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FIGURE SKATING

Mao Asada, Kim Yu-Na jump for joy, and more

Asada, from Japan, and Kim, from South Korea, are favorites at this week's world championships in part because they've learned to balance athleticism and artistry. They're also learning to be happy.

March 23, 2009|HELENE ELLIOTT

At first, it was all about the jumps.

Mao Asada and Kim Yu-Na thought figure skating revolved around salchows, lutzes and loops. Asada especially because she could land a triple axel, a 3 1/2 -rotation jump few women have the power to pull off.

Their skill brought them success at the junior level but didn't make them well-rounded skaters. Kim, for one, despite boundless talent, plainly was miserable.

That's the first thing Brian Orser noticed in the spring of 2006 when Kim left her home in South Korea to visit the Toronto rink where he coaches.

"As a person she wasn't a very happy skater. I know that she came from a skating culture where more was better so she skated a lot," said Orser. "She did a lot of off-ice training and it really took over her life. And as a young person who was 15 years old, she just wasn't happy. And she had a mouthful of braces. And she just was getting a little frustrated."

Asada also sought something new. She had left Japan to train in Lake Arrowhead with Rafael Arutunian in 2006 but returned home last year. She began visiting Russia to work with Tatiana Tarasova, whose clients include Olympic champions Ilia Kulik and Alexei Yagudin and a Hall of Fame's worth of others.

Those moves led each young woman to a moment of truth.

"When I was a junior skater, the most important thing was how many triple jumps I could do," Kim said via e-mail. "But now I know jump is just one of elements."

Eureka again, this time in Japanese.

"Since Tatiana started choreographing and coaching me, my favorite part in my program became the step sequence, not only jumps anymore," Asada said via e-mail.

"I am working on the artistry with Tatiana and I realized the artistry point was also very important for the skate."

Mastering the duality of artistry and athleticism is tricky. Kim and Asada, born 20 days apart in September 1990, do it better than almost everyone else in the world.

Their rivalry promises to escalate this week as the World Figure Skating Championships unfold at Staples Center. Asada enters as the defending champion and Kim the defending bronze medalist but they split their last two head-to-head competitions.

Asada won the Grand Prix Final in December on Kim's home ice, in Goyang City, and became the first woman to land two triple axels in a program. Kim last month earned a record 72.24 points for her short program and defeated Asada at the Four Continents championships at the Vancouver Olympic venue.

The Olympics have long been on their radar. They were too young to compete in Turin, a shame because Asada might have challenged for the gold medal won by another Japanese skater, Shizuka Arakawa.

"Because I knew that Turin was not for my time, I was not disappointed," Asada said.

Their time is rapidly approaching. Asada, coached by Tarasova and performing a short program by choreographer-to-champions Lori Nichol, remains a strong technician. Kim, coached by two-time Olympic silver medalist Orser, and performing routines designed by the renowned David Wilson, throws herself into her "Danse Macabre" short program with passion.

Only a few can challenge them. Carolina Kostner of Italy, last year's world runner-up, lost to Finland's Laura Lepisto at the European championships. Japan's Miki Ando hasn't won a major event since her 2007 world title. Canada's Joannie Rochette beat Asada at a Grand Prix event in France and at the Four Continents event, but she's a longshot.

Asada said she is more focused on evolving than on repeating as champion.

"I do not feel much pressure," she said. "Sometimes I try not to think that I won the title last year, so that I never forget the challenge. I want to concentrate on my performance and try my best to get the best score of the season."

She considers this a sort of homecoming because of the time she spent in Lake Arrowhead. She and her sister, Mai, trained there until they were evacuated because of wildfires that ravaged the area in 2007.

"I saw the fire from my house in Lake Arrowhead. It was frightening," Asada said. "But I enjoyed nature life there. I enjoyed Lake Arrowhead and Los Angeles a lot."

Kim is enjoying skating -- and life -- a lot more these days. "She laughs almost every day, even this close to worlds," Orser said. "We just gave her some material, just the right vehicle for her to skate to and relate to. Combine that with constant work on skating skills, and I think it was probably a relief for her that every lesson wasn't about the triple flip or the triple loop."

Learning English from a tutor also brightened her outlook. Orser reached out by learning a few words in Korean.

"Since I worked with Mr. Brian Orser, I could upgrade my performance overall," she said. "He often tells me about his experience including 1988 Olympic Games and tries to share what he felt and learned."

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