'The Queen' is back: Kim returns to worlds

Updated: March 12, 2013, 11:56 PM ET
Associated Press

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AP National Writer

LONDON, Ontario -- Kim Yu-na's performances in Vancouver were so majestic it seemed unlikely anyone could ever come that close to perfection again.

"The Queen" sure wants to try.

The Olympic gold medalist returns to major competition for the first time in two years at this week's World Figure Skating Championships, and she looked so sharp in practices Monday and Tuesday it was as if she had never been away.

"After I won the Olympics, like any other gold medalist out there, I did feel some emptiness in my heart," Kim, speaking through a translator, said Tuesday night. "I did think about coming back for a long time. What motivated me was that skating is something I'm best at. And it's something that I love the most, so I want to give it one more try."

Kim went to Vancouver with the greatest expectations of any one athlete, the biggest favorite for gold since Katarina Witt in 1988.

Her skating was a large part of it; the reigning world champion, she'd lost just one competition in the previous two seasons. She possessed the easy grace of someone who skates simply to feel the ice beneath her blades, yet had the big tricks that make fans' jaws drop in awe. But she also carried the weight of an entire nation. She was like a rock star in South Korea. She did commercials for pretty much every kind of product there is, and the moves of "Queen Yu-na" were chronicled as breathlessly as any of those by the British royal family.

The pressure was greater than anyone could have imagined, but Kim handled it flawlessly. She set records that still stand in the short program, free skate and total score, and the memory of her free skate still produces goose bumps three years later. Her gold medal was South Korea's first at the Winter Olympics in a sport other than speedskating, and it touched off wild celebrations back home.

She was just 19, and she had the world at her feet.

Rather than taking time to savor her success and the riches that came with it, Kim continued to skate. She went to the world championships the month after the Olympics, finishing second. Though she skipped most of the 2010-11 season, she did return for the world championships, winning a second straight silver medal.

But, finally, she'd had enough. After spending most of the previous five years training in Toronto and Los Angeles, she returned home to South Korea. She skated in shows and helped on Pyeongchang's winning bid for the 2018 Olympics. While she didn't rule out a return, it didn't seem likely, either.

Then, last summer, Kim announced a comeback.

"After I decided to compete again, I was quite nervous to come back to the ice," she said.

Though she remains wildly popular in South Korea, the frenzy is not the same. Oh, there are still the endless comparisons with longtime rival Mao Asada of Japan. But she's been able to stay in South Korea, training with her childhood coaches again, and she no longer draws a crowd of media simply for stepping on the ice.

"I don't want to be pressured as much as (I was) prior to the Olympics," Kim said. "However, because I'm a human being, I also want to do good and I want to deliver good results. ... The pressure is still there, I feel it. However I try not to feel pressure as much. "

She has competed twice this season, once at a lower-level competition in Dortmund, Germany, so she could get the necessary qualifying score for worlds, and again at the South Korean national championships. She won both, showing glimpses of her old self, but it wasn't until she arrived here that everyone could see she remains the gold standard in women's skating.

Her jumps are breathtaking, as she seems to float suspended in the air for a nanosecond before she starts rotating. She hasn't lost any of her speed, and her bones may as well be made of Silly Putty for the intricate positions she has in her spins.

What truly sets her apart, however, is her presence on the ice. Many skaters may as well use Muzak for as much as they feel the music, flailing their arms about in an imitation of artistry. With Kim, however, there is a seamless connection between her blades, her music and her heart. Watch her practice her footwork, and you can almost hear the strains of "Les Mis" or "Kiss of the Vampire." It's a quality that can't be taught, and it's what sets a great program apart from a good one.

"The two competitions before worlds, I did pretty well," Kim said. "This time around, although I'm very nervous and worried, I'm sure I can deliver good results."

But there is good and there is Queen Yu-na, and she will always be measured against her brilliance in Vancouver.

"The 2010 Vancouver Olympics was the first competition ever where I completed my short and free program without any mistakes, clean programs. That in itself is a huge accomplishment," Kim said. "Delivering a clean program requires a lot of practice before.

"I truly believe that if I do practice a lot, I believe that I can deliver such perfection once again."


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Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press

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