All hail ‘Queen Yu-na’: South Korea’s sensation wins gold and a record in figure skating

By Barry Wilner, AP
Friday, February 26, 2010

All hail ‘Queen Yu-na,’ Olympic skating champion

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Kim Yu-na couldn’t catch her breath. Perfectly fitting after the figure skating champion left the fans, the competition, the entire Olympics gasping at her brilliance.

Her country practically demanded the gold medal and “Queen Yu-na” delivered royally.

With one of the best performances of all time, the South Korean soared to gold Thursday night with an astounding 228.56 points, shattering her previous world record by more than 18 points. It is South Korea’s first medal at the Winter Olympics in a sport other than speedskating, and it’s sure to set off wild celebrations from Seoul to Pyeongchang.

“Truly I still can’t believe that I did what I wanted to do at the Olympics,” Kim said. “I have been dreaming about this moment and can’t believe that this is not a dream anymore.”

Believe it. Nobody else even came close.

Not main rival Mao Asada of Japan, who finished 23.06 points behind despite landing two triple axels. Asada looked stone-faced when presented her silver medal, perhaps overwhelmed by the gap between her and Kim.

And not Joannie Rochette, whose courageous performance four days after her mother’s death earned her the bronze — and everlasting admiration.

“I just went out there and did what my mother would have wanted me to do,” Rochette said. “When I get all those messages, I realize how much people are inspired by this.”

The Americans, meanwhile, are going home without at least one medal for only the second time since 1952. The other time? 1964, three years after a plane crash wiped out the entire U.S. team on its way to the world championships.

Mirai Nagasu, 16, was fourth after a strong free skate, and U.S. champion Rachael Flatt dropped down two spots to seventh.

That Kim was so magnificent while carrying such weighty expectations on her dainty shoulders is what makes her performance so memorable. Not since Katarina Witt in 1988 has a woman entered the games so heavily favored. And not since Witt — who praised Kim for her charisma and style after the free skate — has an Olympic champion soared so high above the competition.

“It’s not any time to hold back,” said coach Brian Orser, a two-time Olympic silver medalist who now has a taste of gold, too. “It’s not a time to be conservative or cautious. Be Olympic. We’ve talked about that, coming here. You’ve got to be Olympic. You’ve got to be a competitor. Yes, you’re beautiful. Yes, the programs are beautiful. But you’ve got to be Olympic and you’ve got to be fierce. And she was.”

Although three skaters followed Kim in the final group, Orser knew it was over when she completed her final, flawlessly traced spin. He gave a Rocky-like victory pump, shaking his clasped fists over each shoulder.

Orser was right. It was no contest.

In fact, Kim’s score was so humongous it would have put her ninth in the men’s competition — despite the guys doing programs that are 30 seconds longer and with one more jump.

Kim is the most popular athlete in South Korea, dubbed “Queen Yu-na” — check out the sparkly crowns that twinkle in her ears — and she needs bodyguards whenever she is there. Bringing back anything less than gold would have been … well, Kim might not have gone back to Gunpo City in that case.

“I have been watching South Korea short track and speed skaters win medals and I am glad I was able to win one more medal,” the 19-year-old Kim said through a translator. “I also want figure skaters to also have the hope that one day they can win medals in the Olympics like I did.”

The sport itself is counting on her to bring back the sass and star power that has traditionally made the women the must-see event of the Olympics. The reigning world champion sure showed she can handle such a chore — in her nation and everyone else’s.

“What’s so fantastic about Yu-na is it’s not about the money,” Orser said. “It’s about the sport. It’s about skating beautifully. It’s about her responsibility to her country.”

It’s enough to make someone cry from carrying such a burden. And the tears did flow from Kim at the end of her program; then sitting in Kiss and Cry; and again on the medal podium as she sang her national anthem.

But these tears came for an entirely different reason, because Kim made it clear with her words and her skating that there was not any difference “from the Olympic experience to any other world championships experience.”

So why did she cry? She wasn’t sure.

At last, a question she couldn’t answer.

“In the past, I have seen many skaters cry after their performances and I wondered why and what kind of emotions they experienced,” she said. “Today, I don’t know why I cried. I believe it was because I was very concerned how I’d skate today and after I did perform that way, I cried.”

Kim made a beeline for someone holding the South Korean flag as she set off on her victory lap, and carried it triumphantly as fans serenaded her with cheers and applause.

Asada and Rochette, of course, also took the victory lap, and there was as much love and adoration directed by the fans to the Canadian as to the winner.

Therese Rochette, 55, had a massive heart attack just hours after arriving in Vancouver to watch her daughter skate, and Rochette has been the picture of courage this week.

“I had to be out there as Joannie the athlete and not the person,” she said. “It’s not easy at some points. There’s always some moments when emotions take over. But I really tried to be strong to make my mother proud and my father, who was in the stands.”

When she finished skating, Rochette put her hands together and blew a kiss skyward.

“I don’t see myself as a hero or anything like that.”

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