Kim, Rochette made this short program unforgettable
The quality of the skating by Kim Yu-na and Mao Asada lived up to the billing
Under pressure from her country and her competition, Yu-na delivered
Canada's courageous Joannie Rochette gave a heartrending performance
The battle belonged to Korea's exquisite Kim Yu-na and Japan's sensational Mao Asada, who are the two best women skaters of their time. But the night belonged to Canada's courageous and heartrending Joannie Rochette, who was competing just two days after her mother, Therese, died of an apparent heart attack early Sunday morning shortly after arriving in Vancouver to watch her daughter skate.
It was an unforgettable evening on several levels. The quality of the skating by Kim and Asada, whose rivalry lived up to its billing, was, honestly, without precedent. Adding to the drama, they took the ice back to back. First it was Asada, the 2008 World Champion, landing her huge triple axel-double toe combination with ease -- the first triple axel by a woman in the Olympics since Japan's Midori Ito in 1992. And she brought more than her jumping to these Games. On a night when the judges were very conservative in awarding positive Grade Of Execution (GOE) points, Asada's spiral sequence was given a +2.00. She made no mistakes, and her artistry was masterful -- her program component scores ranged from 7.40 to 8.40. Pumping her fist after her final spin, Asada burst into a huge smile, as if to say: Beat that, Yu-na! -- as the Pacific Coliseum was suddenly aflutter in Japanese flags. Asada's total was 73.78, the second highest mark for a short program this year.
Of course the highest mark was given to the next skater, Kim, the 2009 World Champion and a woman who had steamrolled the field this year in the Grand Prix series, winning every time she took the ice. The pressure on her was extraordinary -- all of Korea expected her to win, and especially expected her to beat the Japanese women, because of cultural animosity between those two countries. Kim's short program, to a medley of James Bond themes, had been received all season as one of the great shorts ever, filled with flirtation, spunk, speed, and technical difficulty. Her triple lutz-triple toe combination to open her program actually had a higher base value than Asada's less common triple axel-double toe.
But Kim was equal to the pressure. She was absolutely breathtaking, both in her technique and in her artistry. Every single element she performed received a positive GOE, and two -- her spiral sequence and her triple-triple -- were given +2.00. Her artistic marks ranged between 7.90 and 8.75 -- they were the highest of the night -- and the whimsical shot from her pistol at the end of the program was aimed right toward the judges' hearts. Bulls-eye. Her score: a monstrous 78.50 -- a world record for a short program. "I wasn't as nervous as I thought I'd be," she said later. "I was aware that Mao had skated a good program -- it was hard not to be aware of it. But I do have a lot of experience and I was able to do what I came here to do."
But Rochette was still to come, the first skater of the final group, and everyone in the building -- indeed, everyone in Canada and every skating fan the world over -- was pulling for her to do well. The six-time Canadian champion had basically cocooned herself among family and close friends since her mother's sudden death, training as usual but giving no interviews and making no statements to illuminate the public as to her frame of mind. It seemed unreasonable to expect her to be able to channel her grief into a great skate, especially since this season she had struggled with inconsistency, so the 11,700 spectators gave her a deafening ovation when her name was announced, as individual voices called out "We love you Joannie!" and the like. As Rochette struck her pose at the center of the ice, waiting for her music to start, her face looked composed and free of tension. Silence, finally, descended on the crowd. She'd have had their hearts if she'd never moved an inch.
But she did move, as surely and confidently as if it were just another day at the rink. All those years of training and muscle memory -- Rochette is 24, and she'd finished 5th at the 2006 Olympics -- took over, and she landed her opening triple lutz, double toe without a hitch. Then she nailed a triple flip, receiving all positive marks for her GOE. Then a flying sit spin, a double axel, a spiral sequence ... check ... check ... check. With each successful element -- Rochette received no deductions or negative grades from the judges -- the excitement in the building rose. The music, La Cumparsita, probably the most recognizable tango song in the world, was light, bouncy, gay -- the furthest possible mood from how she surely was feeling. Yet she stayed in the role, right up through the final combination spin, which ended with another pose and a smile ... a smile she held for perhaps two seconds before, as the crowd rose and burst into mad, loving applause, the tension finally appeared on her face and she dissolved into tears. But even that was a brief blip in her composure, for it was just a few moments later that she was taking her bows at center ice, waving at the still roaring crowd, fighting back, successfully, the sobs that were doubtless trying to break through her smile.
When her scores came up -- 71.36, just 2.42 behind Asada, and a whopping 6.60 ahead of the fourth place skater, Miki Ando of Japan -- Rochette found herself firmly in third. The crowd never stopped clapping, and she put her hand over her heart and waved a thank you before she left. "It was hard to be precise. Ten years from now, I'd like to come back and do this again," Rochette said afterward, declining to attend the press conference for the top three women. "It was hard to handle, but I appreciate the support." How was she holding up? someone asked. "Words cannot describe," she said.
All in all, it was just about everything one could ask for from a night of figure skating. Of course the free skate's still to come, placements might change (the U.S. women, Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu, both skated clean programs, and stand 5th and 6th, respectively). But you wouldn't have gotten too many arguments from people who were there if they'd handed out the medals on the basis of the short program alone. Gold to Kim Yu-na of Korea. Silver to Mao Asada of Japan. A Bronze for the ages to Joannie Rochette of Canada.
On Thursday my prediction is it will happen that way.