Champion's comeback a real winner
LONDON, Ontario (AP)
The Queen has her title back.
And another Olympic gold medal might not be far behind.
Back at the World Figure Skating Championships after a two-year absence, Kim Yu-na looked as if she'd never been away Saturday night.
The effortless jumps, the spellbinding expression, the lopsided victories, even the crowds of fans gathering at the arena exit in hopes of catching a glimpse of her, it was as if the clock had been turned back to 2010.
''This (world) championships could be my last one,'' Kim said through an interpreter. ''But I won, so I'm very happy.''
She isn't the only one. The audience was on its feet long before she finished her final spin, and cheers erupted when her scores were posted.
She may not have set records as she did in Vancouver, but with a score of 218.31, she was a whopping 20 points ahead of defending champion Carolina Kostner.
Longtime rival Mao Asada moved up to third, her first medal at worlds since she won her second title two years ago.
''I did my best, so I knew my score was going to be good,'' Kim said. ''But didn't think it was going to be that high.''
Earlier Saturday, Meryl Davis and Charlie White won their second ice dance title in three seasons.
The U.S. women didn't win any medals. But they got the next-best thing, reclaiming a third spot for the Sochi Olympics. They needed to finish with a combined placement of 13, and Ashley Wagner was fifth and Gracie Gold sixth.
''We got three spots back and we came here to do that,'' Wagner said. ''Mission accomplished.''
No female skater has had a run quite like Kim from 2009 through the Vancouver Olympics. She won all but one competition, usually in breathtaking fashion. And she did it while carrying the hopes of an entire nation, too.
South Korea had never won an Olympic medal, let alone gold, in a sport other than speedskating at the Winter Games, and ''Queen Yu-na'' was treated like royalty.
But she handled the expectations flawlessly, coming as close to perfection in Vancouver as anyone ever has.
Not only do the records she set in the short program, free skate and overall score still stand, no one's even come close to them.
While most Olympic champions make a quick exit, Kim stuck around, finishing second at the next two world championships. But she stepped away following the 2011 world championships.
After spending most of the previous five years in Toronto and Los Angeles, she returned home. She skated in shows and helped Pyeongchang in its winning bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics. While she didn't rule out Sochi, it didn't seem likely, either.
Then, last summer, she announced her return.
Comebacks in figure skating are notoriously harsh, and not even an Olympic gold medal can protect against gravity, injuries and the pace of progress. For every Evgeni Plushenko or Gordeeva and Grinkov, there are dozens more failures. But Kim seems immune to it all.
Her technical skills are superior. She's like a bumblebee when she jumps, daintily going from flower to flower. Her spins are quick and tight, with intricate positions that don't seem humanly possible.
But it is her presentation that makes her incomparable. Figure skating is meant to be a blend of art and athleticism, and Kim poured her entire soul into her feet. She didn't feel her music, from ''Les Miserables,'' she was part of it.
With each soft tilt of her head, she brought back memories of the little girl who began skating for the pure love of it, before medals or titles or the expectations of an entire country and sport ever entered her mind.
''After I decided to come back, I didn't want to feel the pressure as much,'' Kim said. ''But I'm human and I want the good results. I have done my best so far, and will do my best once again.''
That's bad news because no one else comes close to Kim. In fact, it's really not even fair to make them try.
At 25 and with more expressiveness than most actresses, Kostner is one of the few skaters who can do ''Bolero'' justice.
Fixing the judges with flirty looks, extending her fingers oh, so sharply and enticing the audience with a come-hither sway of her hips before beginning her footwork, she sent the arena temperature climbing.
Even a popped triple loop and a nose bleed that forced her to wipe away blood during a spin couldn't spoil the sultry performance.
''It was not easy because the blood was just running out of my nose through the whole program,'' she said. ''It's an important lesson that I just had to learn here and accept.''
The only thing to spoil the mood came in the final seconds, when she took a hard splat on a triple salchow.
''For me, coming here, I didn't really know what to expect,'' said Kostner, who skipped the Grand Prix season. ''Now I can go home with medal. It's just such a great feeling. Last year, I reached one of my biggest dreams. I think before I had already given up. So this year I just felt I was able to live a part of it. I'm just so honored to be here.''
Having the maximum three spots at the Olympics and world championships used to be a birthright for the American women. But they lost the third spot at the 2008 world championships and have never gotten it back.
Wagner was most affected by the loss of the third spot, missing the Vancouver Olympics because she finished third at the U.S. championships in 2010. She'd made it her mission to get it back, saying she didn't want anyone else to experience that disappointment.
This certainly won't go down as one of Wagner's best performances. She two-footed and underrotated the second jump in her double axel-triple toe loop combination, and also got a deduction for taking off on the wrong edge of her triple lutz.
She was so slow for most of the program the Canadian Mounties were considering giving her a ticket for loitering. And she tripped on her footwork, the equivalent of falling over a crack in the sidewalk.
But it was good enough to get the job done.
It's the best finish for the U.S. women since 2006, when Kimmie Meissner won the title and Sasha Cohen finished third. But that worlds is also the last time the Americans have been on the podium, their longest drought since World War II.
''I always said my main goal coming into this worlds was getting the three spots back. That was my goal,'' Wagner said. ''Getting on top of the podium or on the podium would be icing on the cake. For us, what we accomplished, with this strong international field, is more than standing on top of that podium.''
Gold tried not to focus on winning back that third spot - no easy thing, considering she and Wagner were asked about it constantly. But she more than carried her weight, putting on two solid performances at her first world championships.
''I'm glad I was able to help out in that sense,'' she said.
As always, it was Gold's jumps carrying her program. Asada might have better springs, but even she can't match Gold's ferocity.
She attacks each jump like a matador going after a bull, going full-speed into the takeoff and soaring so high above the ice the judges had to crane their necks to see her. That power put her on the edge of danger, but she fought for every single point.
She two-footed her double axel, but it could have been a lot worse after how crooked in the air she was. And cats are jealous of the reflexes she showed in saving the landing of her triple salchow.
Her spins were solid, though they were all done in the same side of the rink, a choreographic no-no. And speaking of choreography, she doesn't let the music bother her one bit. Pick a song on any iPod and she could have been skating to it for as much as she acknowledged it.
''I think this is a really important step for me in a big competition,'' Gold said, ''and I'm glad I was able to execute both programs well.''
Follow Nancy Armour at http://www.twitter.com/nrarmour