Kim Yu-na returns to big stage

LONDON, Ontario -- Reigning Olympic figure skating champion Kim Yu-na carved out a singular place for herself at the 2010 Winter Games, so it shouldn't be surprising that her theatrical re-entry to top-level competition would be singular as well.

The South Korean icon glided onto the ice Thursday for her short program at the world championships in an unaccustomed place, not even midway through the field of 35 in a format where the highest-ranked skaters are deliberately shuffled toward the end of the deck. Three minutes later, it was clear she had retained her seamless blend of the ethereal and the athletic after taking the better part of two seasons away from the sport.

Kim levitated through her jumps -- a triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination, a triple flip and a double Axel -- with her customary aplomb. As U.S. world team debutante Gracie Gold would later say, "You know she's going to hit it, and you're just waiting to see it. She trusts herself so much."

The judges whittled away what they could from Kim, citing an incorrect takeoff edge on her flip jump and the degree of difficulty on her spins. Her score of 69.97 was somewhat lower than she or the crowd expected. There was no guarantee it would hold up through the remaining 21 skaters, who included her longtime rival Mao Asada of Japan and defending world champion Carolina Kostner of Italy. Long before Kim knew she would wind up in the lead, she stood before a gaggle of reporters and said her decision to put competition aside for a while had been a good one.

"I felt a bit empty because I had achieved my goal," Kim said through an interpreter, referring to the aftermath of Vancouver, where her performance actually deserved to be described as on another level. "It's hard to get back on the ice with the same mentality.

"I wasn't as nervous as I imagined."

Neither Kostner nor Asada managed clean programs, and stand in second and sixth, respectively. Asada two-footed her signature triple Axel, but inexplicably was credited for it; however, the judges couldn't ignore two other jumping errors. Another Japanese woman, Kanako Murakami, skated a fluid, inspired program that vaulted her into a surprise third place.

Seventeen-year-old Canadian phenom Kaetlyn Osmond, whose solid performance landed her in fourth place, looked unfazed by her surroundings. Her coach, Ravi Walia, said she relishes the spotlight and crosses days off the calendar to mark the time left before her next competition. It's probably best to wait until after Osmond's long program to say she's primed to peak at the right time in the Olympic cycle, but she made the beginning of a great case Thursday.

Gold, also 17, was clearly among those captivated by Kim's aura this week and admitted she is waiting for the right time to ask her to pose for a joint photo. That understandable awe will have to be put away in preparation for the real fight the American women have on their hands and blades if they are to regain the third Olympic slot they lost before Vancouver.

It could come down to nerve-wracking fractions. Gold is ninth and Ashley Wagner, who just missed the podium at last year's worlds, is fifth for a combined placement of 14. The U.S. will need to better that by one notch -- 13 or better -- to send three skaters to Sochi in 2014.

Wagner said she's meeting that responsibility head-on, which is understandable given her history: She was third at the U.S. Olympic trials in 2010 and watched the Winter Games from home. The idea is so firmly on her front burner that she opted to be conservative in her opening jump combination, doing a triple flip-double toe loop after her flip landing felt "wonky" rather than attempting the triple-triple she'd been talking about.

"Everyone is really close together," Wagner said. "I'm in fighting distance. Mr. [coach John] Nicks told me if it doesn't feel right, don't risk it. I would rather play it safe than sorry. At an event this huge and this important, my focus is to get the three spots back.

"Three spots, three spots, three spots," Wagner repeated. "We're going to do whatever it takes to get there. ... The U.S. ladies team here today, we are here to get that third spot back. It's almost a personal agenda. I was the person most directly affected last Olympics and I want that third spot back."

Wagner said she is ready to go for broke in Saturday's free skate, where she plans to execute the double Axel-triple toe combination that is a more comfortable maneuver for her. The long program is also where Gold has excelled in her brief tenure at the senior level and has saved her in a couple of major events this season.

"She doesn't like [the short program],'' lamented her coach, Alexander Ouriashev. "I don't know why.'' But Gold has to find confidence where she can and it bodes well for the United States' chances that she likes to attack her second program. "To be honest, it's a bit intimidating," Gold said of sharing the locker room with women she idolized in the not-too-distant past, chiefly Kim.

On Thursday, Kim exuded presence and backed it up by showing she is very close to her top form. Skaters who want to come close to her in Sochi were put on notice -- they have 11 months and counting.