Like a great fighter looking to land a knockout punch, world champion Kim Yu Na enters the Grand Prix Final seeking to eliminate any doubt about who will win the gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics.
Kim is the prohibitive favorite in the elite field of six skaters vying for this year’s crown in Tokyo starting Friday and is seeking her third GP Final title in four years.
Competition for the South Korean superstar comes in the form of 2007 world champion Miki Ando, 2009 world silver medalist Joannie Rochette of Canada, Russia’s Alena Leonova, American Ashley Wagner, and Ando’s compatriot Akiko Suzuki.
Kim (Trophee Bompard, Skate America) and Ando (Rostelecom Cup, NHK Trophy) enter having won two GP titles each this season, while Rochette (Skate Canada) and Suzuki (Cup of China) notched one apiece.
All eyes will be on Kim in the final major international event before Vancouver. The 19-year-old set a world record with her winning total of 210.03 at the Trophee Bompard in Paris in October.
In addition to setting the new standard, Kim humiliated second-place finisher and 2008 world champion Mao Asada by more than 36 points. Mao skated again the following week at the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow and came in fifth, thereby costing herself a chance to defend the GP Final crown she so dramatically won over Kim in South Korea last year.
“This is the last major competition before the Olympics Games, so I really want to do well here to get a good feeling for the Olympics,” Kim said following practice on Wednesday at Yogogi Gymnasium.
When asked about her stunning defeat last year, when Mao landed two triple axels in her free skate to beat her on home ice, Kim pointed out that the landscape has been altered significantly since then.
“I don’t think about what happened at the last GP Finals,” she said. “A lot has changed since then and I have a lot of confidence to win here.”
Kim then indirectly stated what many in the skating community believe — she is so far above her opponents that she only has to concentrate on herself.
“I have to compete against myself. There are a lot of good skaters here, but I just have to stay focused on my programs,” she said.
Then men’s field looks to be significantly more competitive, with world champion Evan Lysacek and last year’s GP Final winner Jeremy Abbott, both from the United States, leading the way.
Nobunari Oda, winner of this season’s Trophee Bompard and the Cup of China, is in top form, while Daisuke Takahashi continues his strong comeback from the major knee surgery which forced him to miss all of last season. Takahashi was second at Skate Canada, after finishing fourth at the NHK Trophy.
American Johnny Weir and the Czech Republic’s Tomas Verner round out the field. Verner replaced France’s Brian Joubert, who was injured in a training accident last week and forced to withdraw.
“I haven’t changed my program since the Cup of China,” Oda noted on Wednesday. “I’m just trying to focus on the small details.”
Inspired by his two victories this season, Oda is definitely thinking big.
“I will decide if I do a quad after the short program,” he said. “I want to do one because I have been practicing it a lot.”
Joubert, who won the NHK Trophy last month in Nagano, suffered a deep cut on his right foot on a jump during training and had to undergo surgery to repair the damage.
The injury could jeopardize the 2007 world champion’s bid for his first Olympic medal. He finished sixth at the 2006 Turin Games.
World champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany will vie with China’s Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao in the pairs.
Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White headline the ice dance, where they will take on Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.
Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto of the U.S. were forced to pull out after Belbin suffered an impacted wisdom tooth late last month. The duo won Skate America and the Cup of China this season.
For the second straight year the Junior Grand Prix Final is being held concurrently with the senior competition. Japan boasts the top female and male qualifiers.
Kanako Murakami and Yuzuru Hanyu both captured two Junior GP crowns this season.
Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran will represent Japan in the pairs, after finishing second in the standings.
Sign of the times: International Figure Skating magazine, considered the leading voice of the skating community and a publication which truly has its finger on the pulse of the sport, is out with its December edition featuring Canada’s Patrick Chan on the cover.
To illustrate the opposite direction the fortunes of Kim and Mao have taken in the past year, one need only peruse the pages of the current issue. World champion Kim appears in 11 different pictures, while Mao is not seen in a single shot.