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South Korea’s Kim cool under pressure

Wed., Feb. 24, 2010, midnight

Gold-medal favorite leads Asada after world-record short program

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Like a true Bond Girl, Kim Yu-na knocked off her rivals.

Nobody did it better.

The biggest favorite to win the Olympic title since Katarina Witt in 1988, Kim was cool under pressure with a playfully sexy and sophisticated number that delighted fans and judges alike Tuesday night. Her score of 78.5 points not only shattered her world record, it put her almost five points ahead of longtime rival – and chief threat – Mao Asada.

With two triple axels planned, Asada can make up the difference in Thursday night’s free skate, setting up the best showdown in figure skating since the “Battle of Brians” – appropriate, considering Brian Orser is Kim’s coach.

Not surprising, either, considering the 19-year-olds have been trading titles since their junior days. Kim and Asada have combined to win the last two world championships and five Grand Prix final titles.

“Usually I think there’s like a 10-point difference,” Asada said. “So I feel good there’s only this difference between myself and Yu-na.”

Canada’s Joannie Rochette, skating two days after the sudden death of her mother, gave the most moving performance of the night and was third.

“Words cannot describe,” Rochette said through Skate Canada. “It was hard to handle, but I appreciate the support.”

Fighting tears as she took her starting pose, Rochette composed herself and let her training mask her grief. But when her music ended, she gave a sharp exhale and doubled over, no longer able to hold back the tears. She tried to smile as she waved, to no avail, and buried her head in longtime coach Manon Perron’s shoulder when she left the ice.

“I watched her when she was getting ready to skate and she looked like she was struggling emotionally,” Skate Canada CEO William Thompson said. “I think her mother’s jumping up and down in the sky. That was the dream performance.”

Miki Ando, the 2007 world champion, is fourth, followed by the two young Americans, Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu – who fared far better than she expected after getting a bloody nose midway through her program.

“Halfway through the program, I felt it running down my nose and just said, ‘Don’t stop, keep going,’ ” Nagasu said. “I skated the best I can.”

So did Kim.

She arrived in Vancouver carrying the greatest expectations of any single athlete. The reigning world champion is a rock star in her native South Korea, dubbed “Queen Yu-na” and so wildly popular she can’t leave her parents’ house without bodyguards. Though South Korea has piled up plenty of medals – 10 here in Vancouver, as of Tuesday night – the country has yet to win anything in any winter sport besides speedskating and short track.

Gold is not just expected of Kim, it’s practically demanded. But if Kim was feeling the heat, she didn’t let it show.

“I had waited a long time for the Olympics,” Kim said. “I had ample time to practice and prepare, so I wasn’t shaky or nervous just because it was the Olympics. I was able to relax and enjoy the competition.”

Skating right after Asada, Kim showed no reaction when she heard her rival’s marks. When the rowdy cheers finally faded, she took her spot at the end of the rink, slowly unfurled one arm, cocked her index finger like a gun and turned her head to give the judges a sly, seductive smile.

“It was perfect that she skated right after Mao,” Orser said, “because she’s a competitor. She’s very fierce.”

Kim doesn’t have Asada’s triple axel – few women in the world do – but her jumps are no less impressive.

“For the free program I’d like to do my best and I want her to do her best,” Asada said, “so we can compete against each other fairly.”

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