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Kim set to defend Grand Prix title

Rivals Kim and Asada duke it out in Italy this weekend

Yu-Na Kim.
Yu-Na Kim. (Getty Images)

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By Laurie Nealin, special to icenetwork.com
(12/12/2007) - Yu-Na Kim might not get as much press as Mao Asada, but she is every bit the gold medal contender every time she steps on competition ice.

Since 2005 when they were both juniors, South Korea's Kim and Japan's Asada have taken turns winning titles; from the world junior crown to the Grand Prix Final. Last March, they claimed silver and bronze on the World Championship stage, with Asada a step above Kim. Now, the tables have turned. Kim is currently tops on icenetwork.com's world rankings, some 24 points ahead of Asada.

This week, the Kim-Asada rivalry will resume as the teen phenomes, both 17, meet again at the Grand Prix Final in Italy. Both earned two gold medals on the GP circuit this fall, their paths never crossing. A year ago, Kim bested Asada to take the GP title.

Like Asada, Kim was drawn to the optimum training conditions North America has to offer. She relocated to Toronto with her mother to work with Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser.

Kim's personal physiotherapist, who directs Kim's off-ice training and provides massage therapy, also made the move. He is tasked with keeping her back healthy after last season's painful bout with a bulging disc and inflammation of the SI (sacroiliac) joint at the base of the spine.

"It's not 100 percent yet," Orser said of Kim's problematic back. "As we move closer to competition, it seems to flare up because she's working so hard."

The Japanese media is infamous for the intensity with which it has covered its figure skating stars, and Orser reports they have also paid considerable attention to Kim. The South Korean media in Toronto, and in her home country rival the Japanese when it comes to covering Kim; who has finished on the podium in every competition she entered since appearing on the international scene in 2005.

Although figure skating was introduced to Korea some 100 years ago by American YMCA workers and the first national championship was held in 1952, Kim is the one and only skater from that country ever to land on any ISU event podium. In addition, she is the only international podium contender in Korea today. That puts her under tremendous pressure.

"I don't think there's pressure on her to win - she puts pressure on herself to win. But (the fame) is overwhelming. It's like traveling around with Princess Diana," said Orser.

"There are so many people and photographers, people pushing and shoving. People love her. It's really exciting that they've embraced figure skating and they've embraced her," he continued.

With the 2010 Olympic Games just two years off, the pressure will only continue. Orser, who headed into the 1988 Games as the world champion and gold medal favorite, is well-aware what lies ahead for Kim.

"She has pressure every year now, especially with that great rivalry with Mao. That's very reminiscent of the 'two Brian's'," Orser said in reference to his own battle with American Brian Boitano, who grabbed the gold in Calgary in 1988.

Kim also must get used to avid Korean fans being in the stands, even at competitions not being held in Korea. She was distracted by a huge Korean flag being waved at the Cup of China as she set up for her triple flip. Orser had to remind her that boisterous fans are going to be part of the equation from here on in.

"We have to take that energy and use it as a positive," he told Kim.

To ensure Kim is not unnecessarily distracted as the clock ticks down to the Vancouver Games, Orser has advised her agency, Korea's IB Sports, that he wants "no surprises, no last-minute (requests) to go off and do some shows."

"IB Sports have been great with me," explained Orser. "Skating comes first. Her training comes first. Her physiotherapy is important and she has to be healthy, and they understand that."

Two weeks ago in Russia, Kim posted the best-ever score earned by a woman for her free skate program. Kim's 133.70 points were just a fraction better than the 133.13 Asada recorded at the 2007 Worlds.

"It's great because even she's saying that it's not her best performance," Orser said of the early season score on which they can build. "That's quite normal what she did, that's pretty much her average."

Kim's record-setting program is set to an unusual piano orchestration of music from the "Miss Saigon" soundtrack. Renowned choreographer David Wilson, who has designed both her programs, found the piece and recommended it.

"It should always be the skater's choice but we can influence," Orser chuckled. "She loves both programs. The waltz (for the short program), she knew it was a big, mature stretch. It's the "Fledermaus" by Strauss. It's just such a great vehicle for her, and the two programs are different from each other."

Kim's team also includes Canada's legendary ice dance champion Tracy Wilson, spin coach Astrid Jansen Shrubb, who represented the Netherlands in international competition in the 1970s, and iconic Canadian ballerina Evelyn Hart.

As Kim's English has improved, communication with her coaches has become easier. "It just takes a little bit more time. Now, there are enough words in her vocabulary that we can get it (ideas) across. A year ago, it was really tough," Orser conceded. "They always had a translator with them if they had a meeting with me."

Kim lives in a neighborhood populated by many people of South Korean heritage where Korean is spoken in restaurants, shops, and travel agencies. It makes her feel right at home.

Orser admits his Korean has not progressed as well as Kim's English. His Korean vocabulary is limited to two words: hello and thank you.

He will have more opportunity to learn the language when Kim competes for the first time in a major international championship on home ice. The 2008 Four Continents is to be held in a suburb of Seoul in February, while Korea's national championships are slated for the following week.

By then, the South Korean media and fan frenzy should be hitting a crescendo.