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2010 Winter Olympic Games, Vancouver, CanadaFebruary 12-28
 
Posted: Friday February 26, 2010 2:53AM; Updated: Friday February 26, 2010 4:06AM
E.M. Swift
E.M. Swift>FIGURE SKATING

Golden Kim is queen of her court

Story Highlights

South Korea's Kim Yu-Na will be ranked among the greatest Olympic champions

Joannie Rochette's courageous performance earned her a bronze medal

The U.S.' Mirai Nagasu, 16, showed that she will be a force at future Games

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- After the brilliance of the short program, it was hard to imagine there wouldn't be a letdown. How could South Korea's Kim Yu-Na be perfect a second night in the face of the suffocating pressure of expectations? How could Japan's Mao Asada skate mistake-free again and push Kim with her amazing arsenal of triple axels. And, most poignantly, how could Canada's Joannie Rochette keep herself together in the free skating program just four days after her mother's sudden death after arriving in Vancouver to watch her compete?

Yet, somehow, it wasn't the anticlimax we feared. No, it wasn't as extraordinary a night as Tuesday's short had been, but it was almost everything the 11,700 spectators in the Pacific Coliseum hoped it would be. Kim's brilliance was, again, unparalleled, and she put herself squarely atop any list of the greatest Olympic champions of all time. Skating first of the three medalists, Queen Kim set a standard the others could not hope to reach, shattering every record and winning every heart in her path. Skating to Gershwin's Concerto in F in a royal blue cocktail outfit, Kim was enthralling, landing all six of the triple jumps she'd planned, spinning effortlessly, and performing a languid spiral sequence that hushed the crowd with its beauty.

Knowing her most difficult elements were behind her, Kim was able to fully emote the final minute of the program, holding her head at an expressive tilt, her arms fluttering weightlessly at her side like strips of ribbon in the wind. The audience was on its feet as soon as she pumped her fists in the air in an unusual display of emotion after her final, rollicking spin. And as she bowed to the crowd in appreciation, to her own surprise tears of joy came into her eyes. The judges saw it the same way everyone else did, giving her an eye-popping 150.06 points: 16.11 higher than her previous free skating record. Including the 78.50 she'd earned in her short program -- also a record -- Kim shattered her own world record with a total of 228.56 points. "I still can't believe the score I received," said Kim, the first Korean to win a figure skating medal of any kind. "I predicted my score would probably be 140. It's almost as high as the men's score."

The total was way beyond anyone's reach. So with Kim's gold secure, the only question remaining was who would win silver and bronze. Japan's Asada, the only woman to beat Kim in the last two years (she'd done so twice) was the next to skate, and she held just a 2.42 point lead over Rochette. But Asada had a very big weapon that no one else in the field had: the triple axel, and she was poised to use it twice.

Skating to the dark, brooding strains of Rachmaninov's Bells of Moscow, Asada opened with a huge triple axel, and followed that up quickly with a triple axel-double toeloop. It was a remarkable start: the first time any woman had landed two triple axels in Olympic competition. A triple flip-double toe combination followed, then a solid spiral and a triple loop. No one believed she had a chance of catching Kim, but Asada was proving she was the one woman in the field who could give the South Korean a scare. Then she seemed to run out of gas. A triple loop combination was downgraded to a double, then Asada singled a planned triple toe. "My legs were a little bit tired," she admitted later. Without those jumps, the air went out of her performance. And while she kept herself together, it was clear the mistakes left the door open for Rochette to pass her and take the silver. "To complete both triple axels well at the Olympics was one good thing about my performance," Asada said. "But I'm not happy with the rest of it. I do feel regretful."

Now it was Rochette's turn to take the ice. Again, as had happened in the short program, the crowd cheered long and loudly when her name was announced, but this time there wasn't just support and sympathy in its tone. There was belief and encouragement she could, despite everything, hold herself together and win a medal.

That belief grew when the 24-year-old Rochette landed her opening triple lutz-double toe loop-double loop combination. It was perfect. But then the emotional strain of the last four days began to take its toll. She stumbled on her very next jump, a triple flip, and also received negative grades of execution on a subsequent triple lutz and a double axel. But Rochette didn't fall, and, more importantly, she didn't fall to pieces. "I still don't know how I could do this and not start crying before the music starts," Rochette said later. "I was so proud of not only my performance but of the way I was able to control my emotions. I was able to compete and that's what my mom taught me. I gave everything I had in that program tonight. At the end, I was so empty. I had no energy left. I thanked my mom for the strength she gave me."

Rochette's marks were good, but not quite enough to catch Asada. She scored 131.28 for her free skate, just 2.96 points behind Asada. The only skater who stood behind her and the bronze was the young American, 16-year-old Mirai Nagasu.

And Nagasu gave the pro-Rochette crowd a start, because she skated beautifully, landing all six of her triples without a negative grade of execution or a downgrade -- something she wasn't able to do at U.S. Nationals, or she would have won. Her spins were exquisite, as was her double axel-triple toe combination (Kim did one, too: it's a very cool jump) and her spiral sequence. The clean performance pulled Nagasu up from sixth place to fourth, but still more than twelve points shy of Rochette's bronze-winning total of 202.64. It marked the first time since 1964 that a U.S. woman didn't medal in singles skating at the Olympics, but it also put Nagasu squarely in the spotlight for the next quadrennium. Said Nagasu, "I think my best years are still to come."

So the night ended the way it began: Kim in first; Asada second; Rochette third. Kim's coach, Brian Orser, who had won silver medals as a skater in 1984 and 1988, could now take a deep measure of pride in having helped Kim win the gold. "I've been dreaming about this moment my whole life, and I can't believe this is not a dream anymore," Kim said, acknowledging that it was the first time she'd ever cried after a program. "In the past I've seen other skaters cry after their performance, and I always wondered what kind of emotions they were experiencing. I still don't know why I did it. I was very concerned about my performance today, and I think I was just very emotional."

For Asada, she could take away a piece of history with her silver medal: three clean triple axels in two programs, an Olympic first.

And Rochette? Vancouver will always be a bittersweet remembrance for her. But it might, had things gone differently, been simply a bitter one. "When I got the bronze, it was like I was five years old again, pretending to be on the podium winning an Olympic medal. I remember watching the Olympics for the first time with my parents-with my mom. In 1994. The dream started with my mom. We shared it together. "

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