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.
Kim is the latest — and probably the greatest — talent to emerge from the figure skating explosion in Asia. At the last three world championships, Asian skaters have won 12 medals, including four golds, as well as six of nine possible medals in ladies competition. Such success has its roots in the 1990s when the first Japanese and Chinese stars — Midori Ito, Yuka Sato, Chen Lu — emerged alongside Asian-American superstars like Olympic champion Kristi Yamaguchi and two-time Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan.
While most of China’s next figure-skating generation has found success in pairs skating, Japan has replaced the United States as the dominant power in the ladies game. After Turin, where Shizuka Arakawa became the first Japanese skater to win the Olympic gold medal, two other Japanese women, Miki Ando in 2007 and Mao Asada in 2008, have won world championships.
But now it is Korea’s Kim who has ascended to the top, with back-to-back Grand Prix titles and her breakthrough world championship last year. Perhaps no other athlete in Vancouver carries the hopes of an entire nation, as Kim does. The national rivalry between Korea and Japan is as intense and, at times, bitter as any in the world. While Korea has celebrated Winter Olympic success in speed skating, a gold medal for Kim would be even more glorious as it would likely come at the expense of the Japanese. (Japan boasts three of the five skaters behind Kim in the current world rankings.)
Kim has been tested before when national pride was at stake. Her world title in Los Angeles came just a few days after — and in the very same city — Korea’s heartbreaking, extra-innings loss to Japan in the World Baseball Classic finals. Still, her wobbly Skate America performance provided a reminder that nobody is completely immune to nerves. And the Olympic competition remains a singular pressure-cooker. In recent years, Olympic gold has eluded some standout world champions like America’s Michelle Kwan, with five world titles, and Canada’s Kurt Browning, with four.
Despite being an Olympic rookie, Kim, more than her rivals, may be more accustomed to the relentless media attention that awaits the top stars in Vancouver. Korean media already stalks her every move, treating her like a combination of LeBron James and Beyonce. “She has 1,000 eyes on her all the time,” her coach, Brian Orser, told Jere Longman of the New York Times. “She’s gotten used to being a rock star.”
For all the sub-plots that will resonate loudly along the Pacific Rim, Kim brings to the ice some Western sensibilities that have helped make her universally popular. She will perform her short program to James Bond movie music and her free skate to the silky melodies of George Gershwin. And while Canada has its own contender in world silver medalist Joannie Rochette, Kim boasts a Canadian connection that should make her something of a local favorite too. She trains in Toronto with Orser, who was twice an Olympic silver medalist and one of Canada’s most popular skating stars ever.
Orser’s second silver, at the 1988 Calgary Games, was a heartbreaker for both athlete and country. He was the reigning world champion as well as the Canadian flag-bearer at Opening Ceremonies and had the advantage of skating before a home crowd. In one of the most memorable contests in Olympic figure-skating history — the so-called “Battle of the Brians” — Orser lost by the narrowest possible margin to America’s Brian Boitano. A triumph for Kim in Vancouver could provide a golden moment for two nations.
Ladies Figure Skating
Short program — Feb. 23
Free Skate — Feb. 25