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Meet Kim Yu-na, likely queen of Vancouver

Already royalty at home, South Korea's most popular athlete is expected to skate to glory at the Olympic Games.

South Korea's Kim Yu-na performs during the ladies free skating program of the Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final in Tokyo, Dec. 5, 2009. Kim, the favorite for the gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics, is blazing a trail in a nation better known for its speed skating success. If the wildly popular 19-year-old world champion skates her way to the top next month, she will be the first South Korean winter athlete to win Olympic gold outside speed skating. (Yuriko Nakao/Reuters)

BOSTON — At Skate America, the first major figure skating competition of this Olympic season, the best word to describe Kim Yu-na’s much-anticipated performance was clumsy.

Kim, the reigning world champion, botched both jumps in her opening combination, fell on a triple flip and executed a triple lutz so poorly that the judges credited her with only a single jump. Coming on the heels of a record score in her short program, Kim, South Korea’s first breakout figure skating star, seemed every bit as stunned by her many stumbles as the crowd that night in Lake Placid.

It is a measure of her singular ability in the sport that, despite a rare off night, Kim still won the title by a decisive 11-point margin over Rachael Flatt, the American teen who would go on to capture the gold medal at the U.S. championships.

Kim is most always “on” — indeed most often on fire — and has been undefeated on the ice over the past two seasons. The 19-year-old boasts a rare combination of athletic prowess — with three different triple-triple jump combinations in her repertoire — and soaring artistry. She seems blessed with an innate ability to radiate joy and beauty, one that other competitors strain to attain. Kim holds every scoring record for women — under the system implemented in 2004 — and at her triumphant 2009 World Championship, she became the first woman ever to top 200 points.

This month in Vancouver she is expected to claim something far more valuable: the Olympic gold medal. And if ladies’ figure skating remains the crown jewel of the Winter Olympics, as Americans have always believed, Kim is expected to emerge as more than just a national hero at home in South Korea, but as queen of the Vancouver Games.

Kim is already royalty at home, referred to as “Queen Yu-na” by media and fans that follow her every step obsessively. She is not only the country’s most popular athlete — in a poll, 80 percent chose Kim — but for two years running, in a vote conducted by the Korea Times newspaper, has been named the nation’s “Person of the Year,” besting prime ministers and pop stars. Her face is ubiquitous on television and billboards and a compilation of her skating music is a chart-busting hit.