Figure skating won't lack for stories in Vancouver

Updated: January 29, 2010, 11:12 AM ET
Associated Press

Michelle Kwan isn't coming back, and there's no American woman ready to take her place at the Vancouver Olympics.

Get over it.

The Winter Games' glamour sport will be in its usual glamour spot in Vancouver, with live, prime-time coverage for every event -- even the snooze-inducing compulsory dance. Between big names making comebacks, the phenomenon that is Kim Yu-na and the friends-and-former-training-partners-turned-rivals, there will be plenty of fodder to keep everyone's favorite Olympic soap opera running.

"Figure skating endures," said David Neal, executive vice president of NBC Olympics. "The Olympics are an international gathering, and that's what you present. It's all about stories."

None will be bigger than Kim's.

The reigning world champion is the heavy favorite for gold after dominating women's skating like few others the last two seasons. She's had one loss since the 2008 world championships, and that was in December of that same year. She won the world title with a record score last March and then topped it at the Trophee Eric Bompard, overwhelming a star-studded field that included her old rival Mao Asada and three-time European champion Carolina Kostner.

Her short program score at Skate America was so monstrous it would have made her a contender in the men's event. She lost the free skate to Rachael Flatt but had such a big lead it didn't matter. She struggled again in the short program at the Grand Prix final, but came back to win the free skate and the event.

"She wears the title really well," coach Brian Orser said. "Her confidence is better; she kind of has a little bit of a skip to her step. But when you see her skate, you see her train, see her with all the other kids, you wouldn't know that she's the world champion. She doesn't gloat. She just goes about her business."

As South Korea's best hope for a gold medal in anything besides speedskating, Kim is already a megastar in Asia. Her nickname is "Queen Yu-na," and she needs bodyguards whenever she's in South Korea. She does commercials for everything from bread to mobile phones to cars, and was listed as the 10th-most popular athlete -- in Japan.

U.S. audiences may love rooting for fellow Americans, but Kim has the same kind of appeal that made Katarina Witt so bewitching. Guys who think axels are part of a car will be scrambling for the rewind button after seeing her "Bond Girl" short program.

She comes with a sweet backstory, too. Though Kim has surged ahead in recent months, her rivalry with Asada dates back to their junior days and figures to be rekindled in Vancouver. A showdown took centerstage the last time the Olympics were in Canada, with the "Battle of the Brians" providing one of skating's greatest competitions.

One of those Brians? None other than Orser.

"Trust me, it's been a question that's come up many times. I want all of the focus to be on her. The attention should be on her, and it's going to be her games," said Orser, who finished second to Brian Boitano. "This is her thing, and I want it to be her experience. I've moved on from the Olympics in '88. It took a long time -- it took a really long time -- to put it into perspective. And now I find myself where I am now, and it's really, really exciting.

"All that knowledge and all that wisdom, what if I had won? I wouldn't have learned any lessons that now I can pass on to Yu-na."

For as superior as Kim has been, the gold is not a given. Oksana Baiul was the last favorite to win the gold medal in 1994, and there will be two other world champions in the Vancouver field, Asada and her Japanese teammate, Miki Ando.

As for the Americans, their streak of winning at least one medal at all but one Olympics since 1952 is in jeopardy. (The lone shutout was in 1964, three years after the entire U.S. team was killed in a plane crash.) No American woman has medaled at the world championships since Kimmie Meissner and Sasha Cohen won gold and bronze in 2006, and neither will be in Vancouver. Kim, Asada and Ando, meanwhile, have combined to win seven of the last nine world medals.

Flatt and Mirai Nagasu are talented, but they have little experience and even less international cachet. The 17-year-old Flatt has been to one world championships, finishing fifth last year, while the Olympics will be the first major international event as a senior for 16-year-old Nagasu.

What they lack in results, however, they make up for in personality. Flatt is like the Energizer bunny, juggling training and travel with a courseload that would make a valedictorian weep. If there's a contest for best quote, Nagasu will give Johnny Weir a run for his money.

"We don't have a strong Michelle Kwan or Kristi Yamaguchi to lead us," said Nagasu, who has said it's an "embarrassment" the American women are no longer at the top of their sport. "But I feel that even though we're young, we have big dreams to lead us."

There are big dreams for some older folks, too.

Olympic men's champion Evgeni Plushenko is returning after a three-year absence in hopes of becoming the first man to win back-to-back gold medals since Dick Button in 1952. Joining him on the comeback tour is Turin silver medalist Stephane Lambiel.

Though Plushenko did ice shows during his retirement, he didn't return to hard training until the spring. Yet he established himself as the man to beat -- again -- with a dazzling performance at the European championships. His free skate wasn't anything special, but his short program was so majestic that if he skates like that in Vancouver, it will be tough for anyone to catch him.

Plushenko earned a world-record 91.30 points, topping the mark he'd set for the short program at the Turin Games. And unlike his generous scores at the Russian championships, these were right on the mark.

"To put it simply, I count this as the return of the sporting feeling," Plushenko said afterward. "I am so happy with my feelings today."

Like Kim, Plushenko will face stiff competition. In what could be a first, the men's field will feature four world champions: Plushenko, Lambiel, Brian Joubert and American Evan Lysacek.

Plushenko, Lambiel and Joubert went 1-2-3 at Europeans, while Lysacek backed up last year's win in Los Angeles with the title at the Grand Prix final, giving the Americans their best hope for gold since Boitano in '88.

Lysacek didn't have his best performances at the U.S. championships, finishing second. But no one should take that as an indication of what he's capable of in Vancouver.

"The last time around, I was so excited to be a member of the U.S. team and that was my focus," said Lysacek, who was fourth in Turin despite a severe case of the flu. "I went into the Olympics excited about being in the Olympic village, walking in the opening ceremony, getting the clothing and being with the other athletes. It was the thrill of a lifetime.

"This time, I'm looking forward to one moment only, and that's when they open the door and let me on the ice because that's what I've worked for these last four years."

Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo appeared to be done in 2007, retiring after winning their third world pairs title. But after winning Olympic bronze medals in 2006 and '02, the pair -- who are also married -- decided to make one last run at gold.

After what they've done this season, it's hard to believe they had ever gone away. They won the Grand Prix final by more than 12 points which, for those still confused by skating's judging system, is a huge margin. Huge. The field contained all of the top pairs, too, including Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, runaway winners of the last two world titles.

In ice dance, there could be an all-North American podium, a stunning shift in the discipline's balance of power.

It wasn't even a decade ago that cracking the top 10 was an achievement for an American team and, aside from Tracy Wilson and Robert McCall's bronze in 1988, Canadian teams have been routinely snubbed on the medals podium. But Olympic and world silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto are fixtures atop the international scene while Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir have medaled at the last two world championships.

And Meryl Davis and Charlie White have beaten them both.

Davis and White beat Belbin and Agosto for the first time in their careers on the way to their second U.S. title. In December, the Americans beat Virtue and Moir at the Grand Prix final, making them the first U.S. couple to win the prestigious title.

Making the upstart wins even juicier is that Davis and White train with Virtue and Moir and, until 18 months ago, trained with Belbin and Agosto. All consider themselves close friends.

"It's important in our home country to come out on top," White said. "What we want to do at the Olympics is win."

World champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin are still lurking, but aren't as formidable as they once were. Though they won the European title, they lost both the original and free dances. He also has recurring knee troubles that sidelined them for the Grand Prix season.

Then there's their original dance. Domnina and Shabalin have outraged some Australian Aboriginal leaders, who claim their Aboriginal-themed original dance is offensive cultural theft, with inauthentic steps and gaudy costumes. Some Canadians have expressed concern with it, as well.

Regardless, it will have people talking. And that is the secret to figure skating's enduring appeal.

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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