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(News Focus) Despite mixed performance, Kim Yu-na remains Olympic contender

2013/12/08 09:30

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Dec. 8 (Yonhap) -- Despite putting on a mixed performance in winning her season debut in Croatia over the weekend, South Korean figure skater Kim Yu-na showed she will once again be a force to be reckoned with at the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics.

Kim enjoyed a convincing victory at the Golden Spin of Zagreb on Saturday, even though she made some uncharacteristic mistakes in both the short program and free skating.

The reigning Olympic gold medalist and two-time world champion scored 204.49 points, with 73.37 points in the short program and 131.12 points in free skating. She beat Miki Ando of Japan by 27.67 points.

The total was the fifth highest of Kim's career. She's now topped 200 points in three consecutive international events.

The numbers look impressive enough, considering that Kim was making her first competitive appearance in nine months and had just recovered from a foot injury she suffered in September. She looked to be on the right track for the Sochi Winter Olympics in February.

These gaudy numbers, however, should also be taken with a grain of salt.

The level of competition at the second-tier event in Croatia was far from world class. Ando, the two-time world champion, was the only other marquee name in the field, but just months removed from the birth of a daughter, the 25-year-old was merely a shell of her former self.

Kim herself wasn't perfect, either, which was to be expected given her extended layoff. It was the types of mistakes she made, though, that left many scratching their heads in collective disbelief.

In Friday's short program, Kim botched the landing of her double axel, typically the easiest jump for female skaters, let alone a world class one like Kim. In her free skating the next day, Kim fell on the first jump of her opening triple lutz-triple toe loop combination.

The signature triple-triple combination had long been Kim's bread and butter, and a clean execution had often set the tone early for flawless programs.

Both were unusual miscues for such a technically sound skater. They also served as proof that Kim may not be fully recovered from the foot ailment.

To her credit, Kim recovered to nail remaining jumps later in the program. Always quick on her feet, Kim added an impromptu double toe loop after a triple lutz halfway through the program for extra points.

If Kim left room for technical improvement, she once again put on a clinic in artistry.

In the short program set to "Send in the Clowns," a musical score, Kim earned her career-high 35.00 points in the program component score (PCS), which measures skaters' choreography and presentation. Her PCS for the free skate, choreographed to a tango piece "Adios Nonino," was 71.52, the third-best mark of her career.

Kim skated her short program to a ballad, a departure from her recent routines that were set to more powerful tunes. The choreography could have fallen somewhat flat without a defining move -- namely, the marksman's pose to finish off the sultry routine set to a James Bond medley in the 2009-2010 season -- but Kim saved it with a series of exquisite steps and spins.

In contrast, her free skate was a dense, breathless program, jam-packed with complicated step sequences set to the changing rhythm of the tango music. Kim had earlier said this would be the most challenging free skating routine of her career, and for the most part, she rose to the occasion in her first try at a live event.

Kim's advantage in PCS over the competition is often so substantial that she can more than compensate for mistakes in technical elements.

With another international win in the bag, Kim appears to be on a collision course against her long-time rival, Mao Asada of Japan, in Sochi.

While Kim was cruising to the win in Croatia, Asada earned her fourth career win at the International Skating Union (ISU) Grand Prix Final in Tokyo on Saturday.

Asada scored 204.02 points in the victory, with 72.36 points in the short program and 131.66 points in free skating. She has surpassed 200 points in her three ISU events this season, all resulting in victories.

Asada owns the best total score by anyone this season with 207.59 points.

The two have been battling each other since junior days. Both have won two world titles apiece at the senior level, but it was Kim who edged out Asada for the gold at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

In their most recent meeting at the 2013 world championships in March, Kim enjoyed a resounding win while Asada came in third.

Since Vancouver, the two have had their shares of ups and downs, with Kim sitting out a series of ISU events to contemplate her future, and Asada struggling to maintain form. And nearly four years after their memorable duel in Vancouver, the rivals look to be peaking just in time for the 2014 Winter Games, with no one else ready to step up to mount a challenge.

Asada has long been a supreme technician, but she continues to stake much of her title hopes on the triple axel. The jump is the most difficult move for female skaters, requiring three and a half rotations with a forward takeoff.

Asada remains the only woman who consistently attempts it in competition, but she's not been able to land it cleanly this season. In the free skate at the Grand Prix Final, Asada under-rotated both of her triple axel attempts.

Overall, her success rate hasn't been so high as to justify her decision to stay with the triple axel. It's usually her first jump element, and failing to execute it cleanly has affected the rest of her routine.

If the Japanese can perfect the high-risk, high-reward jump, it could set the stage for another epic competition on ice in Sochi.

Kim, 23, has already said Sochi will be her last Olympics. She's trying to become only the third woman to repeat as the Olympic figure skating champion.

jeeho@yna.co.kr

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