LONDON, Ont. - Kim Yu-na was in a class all her own ahead of the Vancouver Olympics, so far superior there was no way anyone was going to steal that gold medal from her.
Four years later, not much has changed.
Back after a two-year hiatus, Kim needed one competition to show she is the one to beat at the Sochi Olympics. And good luck trying.
Her scores at the World Figure Skating Championship on Saturday night — 218.31 overall and 148.34 for the free skate — were surpassed only by the records she set in Vancouver. Her 20-point victory was the largest at worlds since the current scoring system took effect in 2005, so great she could have stood at centre ice for the second half of her program and still won.
"I did my best, so I knew my score was going to be good," Kim said through a translator. "But I didn't think it was going to be that high."
Every point was deserved, however. If she skates like that in Sochi, there will be no one who can close the gap.
Carolina Kostner's steamy and sensual "Bolero" would have made her a winner, hands-down, any other year. Yes, the Italian popped a triple loop and took a hard splat on her final element, a triple salchow in the closing seconds of her program. But take away those errors, as well as her fall in the short program, and she still would have finished at least five points behind Kim.
Mao Asada two-footed her triple axel Saturday night, but just attempting the daring jump gets her a ton of points. Even with that, the bronze medallist was closer to the skater who finished ninth than she was to Kim. The heralded young Russians crumpled under the pressure, faltering so badly they cost themselves a spot for their home Olympics and will have only two in Sochi.
And don't expect a challenge to come from the Americans. Ashley Wagner (fifth) and Gracie Gold (sixth) reclaimed that all-important third spot for Sochi with the best U.S. showing since 2006, when Kimmie Meissner won the title and Sasha Cohen was third. But there was no comparison between their programs and Kim's work of art.
"She looks like she knows that she is going to hit everything," Gold said.
Though Kim brushed off the scoring gap — "I've been to many different competitions, from Grand Prixs to the Olympics, and there are always different judges and how they give me marks is always different" — her dominance goes beyond the numbers.
It's a difference in quality, like the disparity between a five-star hotel and a three-star hotel.
Everything she does is elegant and effortless. The triple-triple jump combinations that are so difficult most women need lengthy lead-ins to gather their strength are merely another element for Kim. She is like a bumblebee daintily flitting from flower to flower, and her landings are as smooth as a pebble skipping across the water.
Her spins are quick and tight, and she looks like a ballerina in a jewelry box when she does her layback spin.
But, just as it was four years ago, it is Kim's presentation that makes her performances so memorable. Figure skating is meant to be a blend of art and athleticism, and Kim pours her entire soul into her feet. Rather than simply expressing her music, she embodies it, using every inch of her body to acknowledge it: a soft tilt of her head, a brush of her fingertips, a soulful look.
The audience was on its feet well before her final spin ended. When the last notes of "Les Miserables" faded away, the cheers that erupted were deafening and Kim clapped a hand over her mouth.
"I'm just very happy that I delivered both the short and long programs clean," she added. "This (world championships) could be my last one. But I won, so I'm very happy."
Few athletes have faced pressure as enormous as what Kim experienced before Vancouver. South Korea had never won a medal of any colour at the Winter Olympics in any sport outside of speedskating, and the then-teenager was treated like royalty. She needed bodyguards when she returned home from her training base in Toronto, and every move by "Queen Yu-na" was chronicled in breathless detail.
Though Kim handled the expectations flawlessly, it was part of the reason she stepped away after the 2011 world championships. When she decided to return, she was determined not to be suffocated by the pressure again.
"Pre-Olympics, I was very focused on the results. But after the Olympics, although the training itself is very similar, I don't feel pressure as much," she said. "I'm not as stressed and I'm able to enjoy the moment."
That Kim, now 22, is more relaxed was evident after her practice Saturday morning. Instead of quickly leaving the ice, she spent several minutes at the boards signing autographs and posing for pictures.
But the stakes have now been raised. More than 90 minutes after the competition ended Saturday, dozens of fans were still crowded around the skaters' exit in the cold night air, hoping for just one more glimpse of her. Her picture was splashed across the websites of Korean newspapers.
As Sochi gets closer, the attention — and expectations — will only grow.
"It'd be nice if I post good results," Kim said. "But if I think too much about results, I will be stressed out. So I am trying to relax."
ICE CHIPS: The United States will have the maximum three spots for the women and dance in Sochi, along with two spots in men's and pairs. ... Kim's victory means South Korea will send three women to the Olympics, a first ... Canada qualified for the maximum three spots in men's, ice dance and pairs, and earned two in women's.
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