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Kim wins gold with free skate for the ages

South Korean phenom sheds tears after winning skate

Olympic gold medalist Yu-Na Kim will be honored in Los Angeles on Aug. 7.
Olympic gold medalist Yu-Na Kim will be honored in Los Angeles on Aug. 7. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(02/26/2010) - All hail Queen Yu-Na.

The South Korean phenomenon shrugged the weight of her country's expectations off her willowy shoulders to deliver a breathtaking performance and win gold by more than 23 points.

"I still can't believe that I did what I wanted to do at the Olympics," Yu-Na Kim, 19, said. "I've been dreaming about this moment, and I can't believe this is not a dream anymore."

It is her nation's first Olympic figure skating medal, as well as its first Winter Olympics medal in a sport other than speed skating or short track.

Mao Asada landed two triple Axels in her free skate and took home the silver medal. Joannie Rochette won a triumphant bronze just five days after hearing news of her mother Therese's sudden death from a heart attack.

American Mirai Nagasu had a clean, inspired performance that lifted her to fourth overall. Rachael Flatt dropped from fifth after the short to seventh after having two triple flips downgraded by the technical panel.

In the pantheon of great Olympic skates, Kim's combined efforts in her short program and free skate must rank high, right along side Brian Boitano's commanding performances and Alexei Yagudin's entertaining and dramatic turns at the 2002 Games.

"I am very happy I was able to do everything I was doing in practice, and I was especially happy with the score today," Kim said.

"For the first time, I had a very clean performance, not only in the short program, but also the long program. I am especially happy I was able to do this at the Olympics."

In her free skate, to Gershwin's jazzy Concerto in F, Kim banked 19.30 points with a spectacular opening triple Lutz-triple toe combination, followed by a sterling triple flip.

For the remainder of her four-minute program, she didn't put a foot wrong, mesmerizing the 11,000-strong crowd with sublime steps, elegant spins and perfect jumps, including two double Axel combinations and two triples done in the second half of her program.

Kim earned 150.06 points, smashing her own world record of 133.95, and ended with 228.56, another world record.

Having achieved her life's ambition, the skater was non-committal about future plans, including whether or not she would compete at the 2010 World Championships in Torino next month.

"Since I have accomplished the biggest goal in my life, I will enjoy this moment for a while," Kim said. "After a while, I will think about what I will do next."

Failure would not have been a good financial option for the skater: as reported in Forbes, she and U.S. snowboarder Shaun White are the richest Olympians, both earning an estimated $7.5 million in endorsements last year. Her sponsors include Hyundai Motor, Kookmin Bank, Nike and Procter & Gamble, to name just a few, and a Samsung Electronics "Yu-Na Haptic" style phone broke a company record in December when unit sales passed the million mark in less than seven months.

Some of these lucrative deals would have ended had she not brought home gold to South Korea.

"I have experienced a lot of international competitions, but I believe that today I was more confident than ever, and I was not nervous at all," Kim said.

"I was really comfortable today. I can't say there was anything different about the Olympic experience than any other international experience."

The road to Olympic and financial gold was treacherous. In early 2007, Kim moved to Toronto, partly for better training conditions, partly to escape the glare of her home country's media.

She skated much of the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons in pain due to hip and back injuries, withdrawing from several events including a Four Continents Championship held in her home country. Although she managed world bronze medals in 2007 and 2008, she was clearly not at her best.

"She had some good days and some not so good days," Orser said in the fall of 2008. "Then we got to the fall Grand Prix season, and she started doing a big push with her off-ice people, and it was just too much."

A change in her physiotherapist and a full-time personal trainer made the difference, and Kim has not lost a competition since the Grand Prix Final in 2008, where she placed second to Asada.

"If she was not my rival, maybe I [would not] improve my skating so much," Kim said. "We push each other. It's good to have a rival."

Kim's success has inspired a generation of younger Korean skaters, including Min-Jung Kwak, 16, who placed 13th here.

"Without Yu-Na Kim, I would not have improved so much," Kwak said. "We trained together, and I could see how Yu-Na trained, and that helped a lot. I am number two in the country right now but there are many ladies coming up, inspired by Yu-Na Kim.

"I cannot do a triple-triple combination right now, but I hope to do it next season. I want to skate in Sochi, so hopefully I can practice a lot the next four years."

Asada announced prior to competition that she would stick with her strategy of two triple Axels in her free skate, choreographed by her coach, Tatiana Tarasova, to Rachmaninoff's "Moscow Bells."

At her final practice, the 19-year-old attempted seven triple Axels, succeeding in six. The jump has a base value of 8.2 points, and when done in combination with a double toe, 9.5.

Asada's two triple Axels, one in combination, and triple flip combinations are worth more than Kim's jump repertoire, but given Kim's near five-point lead, plus the high GOE's and program component scores she typically receives, Asada had to land everything perfectly to have a chance.

She didn't. After nailing her two triple Axels and a triple flip-double loop, the Japanese champion had a second triple flip downgraded and popped an intended triple toe into a single.

Asada earned 131.72 in the free for 205.50 overall.

"I made some mistakes today, so I have some regrets, but I am very happy I was able to do both of my triple Axels and get a medal," Asada said.

"One thing I can say I would like to be proud of the fact that I completed three successful triple Axels [including one in the short] at this competition."

About the triple toe, she said, "It was toward the end of my performance, and I think my legs were a little tired. I think my edge went from under me. Looking back, I really wish I had done that jump, and I have some regret."

In an evening packed with emotion, the highlight came when Rochette took the ice to St. Saens' Samson and Delilah, choreographed by Lori Nichol.

With the crowd seeming to will the six-time Canadian champion through every jump, Rochette had a gutsy performance, hitting her opening triple Lutz-double toe-double loop and a triple toe-triple Salchow combination.

Although she struggled with a triple flip and double Axel, Rochette's program components score was the second only to Kim's, and she earned a season-best 131.28 points for 202.64 overall, another season best.

"I feel proud, but the result didn't matter," Rochette, 24, said. "I am happy to be on the podium; that was my goal coming here. It's been a lifetime project with my mom, and we achieved that."

"It wasn't easy, she had to fight her way through the program, and that's why she's here," Michael Slipchuk, Skate Canada's Director of High Athelete Performance, said.

Nagasu, the U.S. silver medalist, hit everything -- including six triples, three done in combination or sequence -- in her program to Bizet's "Carmen," and won the crowd over with her ultra-flexible spins and elegant spirals. She placed fifth in the free and fourth overall with 190.15 points.

"I'm just happy I was able to be behind those top competitors," Nagasu, 16, said.

"It's my first really big international competition and most [U.S.] 16-year-olds [Tara Lipinski, Sarah Hughes] medal at their first Olympics. I'm sorry I wasn't able to keep up that U.S. trend," Nagasu joked.

"Hopefully, I'll be able to make up for it when I come back for the next Olympics, I hope."

It had to be a disappointing result for 2007 world champion Miki Ando, who placed fifth overall despite a clean and powerful performance of her Cleopatra program.

In a surprise, 2009 European champion Laura Lepistö of Finland climbed from tenth after the short to sixth overall after a fourth-place free skate that included a triple toe-triple toe combination.

The first to skate in the final warm-up, Flatt laid down a season's-best performance, hitting five triples but having both of her triple flips downgraded. She placed eighth in the free and seventh overall.

"She did a great performance, it was still her personal best, even with the downgrades," Flatt's coach, Tom Zakrajsek said.

"Her components scores [58.48 points] were higher than they've ever been. Obviously, if you can get 11 or 12 more points, that really helps your score, but when you're downgraded, you're losing a lot of points...I don't think she's ever been downgraded on her triple flip before in her career at the international level."