. Japan won its first women's Olympic figure skating medal when Midori Ito earned the silver in 1992 in Albertville. Her achievement, combined with Yuka Sato's '94 world title and the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, has been credited with inspiring a generation of Japanese skaters.

Japanese or South Koreans -- namely, Kim -- have won seven of the last nine world championship medals. After winning back-to-back world bronze medals in 2007 and 2008, Kim established herself as the sport's biggest star last year, winning her first world title. Asada had won the world title in 2008 and Ando in 2007.

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