Commentary

In their own way, top skaters deliver

Updated: February 26, 2010, 7:00 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Three young figure skaters gave tangible testimony Thursday to the unearthly heights that can be reached when a serene mind takes charge of a well-trained body.

[+] EnlargeYu-Na Kim
YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty ImagesKim Yu-Na won the Olympic gold medal Thursday after scoring 228.56 points and shattering her previous world record by more than 18 points.

South Korea's Kim Yu-na did the hardest thing of all at the Olympics -- exactly what was expected of her. She barely seems to displace air when she skates, yet racked up a world-record score in her long program with the can't-miss attitude of a running back who puts his shoulders down and always finds daylight. Kim is the first reigning world champion to win Olympic gold since Oksana Baiul in 1994, and the first athlete from her country to become a Winter Olympic champion on anything but speedskates.

And in a subplot especially endearing to the host country, Kim's total package of elegance and liftoff gave her Canadian coach, Brian Orser, the chance to thrust an emphatic fist in the air, celebrate a victory and salve the regrets he has lived with after twice falling just short of gold himself in the 1980s.

"I can't believe this is not a dream any more," said Kim, who at 19 has the perfect physique, form and grace notes to milk the most from an unforgiving scoring system.

Canada's Joannie Rochette earned not only a bronze medal, but a permanent place in the pantheon of athletes who capture both the world's admiration and its purest empathy. The 24-year-old Rochette, more composed than she was when she skated her short program less than three days after the sudden death of her mother, stepped out of two jumps but saved the rest of her lyrical free skate. In contrast to Tuesday's emotional struggle, Rochette was able to savor the moment and her lips curved into a deeply satisfied smile on the podium.

On Kim's other side stood her longtime rival Mao Asada of Japan, a spitfire who has the best hydraulics of any woman in the competition and threw every card she had onto the ice in pursuit of gold -- including three triple axels overall (two in the long program, one in the short). She was quietly fierce afterward, talking about her flaws rather than the spirit that delighted the audience.

The bevy of figure skating luminaries in the audience was wowed.

"Surreal," said two-time Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan. "Yu-na was untouchable with her triple-triple combo, not even a little hitch, no big deal. Under so much pressure, to deliver and deliver with ease, and 'I know what I'm doing' attitude. She was heads over everybody else and had the best performance of her life at the Olympics.

"Joannie settled into the right place and the right frame of mind. She was able to take that four minutes and grab it and say, 'I'm here for a reason.' Everybody was skating with her. Everybody was holding their breath. Everybody was just like, 'Come on, you're almost there.' It was like watching a marathon -- 26 miles in four minutes."

[+] EnlargeJoannie Rochette
Cameron Spencer/Getty ImagesWhile still grieving her mother's sudden death, Joannie Rochette was able to win the bronze medal.

Kristi Yamaguchi, the 1992 gold medalist, was struck by the invisible freight both the Canadian and South Korean were carrying. "I turned and said, 'Kim has the weight of her country perched on her shoulders, whereas Joannie has the support of her country lifting her up,'" she said.

Double gold medalist Katarina Witt of Germany said she was awed at the back-to-back-to-back displays of "strength, speed, difficulty and beauty."

"The whole last group was just incredible," Witt said. "[Kim] has a lightness to her skating and the jumps are very high, but Mao Asada had so much passion and she was fighting so hard. And then Joannie coming after, and your American skater [Mirai Nagasu, who finished fourth], to be 16 and go out there and be so poised, to do what she's got to do and have such joy about it."

Rochette was as splendid and heartbreaking in her post-skate comments as she had been on the ice. "I felt so much love in so little time," she said of the huge outpouring of support toward her this week.

She confirmed she had an easier time competing Thursday than she had two days before. The short program was "the first important competition that my mother hadn't attended," she said simply. But Rochette added that she knew, years from now, when the shock and pain weren't so fresh, "I would have wished that I had skated here. That's what my mother would have wanted me to do."

Rochette, an only child, said reaching the Olympics was a "lifetime project" that started when she and her family were inspired by Baiul's poignant performance in 1994. Her mother Therese set high standards for her, she said -- "When I'd get a 98, she would say, 'Where did you lose those two points?'" -- and kept her grounded when she got too full of herself.

When Rochette sat in the kiss-and-cry area where she had shed so many tears 48 hours before, she leaned forward and gave a slightly altered form of the little message she always delivered after every big skate. "Tonight, I knew I couldn't start by saying 'Hi, Mom,'" Rochette said. Instead, she said hello to everyone in her tiny hometown of Ile Dupas, Quebec, said hello to her father, who was weeping in the stands; and then told her mother, now beyond her reach, that she loved her.

But her most important message was nonverbal. Everyone knows now what an amazing job Therese Rochette did in raising this remarkable, soulful young woman.

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.