LONDON, Ontario — She wasn’t used to warming up with Norwegians and Austrians and Slovaks and seeing hundreds of empty seats when she took the ice. Kim Yu Na may be the reigning Olympic women’s champion but after taking a year off from competition she had lost her regal status.
Since Kim wasn’t invited to compete in this season’s Grand Prix she had to go to Dortmund in December for a minor league event to earn enough qualifying points for the World Figure Skating Championships. Then she had to win the South Korean nationals to earn her ticket here. But once the music started Thursday afternoon inside Budweiser Gardens, the golden magic returned and Queen Yu Na was back.
“I was worried because it has been a long time since I competed at the world championships but at the same time I was confident,” said the 22-year-old Kim after she had outpointed Italian defending titlist Carolina Kostner, 69.97-66.86, in the short program to take a huge step toward regaining the crown she wore in 2009.
Once she became the first Korean to win an Olympic skating title at Vancouver, Kim wasn’t sure there was anything else worth conquering. “I felt a bit empty because I had achieved my goal,” she said. So after finishing second to Japanese rivals at the two subsequent global championships, Kim took a sabbatical last year before deciding to sign on for a five-ringed reprise. “It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but I made it and now I’m just focused to be back,” she said.
Her re-entry went surprisingly smoothly as Kim opened with a silky triple lutz-triple toe loop combination and glided onward as she always has. “I have done many competitions,” she said. “I could do what I had to do.”
Few of her counterparts could. Kostner fell on the back end of her triple toe-triple toe combo. Russia’s Alena Leonova, last year’s runner-up, staggered out of her first two jumps and was buried in 13th. Japan’s Akiko Suzuki, the returning bronze medalist, couldn’t pull off her triple-triple. And Japanese two-time champion Mao Asada double-footed her triple axel and singled her triple loop. All of that was good news for US champion Ashley Wagner, who played it safe and sane with a triple-double and ended up in fifth.
“I think I put myself in a good position going into the long program,” said Wagner, who was fourth last year and is less than 3 points behind third-place finisher Kanako Murakami of Japan after arriving in town without her skates. “Everyone is really close together. I’m in fighting distance.”
Beating Kim, though, would require a supernatural performance on Saturday. Queen Yu Na still has both the ammunition and the aura, which has her challengers in awe. Gracie Gold, the stylish blonde newbie on the US team, has no problem chatting up Asada but prefers to observe Kim from afar. “I’m kind of waiting to ask her for a picture,” said Gold, who’s reasonably placed in ninth in her debut.
The Americans, who haven’t won a world medal since 2006, have become ladies-in-waiting at an event that they once ruled as graceful monarchs. Their primary goal here is to earn a third entry for the US for next year’s Games in Sochi, which will require one of them to move up a place. “It’s almost a personal agenda,” said Wagner, who was odd woman out behind Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu in 2010. “I was the person most directly affected last Olympics and I want that third spot back.”
What her dance teammates want is the gold that they claimed in Moscow two years ago but lost last season to Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. And after a brilliant short dance on Thursday night Meryl Davis and Charlie White had the prize within reach. “It was our season’s best skate,” declared Davis after they’d outpointed their Canadian training partners and friendly rivals by a 77.12-73.87 count. “To do that at the world championships is really exciting.”
Davis and White, the only US performers who’ve made the global podium during the current quadrennium besides dancemates Maia and Alex Shibutani, are looking to make it four years in a row. No American couple has managed that since Judy Schwomeyer and James Sladky in 1972, before dancing was an Olympic event. Since then the Russian dynasty, interrupted for a while in the Eighties by Britain’s Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, has fallen and the North Americans have taken over.
If Virtue and Moir retain their crown, they’ll be the first champions to manage it since Bulgaria’s Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski in 2007 and the first to win three titles in four years since Russia’s Pasha Grishuk and Evgeni Platov managed it a decade earlier. But they acknowledge that they haven’t made it easy on themselves for the free dance.”We’re further behind than we’d like to be but it doesn’t change our plan for Saturday,” said Virtue. “We’re still going to attack the program.”