With less than a month to go until the Sochi Games begin, all signs are that defending Olympic and world champion Kim Yu-na is rounding into form and will be in top shape when she enters the rink at the Iceberg Skating Palace.
Kim is coming off a strong performance at the South Korean national championships last week in Goyang. After falling on a triple lutz and struggling with the double axel in her season debut at the Golden Spin in Zagreb last month, the 23-year-old looks to have just about put her problems behind her.
She landed the double axel in both the short program and free skate at the nationals, though she did pop a second one in the latter, and appears as confident as ever. Kim won the event in a landslide, scoring 227.86, though the tally is not recognized by the International Skating Union at domestic competitions and inflated numbers at nationals are not unusual.
Looking elegant in a black and purple outfit, Kim was the picture of poise and grace. Despite being marked down when she doubled the back end of a triple-triple combination in the free skate, it was likely a matter of conditioning at this point.
Kim skipped the Grand Prix season with a bruised metatarsal in her right foot, but seems to have just about worked off any rust after sitting out all of last season.
“My confidence has deepened,” Kim was quoted as saying by Yonhap News Agency after her victory. “Overall, I am satisfied. Now I will work on the physical and technical aspects of my skating up until Sochi. I have to stay on my toes and give it all my strength.”
Kim will be trying to join the pantheon of Sonja Henie and Katarina Witt as the only female singles skaters to repeat as Olympic champions.
Henie, the Norwegian legend, won the gold at three straight Winter Games (1928, 1932, 1936). She parlayed those triumphs into a successful career as a show skater and actress, appearing in several motion pictures for Twentieth Century Fox.
Despite reaching great heights in and out of competition, Henie died of leukemia at the age of 57. Her name, however, is still a magical one in the sport, akin to Babe Ruth in baseball.
Henie won the world championship an incredible 10 consecutive times (1927-1936). A record it’s safe to say will never be surpassed.
Skating for East Germany, Witt took the gold in 1984 and 1988, before making an encore appearance at the 1992 Games (where she finished seventh) after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Witt, now 48, won the world title four times and the NHK Trophy on three occasions. She has had a colorful career since retiring, appearing in movies, writing a novel and posing nude for Playboy Magazine back in 1998.
Most recently, Witt led Munich’s unsuccessful bid to host the 2018 Olympics, which the German city lost to the Pyeongchang bid that, in a bit of irony, Kim was the star attraction for.
After Kim beat Mao Asada for the gold medal in Vancouver, Witt spoke of her admiration for Yu-na’s ability.
“There are class and quality in her skating,” she commented. “The reason Yu-na’s skating is special is because of the innocence and that authentic feeling.”
Now Kim is trying to join Witt and Henje as legendary figures in the sport.
Before the nationals, Kim held a public practice session at a rink in Goyang and sounded philosophical afterward.
“As I’m about to retire, I don’t think I’ll have any regret as I believe I’ve given it my all,” she was quoted as saying by Chosun Ilbo. “I’ll think I’ll mostly feel relieved and proud of myself.”
Following the Golden Spin, a South Korean analyst was interviewed on Japanese television and put Kim’s chances of winning the gold in Sochi at “65-70 percent.” This seemed a rather conservative estimate to me.
After watching both of her competitions this season on video, I would rate Kim’s odds of retaining the gold much higher, especially in light of Mao’s problems with the triple axel. I think it is more like 85-90 percent.
Barring an injury, or something very unusual, Kim seems likely to top the podium again. As the defending champion, she will have a built-in advantage going in. Like in boxing, that means she is going to have be soundly beaten for her title to be taken away.
Travel plans: The latest word is that two-time world champion Mao will continue to train in Japan until early February, apparently altering the original schedule which was to have her move to Sochi in mid-January.
Ice Time is not sure why the change in strategy, but it seems like you would want to get over there early and acclimate yourself before the event. The move likely means that Mao will not represent Japan in the team competition, which begins on Feb. 6, a day before the Opening Ceremony.
While this does not come as a complete surprise, it will no doubt be disappointing to her fans.
Double the fun: Narumi Takahashi and Ryuichi Kihara have been given a spot in the pairs event at the Sochi Games, the Japan Skating Federation announced on Friday.
The International Skating Union informed the JSF that Takahashi and Kihara, who will skate for Japan in the team competition, will be entered in the pairs as well after Estonia relinquished its berth due to a citizenship issue.
Big names on board: Five-time world champion Michelle Kwan will be in Sochi as a television analyst on skating for Fox Sports. The silver medalist at the 1998 Nagano Games will have company in Russia, as Nancy Kerrigan, who claimed the silver at the 1994 Lillehammer Games, will be doing analysis for NBC.