Usually when the Olympics come around, I have a favorite skater in each event. This year, my favorites won in each of the three events preceding the ladies. But once the final group of ladies took the ice, I realized I really just wanted them all to skate their best. Having written about all of them for so long, I know all of their stories. As a skater myself, I just wanted to share in their enjoyment of the sport and their Olympic moments. Of course I wanted the Americans to do well, but I am so impressed by Yu-Na Kim; Mao Asada; and, of course, Joannie Rochette, the Canadian champion who lost her mother earlier this week. I felt like a skater mom to all of them, wanting to be next to the barrier holding their guards, cheering in my frumpy coat.
Since I've recapped most of the events this season and written at length about all of the top skaters before, I'll continue in that style for those who missed the event and for those who want to relive it through the eyes of a skater. I also want to share the emotional impact the Olympics have had, because somehow the pressure of Olympic gold and other trying circumstances always alters the outcome. My overall feeling after watching the 2010 Olympic ladies free skate was complete amazement. I knew Yu-Na Kim could do it. I'd seen her do it before. But things happen that nobody expects during the Olympics.
Rachel Flatt, the new U.S. champion, took the ice first. The American skater with what seemed to be the best shot of taking a medal, she has a sparkling personality and is incredibly smart, not unlike Sarah Hughes in intelligence, dedication, talent and attitude. I could feel the crowd support building behind her as she completed each element, skating with a sense of confidence and delight. While the commentators said, "This is the best I've ever seen her skate," I wasn't too sure. I felt she was perhaps too relaxed somehow and unfortunately, she was downgraded significantly for slightly under-rotated jumps. I was a bit bummed for Rachel. Her elements didn't have the polish of some of the other skaters, so she came in behind Laura Lepisto of Finland, one of the earlier skaters, eventually placing seventh. Still, not too shabby for a first Olympics. Quite impressive, in fact. We should all be proud of her.
I must admit Miki Ando has grown on me over the past few years, although I still never thought she would make the podium in Vancouver. When she won the World Championships, I was impressed by her jumps but not her artistry. I think she's definitely improved, and her Cleopatra program suited her well. Her speed is always impressive. She still has a tendency to make clunky steps in between major elements that detract from the overall performance, and her jumps weren't as perfect as I know they could have been. After another solid performance without major visible errors, she pulled into the lead at that point. But, with 188.86, I knew she probably wouldn't make the podium.
The third skater in the final group, Yu-Na Kim, had an excellent position to skate, providing ample time to rest after a full warm-up. Immediately relaxed by Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F, I watched as Kim took off into a gorgeous triple lutz-triple toe and another huge triple flip. A breath of fresh air after Ando, Kim's loose balletic style and intense concentration took her through the entire program, never losing character until the music ended, when she jumped up and down with joy and started crying from happiness and relief. She was so spectacular, we were all expecting such perfection, it wasn't shocking she skated so well -- it was more amazing when her scores came up at 228.56, obliterating her previous record and posting the best score in the world ever by a woman. It was really incredible.
While the media likes to focus on Kim's celebrity factor -- her face is everywhere in South Korea -- they don't often explain the pressure put on her by being the first Korean world champion and how many expectations were on her to win gold. For a 19-year-old, she had a lot to live up to from her own record-setting skates, for her coach, Brian Orser, two-time Olympic silver medalist, and for her country. Now she will forever become an icon in Korea, but more than that, she seemed genuinely honored when receiving her gold medal. She makes an excellent champion.
Mao Asada -- who under the old Olympic rules would have gone to Torino and likely won in 2006 at age fifteen, as Tara Lipinski did in 1998 -- had to follow Kim and her record-breaking scores knowing there was probably no way she could win gold. A phenomenal skater in every way, Asada became the first woman in history to land three triple axels in a world-level competition by doing two in the free skate and one in the short program. Watching her arms and the force put into them to help propel her into the air for those jumps, it was visible how hard she was working.
Then she put more emotion into her performance than I've ever seen from her, faltering with a slight wobble on a forward arabesque before her triple-loop combination and leading to a waver on the landing of that jump and then another caught edge that made her lose another combination. I could tell the mistakes caught her completely off-guard, because they were the weird kind of errors you never get in practice -- only when there's a lack of concentration or nerves affecting a performance. So sad too, because they cost her a lot of points. Possibly they cost her the gold medal, but unlikely. Still, her scores were incredible at 205.5. But I'll admit I'm still wishing she could have competed in Torino. She may have lost her chance for Olympic gold by peaking too early, but silver's mighty fine, and she might still find herself in Sochi in 2014.
The roar heard as Joannie Rochette stepped on the ice for her free skate was the entire country of Canada stepping up to support their top figure skater in her time of need. You would never have known her mother died earlier in the week with the beautiful smile she had on at the start. After she landed her first jump combination, it was as if the audience already thought she won by just being there, the cheering was so overwhelming. But then she went too quickly into a triple flip and stepped out, removing the illusion. It came back quickly, but we were reminded that she was working hard.
Then Rochette brought it back, building her program up with each step toward the end of the program, getting the audience completely behind her, clapping along with her as she spun her way to a dramatic finish. She didn't smile at the end, but she didn't cry either, looking pleased yet still somber. Finally while curtsying, she did smile through her tears. She brought the audience to their feet once again, and finally began to relax in the kiss-and-cry area. When the scores went up and she found she was in third place with 202.64, she did smile again, but it wasn't the smile of someone genuinely happy to be an Olympic medalist. Bittersweet. Finally when she went back on the ice to accept her medal, it seemed as if the joy had finally gotten through to her and she looked really grateful to be there.
Looking scared for her life, Mirai Nagasu got a major pep talk by coach Frank Carroll before she took the ice. She did the same thing in the short program, and I fully expected her to make a ton of errors, but she performed with grace and her spins were superb (to use my token Dick Button word of the day). She seemed so tiny compared to Yu-Na Kim, the jumps requiring more visible effort, but she landed them all and had a giant grin at the end of her skate. Entering the free skate nearly 15 points behind Kim, she had little chance of medaling, but she was extremely happy with her performance. She scored a total of 190.15, by far her best ever, pulling from sixth after the short program into fourth place. With that score, she's a contender for the podium at the world championships next month, as is Flatt, whom I know will want to come back fighting.
While it was a little weird not seeing an American on the Olympic podium since one has always been there my whole life, the results were as they should have been. Usually at least one skater drops out of Worlds after the Olympics, so we'll see if any of the medalists from the Olympics do that, making room for one of the Americans to win as Kimmie Meissner did in 2006. Cynthia Phaneuf, Canada's other competitor skated a disappointing program on home ice in Vancouver, placing 12th, so she'll likely be back in Torino March 20th for the Worlds hoping to improve on her Olympic performance as well.
It would have been helpful to those who love the sport to see all of the ladies in the event either on TV or online, because it showcases how wide a range of different skills and interpretations are possible in the sport. They try to show a touch of variety on TV, but it's not the same as watching the whole event from start to finish. That's when you really appreciate how incredible the top skaters are compared to those who can barely land any triples and whose real achievements were just making it to the Olympic games at all.
For the top three skaters, the combined pressure they felt from their countries and immense personal challenges made their success even better. I could tell Mao Asada still didn't seem like herself and felt disappointed while receiving her silver medal. It's sad that the Japanese culture puts such strain on their athletes to win because a silver medal is such an immense achievement for her and for Japan, but I can only hope she will feel good about her placement in the long run and be glad she went to Vancouver. It should also be noted that Mirai Nagasu wasn't without her own personal battles with nerves over the past few years and with her mother's current battle with cancer. I sometimes wish they gave out pewter medals at the Olympics as they do at the U.S. Nationals because she sure deserved one.
This is it for my coverage of the Olympic skating events, but I'll finish off this season with the World Figure Skating Championships in March.
More from entertainment