Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Queen Yu-Na

Breathe a deep sigh of relief, Korea, because for now it appears the combined misfortunes of Messrs Highly and Forbes have no effect on your figure skating queen, Kim Yu-Na*. Kim participated in the women's figure skating short program this afternoon (last night for you North Americans, three years later for you Martians), and her performance was one that will go down in the annals of great Korean sports history moments.

Korea has done quite well at the Vancouver Olympics, thus far earning five gold medals, but I think it's safe to say that, before last week, hardly anyone knew who athletes such as Lee Jung-Su, Mo Tae-Bum, or Lee Seung-Hoon were. Everyone knows who Kim Yu-Na is; and as great as the Korean athletes have performed, there's one gold medal with more significance attached to it than the rest combined. No hyperbole: even a silver medal in women's figure skating would be a tremendous blow to the nation's pride.

So far, so good. Like most of the nation, I watched in rapt awe as Kim delivered an amazing performance years in the making. The Korean media has, since 2006, followed every step of Kim's career, everything leading to these Olympic Games. What enormous pressure; what assured skill. Kim didn't just give the performance of her life today, she blew her fellow competitors out of the water. What had prior been a fairly uneventful, subdued affair became very interesting when Kim's chief rival, Asada Mao of Japan, turned in the evening's best performance, garnering a leading score of 73.78. As Kim took the ice, I nervously texted Chicken Wire the following message: Yuna has her work cut out for her.

She got the job done.

After falling hard during the morning practice, there was speculation that the pressure and grand expectations placed on Kim in the months and years leading to these Games were finally taking their toll, and at the worst possible time. Consider the morning practice a fluke, because Kim skated her heart out, landing every jump and exhibiting an exuberant flair unmatched by her peers. Finishing with a world-best 78.5, Kim sits in first place going into Thursday's free skate.

(Kim's performance wasn't the night's most touching, however. Canada's own Joannie Rochette, whose mother died of a heart attack two days ago, skated to a career-best 71.36, placing third. Had Rochette decided to withdraw from the competition, no one would have faulted her. That she didn't showed great courage. And had her mourning or her no-doubt shaken mind led to an uneven performance, all in attendance would have stood as they did, applauding her heart, her courage. Instead, Rochette gave a flawless performance, puncuated by clear, bittersweet emotion. Watching live, there were only two eyes in attendance at Chez Sparklegs. Neither were dry.)

The entire nation will be tuning in this Thursday, cheering on the country's most celebrated athlete since...ever? Through judging scandals and intense -- sometimes criminal -- rivalries, every four years I find myself engrossed in the wonderment of Olympic women's figure skating. It's a sport where anything can happen, and it's infinitely watchable. And, as seen today, it's incredibly beautiful.

See you on Thursday.

* Oh how I hate the official romanization of her name. Ms. Kim is, naturally, free to call herself whatever she wants, but it must be stated that the first syllable of her name is neither 여 nor 유. "Yeona," "Yuna," "Yeon-Ah," or "Yun-Ah" I can accept, but Yu-Na? Who thought that was a good idea?

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