Commentary

Kim staying well ahead of pursuers

Updated: November 16, 2009, 12:59 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- Yu-Na Kim's scintillating short program is set to a medley of music from the James Bond movies, and she finishes it with the smile of a tigress and a bit of universal sign language: Hands shoulder-high, palms together, thumbs up, index fingers pointed out, eyes fixed on an imaginary target.

Bang-bang. You're dead.

This gifted South Korean skater might as well be aiming at the rest of the ladies' field that will gather at the Vancouver Olympics next year. Call her Double-Oh-Kim, international woman of intrigue, a thrilling performer who is doing her best to siphon suspense from what is usually one of the most competitive events at any Winter Games.

Her coach, two-time Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser of Canada, shook his head and backed away at the suggestion. "Never say that,'' he said before Skate America began. Sunday's final day of competition demonstrated that Kim is mortal and that Orser is right.

Wearing a slinky, glittering dress that Sean Connery or anyone else who played 007 would have loved, along with heavy black eyeliner and matching nail polish, the 19-year-old world champion built a hefty lead on the ladies' field with her Bond-girl short program Saturday. She needed that margin to take the title at this Grand Prix series event.

[+] EnlargeRachael Flatt
Timothy A. Clary/Getty ImagesRachael Flatt hopes her performance is a harbinger of things to come at January's national championships.

In Sunday afternoon's free skate, U.S. Olympic hopeful Rachael Flatt hit all seven triple jumps and outscored Kim, who fell on a triple flip, flubbed a couple of others and showed only sporadic flashes of her habitual brilliance. It was Kim's most disappointing outing since she rose to world prominence, but her cumulative weekend score was still good enough to win.

"I'm glad I finally competed the way I practice,'' said Flatt, an ebullient 17-year-old from Del Mar, Calif., who trains in Colorado Springs.

Kim admitted she felt unnerved by the pressure and expectations she had created over the past year with one highlight reel after another -- expectations she had exacerbated in her short program by topping her own world scoring record. She was overdue for a bad day, but scolded herself anyway.

"I always try to focus when I miss jumps, but I didn't do that today. I'll try not to let that happen again,'' Kim said.

Flatt's performance may help her distinguish herself in the muddled picture for the U.S. team selection. At least half a dozen young women -- including 2006 silver medalist Sasha Cohen, who has yet to compete this season -- are in the Olympic mix in this unusually open field, and only two slots are available. The top two at U.S. nationals in January will almost certainly fill them, but results throughout the season can be considered.

"Any time you beat a world champion on any day, that's encouraging,'' said Flatt's coach, Tom Zakrajsek. "But that said, Yu-Na didn't skate her best.''

The most notable thing about Kim when she's on -- which is most of the time -- is that she fires her bullets through a silencer. Where other skaters' blades dig, scrape and crunch, hers seem to whisper across the ice. "It's a return to that quiet skating,'' said longtime American coach Robin Wagner, who compared Kim to the legendary Janet Lynn. "The blade and body and ice are all one.''

Orser's eyes widened when he was told. "That's quite a compliment,'' he said. He shows old footage of Lynn to his skaters at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club as video testimony to what constitutes perfect form.

Kim and Orser began a part-time relationship during the 2006-07 season when Kim came to Toronto to work with choreographer David Wilson and made it a full-time relationship the following season. "She was terribly shy, she had braces, she was a little bit gangly,'' Orser said. "She was not a very happy skater. It wasn't a great process, let's put it that way.

"The goal was to try to get her to enjoy the process of training and competing. But the skating thing was just so much work, developing all these jumps, falling down a lot.''

The two initially communicated through an interpreter, as Kim's English, now tentative but decent, was nonexistent at the time. Then the interpreter left, and Orser had to find another way to teach.

"If I couldn't find the words to tell her, I'd just show her,'' Orser said. "I'd say, 'Watch my hips,' or 'Watch my shoulder.' I'd skate with her leading into the jumps.'' Saturday, in an unconscious echo of those times, Orser did a little hop rinkside as his pupil elevated off the ice during her short program.

Kim is more settled and comfortable now in multi-ethnic Toronto, where she lives in a Korean neighborhood with her mother. She has become an icon in her home country -- which has never produced an Olympic figure skating medalist -- and to its expatriates and emigrants everywhere. Busloads of Koreans made the trip to Lake Placid to see her. However, Kim is adored by fans of all persuasions. After each of her two contrasting performances at Skate America, spectators wore the expression of glazed delight that goes with being in the presence of someone superlative.

The world will get just one more peek at Kim before the Olympics, at next month's Grand Prix final in Tokyo. She'll go undercover after that. Orser gave Kim the full set of James Bond DVDs when she began training her short program, and she'd do well to study the chase scenes. She needs to stay ahead of her pursuers and look cool doing it.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.