Kim Yu-na of South Korea performs during the ladies short program at the World Figure Skating Championships. (Darron Cummings/Associated Press)

Competing in her first World Figure Skating Championships in two years, Kim Yu-Na wasn’t the impeccable performer her legions of fans recall from the 2010 Winter Olympics, where she set records for a short program, free skate and total score that no woman has approached since.

But Kim’s best at the moment, three months after returning to competition following a 19-month hiatus, remains the best in the world.

So revered in her native South Korea that she is known as “Queen Yu-Na,” Kim seized the lead after Thursday’s short program, earning 69.97 points for an elegant routine that included three triple jumps, one of which drew minor quibbles from judges.

Two-time defending U.S. national champion Ashley Wagner, 21, finished fifth (63.98), opting not to attempt the high-risk triple-triple combination that currently distinguishes the world’s elite from those aspiring to be. But every element Wagner performed was executed cleanly, without a single deduction or downgrade, resulting in a solid start for the West Potomac (Va.) graduate.

“I’m in fighting distance,” said Wagner, who landed a triple-triple during practice earlier Thursday.

Ashley Wagner of the U.S. performs during the Ladies Short Program at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships in London, Ontario, March 14, 2013. REUTERS/Mark Blinch (CANADA - Tags: SPORT FIGURE SKATING) (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

Fellow American Gracie Gold, 17, who took silver at U.S. nationals in January, finished ninth overall (58.85), turning in what she deemed a “safe” performance that did include a triple-triple but lacked the artful connective tissue of more mature competitors.

Wagner has not won a medal at the world championships, finishing fourth in 2011. And Gold, making her debut, is just one year removed from claiming silver at junior worlds. Their goal at this competition is twofold: Win an individual medal and regain a third spot for the U.S. women at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. To do so, they must finish no lower than 13th when their final placements are totaled following Saturday’s free skate.

After Thursday’s short program, their placements totaled 14, putting them in good position to earn that coveted third spot.

“Three spots, three spots, three spots!” Wagner said, fixated on the goal. “We’re going to do whatever it takes to get there.”

In Wagner’s case, that apparently means including the risky triple-triple in Saturday’s free skate.

The triple-triple “has to be in that program, and I’m fully aware of that,” Wagner said. “The U.S. ladies team here is here to get that third spot back. It’s almost a personal agenda.”

Wagner was a casualty of the country’s waning skating prominence when the allotment of Olympic spots was pared to two for the 2010 Vancouver Games. She would have been the third to qualify.

“I was the person most directly affected last Olympics,” she noted, “and I want that third spot back. We’ve been trying for too long to get it back.”

Defending world champion Carolina Kostner of Italy fell on her second jump, a triple toe, but turned in an otherwise beautiful performance that judges loved. She was rewarded with the highest artistic marks and vaulted into second place with a score (66.86) that puzzled the crowd, bumping Canada’s Kaetlyn Osmond (64.73) off the podium.

Placing third was 18-year-old Kanako Murakami (66.64), the 2010 world junior champion.

Japan’s Mao Asada, the only competitor with a personal-best remotely close to Kim’s, had the crowd clapping along from the outset of her sprightly program to Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” She opened with a terrific triple axel but under-rotated a triple flip-double toe loop combination and stepped out of another jump. Her score (62.10) placed her sixth.

Kim, 22, was the 14th of 35 skaters to compete. It was an unfamiliar starting spot for the defending Olympic champion and 2009 world champion (starts roughly follow world rankings in inverse order) — the result of her ranking slipping during her break from competition.

In a smoky blue-gray dress, Kim was more emotive than she had been during practice earlier this week and landed all of her jumps, opening with a triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination and following with a triple flip. While she was penalized for taking off on the wrong edge of her blade on her second jump, Kim created the overall impression of an artist in full command.

Gold, who confessed she has idolized Kim since 2009 but has yet to summon the nerve to ask for a photograph together, critiqued the Korean’s performance eloquently.

“It’s just one program, [but] even if she does stop skating, it’s as if the feeling of the program keeps going,” Gold said, asked what she admitted about Kim. “Going into every jump, you kind of know she’s going to hit it, and you’re just waiting to see it. The things that I struggle with—that confidence. It just looks like she trusts herself so much.”

Skating note: Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the 2011 world champions in ice dance, took a commanding lead after what White called “a dream skate” in their short program, earning 77.12 points. Their longtime rivals, defending Olympic and world champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, were second (73.87), and Russia’s Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev were third (70.05). All three American duos placed among the top eight, with Madison Chock and Evan Bates seventh (66.74) and siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani eighth (66.14).