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Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Americans still in hunt for medals


VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Take a deep breath. Stretch. Hydrate. Don't forget your multivitamins. If you thought Tuesday night's short program was dramatic, wait until two minutes before 8 o'clock p.m. Pacific Standard Time, when the half-dozen finest figure skaters in the world will load into the gate.

Both teenagers representing the United States will compete in the final group, which is a tribute to their cool under the bright lights of their first Olympics. Colorado Springs-based Rachael Flatt, currently in fifth place, will be first on the ice among that last group. Mirai Nagasu, who's in sixth, drew the last slot. They are in fearsome company.

"This is Yu-Na Kim's to lose, that's for sure," said 1976 gold medalist Dorothy Hamill, who was on hand to see one of the more remarkable nights in figure skating history. Reigning world champion Kim, 19, of South Korea, lived up to every paean said or written about her in the months leading up to the Olympics. Her Bond girl program was as showy and thrilling as any 007 film and garnered a world-record point total.

Much had been made of whether Kim would be able to bear the expectations of her zealous home country, but she carried that burden lightly Tuesday. Her long program, set to a Gershwin concerto, is more traditional but still has that floating quality that sets Kim apart from the field.

On Thursday, Kim will skate before Mao Asada of Japan, giving newly inspired Asada a chance to make a last-minute decision about the benefits of trying not just one, but two triple axels in her program. That distinctive weapon could be her only chance of surpassing Kim -- but if Kim sets the bar too high, Asada might skate to conserve silver rather than aiming at gold.

Following Asada will be Canada's grieving Joannie Rochette, who will try to reprise the gutsy short program performance that came less than three days after her mother's sudden death. Hamill, who attended a practice session for the top women Wednesday, said she cried watching Rochette run through her free skate to Camille Saint-Saens' "Samson and Delilah."

"You could see the music taking her away," Hamill said. "At one point, she closed her eyes and you could almost see her channeling her mother. It was chilling."

Fellow gold medalist Peggy Fleming was still marveling at Rochette's steel on Wednesday morning. "I don't think it's sunk in yet," she said of Rochette's ability to compete. "She doesn't want to go there yet, and this helped her."

There's a considerable gap between Rochette's third-place score and those of Nagasu, Flatt and Miki Ando of Japan, who are bunched within a point of each other in fourth through sixth place. It would take a substantial collapse by one of the top three women to put one of those next three in medal contention.

Don't count the Americans out, however. Nagasu, brutally hard on herself, wants to erase the memory of the unfortunate nosebleed that afflicted her midway through her program and embarrassed her as she took her curtsies. Flatt's triple jumps are generally slam dunks, and she's skilled at tuning out the hype and drama around her and doing her own thing. "I wasn't surprised at how Rachael skated, but I was definitely impressed with her poise," said her coach, Tom Zakrajsek.

Hamill, who has informally mentored Flatt for the past year, said the 17-year-old is still "pinching herself" but has done a good job of not being intimidated. "She doesn't have the expectation that she's going to come in here and blow these women away," said Hamill, who added that Flatt's program is well-tailored to rack up points.

As for Kim, Fleming -- the 1968 Olympic champion -- agrees with Hamill that the young South Korean is the class of this field. "It looks effortless," she said of Kim, whose athleticism would have been unimaginable in Fleming's and Hamill's day. "When it looks easy, it's good."