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WINTER OLYMPICS

Kim Yuna is a champion for all time

The 19-year-old Olympic gold medalist from South Korea displays a balance of athleticism and artistry that sets her apart from other figure skaters.

February 27, 2010|By Philip Hersh

Reporting from Vancouver, Canada — It was nearly midnight Thursday, the day of triumph running into the day after, and both Kim Yuna and Brian Orser already were looking at the days ahead.

The skater and her coach were in a car going from post-competition doping control to a news conference that would be aired live in South Korea, where half the country's 48 million people already had watched TV broadcasts of their national hero becoming their first Olympic figure skating champion.

During the 20-minute ride, Kim and Orser could have sat back and looked at the gold medal she won three hours earlier with a performance of record-breaking, mind-boggling quality.

Instead, as Orser sat in a front seat and Kim in the back, they leaned together to study details on the score sheet, talking about places to improve in her next competition, the March World Championships.

That discussion speaks to the particular greatness Kim displayed in the Olympics.

If, at age 19, she already has joined the sport's legends, it will owe not only to Kim's lighter-than-air grace in her movements on the ice and her huge jumps but also to Team Kim's grounding in the demands of figure skating's scoring system.

Never have athlete and artist been more perfectly balanced than they are with Kim. Never has a skater with both those qualities displayed them so flawlessly in the sport's most important competition.

"I always wanted to be Olympic champion and do clean programs," Kim said. "This was the first time I have done both programs clean, and I am very joyful it was at the Olympics."

That achievement alone sets her apart from many of the sport's greats, especially because they had to do far fewer defined elements in a four-minute program that used to embody its title: free skate.

"It's not free any more," said 1976 Olympic champion Dorothy Hamill.

It is impossible to judge Kim against the past, as 1992 Olympic champion Kristi Yamaguchi noted Thursday by saying, "How do you compare that to Sonja Henie?" Henie, with her three Olympic titles and 10 world titles, can be called the greatest of all time, but 8-year-olds today could handle the technical difficulty of her programs.

"Under this new way of evaluating skating and expecting so much from skaters, Yuna distanced herself from the field by the overall, endless quality of her excellence," said 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton.

That allowed Kim to rout the competition, despite a history-making performance by Japan's Mao Asada. In two programs, Asada landed three triple axels, a jump Kim does not attempt, and she still finished nearly five points behind the South Korean in the short program and more than 22 behind in the free skate.

Without the errors she made on lesser jumps, Asada still would not have challenged Kim, whose grades of execution added nearly 10 points to her advantage.

"She is a remarkable skater," Orser said of Asada, "but they need to work with the system better."

Even the new system's most vocal proponents would admit it fails to give skaters the time to be innovators, to do what Hamill calls the "Aha!" moments by holding an innovative position or a classic skating posture long enough to make them trademark moves.

Kim did two such moves in her long program, an Ina Bauer and spread eagle, but she used the positions as brief transitions into jump combinations. The impression they left is not of breathtaking artistry but of the athletic command needed to handle the extra difficulty the moves add to the ensuing jumps.

"I think she will be remembered as a great artist, but it is a different kind of artistry," Hamill said.

Should Kim not continue beyond this season, one could argue whether an Olympic gold and perhaps two world titles are enough to give her mythic dimensions. Orser admits longevity "would be nice" and adds, "I wouldn't be surprised if she comes back."

Hamill already thinks Kim belongs in the sport's pantheon.

"She has jaw-dropping magnificence," Hamill said. "The height of her jumps, the power, the fluid beauty of her skating are like magic, and there is also a modernness about her."

So she is a champion for her times.

And one for all time, as well.

phersh@tribune.com

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