The ladies' final event at the World Championships always comes with surprises. This year, it was Kim Yu-Na who swept us off our feet Saturday with the most incredible score of any woman yet, and Mao Asada who showed that amazing triple axel isn't enough in the new judging system.
After a tough Short Program, American champion, Alissa Czisny, who didn't skate her best in that event, did well enough to move up to eleventh place overall. Soon after, Fumie Suguri pulled up into eighth place, probably disappointing for someone who has three World medals, but she still did well.
Swiss champion Sarah Meier, who came off of a tough year, followed with a pretty program, but as with many of the others, there was an added layer of pressure on her to rank well in order to earn a spot at the Olympics. Hopefully her ninth place finish was enough. Russian Alena Leonova skated a powerful, energetic program, showing the skill that brought her a surprise title this year, giving notice that she'll be a contender for Vancouver. She came in seventh.
Rachel Flatt, who came into the freeskate in 7th place, her first time at Worlds, the best shot for the American latdies, was greeted with a warm welcome in Los Angeles. Flatt, sixteen, who would have qualified last year if she were old enough, is already a seasoned international competitor. Unfortunately, she had a slightly telegraphed take-off and a tough landing on her triple lutz and as a result, didn't complete her first difficult combination.
Flatt has a light quality to her skating and she knows how to skate smartly, going for the points and adding extra jumps if she misses them earlier in her programs, something that became necessary both for the short and the long. With a smile fit for Broadway, the audience loved her, standing at the Staples Center. She still did extremely well considering, and she earned fifth place at her first visit to Worlds.
Mao Asada skated first in the last warm-up group in one of the most gorgeous costumes I've seen in ages - a plum chiffon lace bodice and neck cuff. Just when I was beginning to appreciate her artistry, she did the most beautiful, giant triple axel combination I've ever seen. Falling on the second triple axel, the illusion was lost briefly, but only for a moment before she went into a gorgeous three jump combination, showing why she won the title last year. The rest of her program was solid, and she scored well ahead of Flatt and the others at that point, but the fall on her second triple axel essentially cost her a medal.
I saw Joannie Rochette yawn before going out on the warm-up, which didn't bode well, but she held onto her first jump after a brief hop. However, she doubled her next triple and stepped out of a later jump, looking to be just slightly off her game. A muscular skater who uses her arms as much as her legs while skating, she had a dramatic performance, pulling in just ahead of Asada. Rochette will be the hometown favorite in Vancouver, so this skate puts her in a great position for that. She has already taken a place next to Elizabeth Manley in skating history as the first Canadian woman since 1988 to win a silver medal at the World Championships.
Former champion, Miki Ando skated a powerful performance packed full of jumps and didn't miss a beat, the only person at that point to skate a perfect program. It was not enough to beat Rochette, but Ando pulled just ahead of Asada. She just had more points. Now if either Asada or Ando could add just a hint more artistry to their programs, they could possibly come closer to Yu-Na next season. She took home the bronze.
Kim Yu-Na, skating with grace, lightness and the delicacy of a world class ballerina opened with a huge triple-triple combination and then continued to dazzle the crowd, raking in the points with phenomenal jumps blended with emotional flair and innovative choreography. The title was hers to lose after a gigantic lead from the short program, and she didn't disappoint, even with the little popped jump toward the end (yes, even the best skaters can have a brief lapse in concentration).
Literally five seconds later, the audience was already clapping with her music, and her final footwork sequence brought a big smile to her face. It was one of those moments where everyone in the building knew she had done it - the first Korean skater to ever win a world figure skating title. And if that wasn't enough, her total points between both programs was over 207. No woman had made it over the 200 mark since the advent of the new judging system. So even with a small mistake, she cleared the field. Amazing.
Not over yet, two more skaters had a chance to medal, including Carolina Kostner of Italy, silver medalist from '08 who had a bit of a load off, knowing there was no way she could beat Yu-Na even at her best. Still, she put a hand down on her first jump and popped almost all of the rest of her jumps, something sad to see, particularly after the high in the room from Yu-Na. The last skater, Laura Lepisto of Finland, doubled her early triples but skated with nice speed and a smooth, consistent style. She breathed a sigh of relief when it was over, but she finished atop the rest of the European skaters, so she'll likely be someone to watch in Vancouver as well.
As one of those sports stats commentators like to recite, the reigning World Champion in ladies' figure skating always has a leg up on the rest of the pack and on many occasions has become the Olympic champion. So Kim Yu-Na is the woman to beat in Vancouver and these are the ladies who can do it. That said, there are still a couple of Americans who didn't make it to Los Angeles who on any other day at the U.S. Championships could have, so don't count out the Americans just yet, and Flatt and Czisny both have what it takes to be podium material if they play their cards right.
Mark your calendars for February 12-28 for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The competition just started.
Sarah Granger, former competitive skater and now skating mom, still hopes to overcome injuries and get back to Adult Nationals soon. Best wishes to those competing April 22 in Grand Rapids!
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