VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Kim Yu-na circled the ice in one direction, Mao Asada the other.
Their paths are almost sure to converge at the Vancouver Olympics medals podium Thursday night, with one wearing the gold medal.
It always seems to be these two trading titles and records in figure skating's version of leapfrog. Kim took away the world title from Asada last year. Asada scored the highest marks ever, only to have Kim surpass them. When Asada nails a triple axel, Kim tops her with showmanship worthy of a Tony.
It happened that way again Tuesday night in the short program, with Kim setting a world best with 78.5 points to take a nearly five-point edge over her main rival.
"We have a little bit of a cushion," said Brian Orser, Kim's coach. "But Yu-na will put the short program aside and focus on the free skate. This is no time to hold back."
Kim never does — not that her South Korean countrymen would give her a chance to relax.
South Korea is still looking for its first Winter Olympics medal in a sport other than speedskating or short track, and fans there are expecting — demanding — Kim to deliver.
Anything but gold is unthinkable to them. Finishing behind Japan's Asada would be devastating to a nation that already has nicknamed Kim "Queen Yu-na."
"There's so much emphasis on the short. It's do or die," Orser said. "When that pressure is gone, there's like a lightness to your skating. There's an extra weight that is off your shoulders.
"I think she's just going to soar after this, she's just going to fly."
Kim might need to.
Asada is one of the few women in the world who attempt a triple axel, and she's the only one to do two of the 3½-revolution jumps in the free skate. If she lands a good one Thursday night, she might leap right over Kim.
A triple axel has a base value of 8.2 points, but Asada plans to do one in combination. Throw in the style points, and those two jumping passes alone could be worth almost 20 points.
"Usually, I think there's like a 10-point difference," Asada said after the short program. "So I feel good there's only this difference between myself and Yu-na."
Canada's Joannie Rochette is third, but she trails Asada by almost 2½ points, leaving little doubt one of the two most popular skaters in Asia will be wearing a gold medal when the time comes.
Miki Ando, the 2007 world champion, is fourth, followed by young Americans Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu.
"I'm not surprised at all," said Frank Carroll, who coaches Nagasu and Vancouver men's gold medalist Evan Lysacek. "They're both world champions and they're both amazing."
Kim skates right before Asada in the final, a reversal of their order in the short program.
Kim skates to Gershwin's "Concerto in F," a light, classical piece that highlights her artistry. Its gentle melody is the perfect fit for her whisper-soft edge quality, and she appears to float above the ice in her footwork sections. And unlike her James Bond short program, there is no character to portray.
"Yu-na has her own style, she's not trying to emulate anyone else," Orser said. "She just has a style that's very generous and is open for everyone to appreciate."
Asada, meanwhile, skates to Rachmaninoff's "Bells of Moscow." It's bold and strong, demanding that everyone recognize the advantage she has athletically — not that it could be missed with those two triple axels planned for center ice.
"I like it," Orser said, referring to Kim and Asada skating back to back. "It's a nice comparison of the two programs because they're different, different styles. Mao's program is a little darker, has more drama. Yu-na's is a little lighter."
And if they both deliver, look out.
Korean Olympic figure skater Kim Yuna thrilled her countrymen as she took a commanding lead in the Olympic short program, beating out Japan's Mao Asada
Seoul, South Korea
Tears welled up in Chang Sung-eun’s eyes as her office TV screen flashed the news: Olympic figure skater Kim Yuna had just set a scoring record of 78.50 in the short program at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum.
Beside her, two young women wept openly and several young men burst into loud applause, shouting, “Excellent, excellent, great great.”
For Koreans, it was a moment of total national pride, of success not only for Ms. Kim but for a nation that likes nothing better than to revel in triumph, especially when the victory is over Japan. In this case, Kim edged out arch-rival Mao Asada, the Japanese sensation who came in second, 4.72 points behind her.
“It’s so very emotional,” says Ms. Chang, trying to sort through the wave of sensations that overcame her and her colleagues as Kim’s name was announced and she took to the ice to begin her stunning performance. “It’s a patriotic thing. It was such a beautiful sight to see.”
In early afternoon, Seoul stopped
The scene in Chang’s office was much the same everywhere, in school cafeterias, bars, and restaurant, hotel lobbies and railroad waiting rooms. Many workers hurried back from lunch, breaking off business conversations, wanting to be sure to catch Kim Yuna.
With every seemingly effortless leap, twist, and turn, Kim inspired excited oohs and ahs as viewers shouted cheers and encouragement from 8,000 miles away, waiting anxiously to see if she might falter or, heaven forbid, fall.
Fears of seeing an embarrassing stumble ebbed amid shouts of exultation as Kim ran through a repertoire of triple-lutz, triple toe loops, triple flips, and double axel jumps with a confidence that somehow escaped most of the 24 other skaters. Nonetheless, a palpable sense of relief swept over faces in a crowd as the James Bond theme music died down and Kim smiled, bowed, and skated back to the bench, pausing gracefully to scoop up a bouquet on the way.
Her performance Tuesday evening – Wednesday here – was just Act One. Tension is mounting over the second act on Thursday – Friday here – when she’ll have to show she has the endurance to beat out Asada in the longer free-skating program. One group of onlookers here feared Asada may have the edge in that one and that Kim Yu-na will need every point she made in the short program to stay ahead in the race for Olympic gold. G-20 can wait – Yuna is skating
The excitement over Yuna, who’s reportedly picked up $8 million in endorsements as the world and Grand Prix champion, was enough to stop even high-level government meetings, political gatherings and speeches.
At the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club, journalists walked out of a lunch as SaKong Il, a former finance minister, was about to talk about prospects for the G-20 summit due to gather here in November.
Mr. SaKong himself seemed happy to put off talking long enough to join correspondents in front of a television set in the bar, cheering Kim on like everyone else, while a second group of journalists crowded in front of another TV set in the club secretariat. Both groups burst into laughter and cheers on hearing the news of her score before returning to the dining room to listen to SaKong’s speech.
LA Times, csmonitor
Bonus: Up Close International - Kim Yu-Na
The video might only work if you're in Canada...