LONDON, Ont. – Her clothes were dark, mostly black, for both practices Tuesday, and the hue fit the expressionless mask that covered Yuna Kim’s face.
The convulsive, gloomy and interpretively challenging music for her short program, from the score to the film “The Kiss of the Vampire,” accentuated the feeling that the reigning Olympic champion was finding little pleasant in the hard work of getting ready for her first big figure skating challenge in two years.
Outside her native South Korea, where she has returned to train with her childhood coaches, where she remains an A-list celebrity, Kim has mainly been out of sight since finishing second at the 2011 World Championships. That was her only international competition of the post-Olympic season, and she has done just one since, a second-tier December event in Germany, an event she needed to get the qualifying score for the world championships here.
Bits of a smile briefly crossed Kim’s face when she gave a brief interview to a largely Japanese group of media in the mixed zone at the Budweiser Gardens arena following her Tuesday night practice. The increasing fluency she had gained in speaking English no longer was on display. While she needed no translation for questions asked in English, she answered all in Korean, relying on a translator.
At 22, the young woman who delivered two performances for the ages at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics understands she now is competing against that standard as well as against other skaters. Kim may fall short of her past brilliance, but it was clear from watching her practices at two different arenas that she remains the most talented woman skater in the world, with impressively consistent jumps, intricate footwork and a body language that reflects a strong relation to her music.
“The Vancouver Olympics was the first competition where I completed the short and free programs without any mistakes, and that in itself was a huge achievement,” Kim said. “Doing a clean program requires a lot of practice, and I truly believe if I do practice a lot, I can deliver such perfection once again.”
Kim intends to compete in the 2014 Olympics, and she has intimated that will be the end of her competitive career. But the 2018 Olympics are in her homeland, and it is hard to imagine the Korean sponsors who have made her a multimillionaire won’t try to push her toward skating five years from now in Pyeongchang.
She faced suffocating pressure from her country before the 2010 Games. It was heightened because her top rivals were Japanese, and Korea has both historical enmity and a mullti-layered contemporary rivalry – economic, cultural, hipness – with Japan. Some of that pressure was alleviated by her having trained in Toronto with Brian Orser, the coach she left six months after the Olympics. She hopes some has been relieved now by bringing home the gold medal.
“I did decide to come back (to competition) with not much pressure on me,” she said. “I do feel better. I don’t want to be pressured as much prior to the Olympics.
“However, because I am a human being, I also want to do well. I want to deliver good results. (And) in the press, I still hear about the comparisons between myself and (Japan’s Mao) Asada. The pressure is still there.”
Asada, silver medalist at the 2010 Olympics, beat Kim for the 2010 world title. Asada has struggled the past two seasons, with consecutive sixth places at worlds, but is unbeaten in international competition this season, including wins at the Grand Prix Final and the Four Continents Championship.
Kim confessed to being “very worried and nervous” while also expressing confidence about doing well here. She has taken on this challenge because it seemed the best – perhaps only? - way to go at this stage in her life.
“After I won the Olympics, like any gold medalist, I did feel some emptiness in my heart,” Kim said. “I did think about coming back to the ice for a long time. What motivated me is skating is something I am best at, and I love the most. So I want to give it one more try.”
Maybe that love will show in her face when Kim takes the ice Thursday for the short program. There was no emotion evident Tuesday.
Yuna Kim, a sylph on skates, was the Sphinx of the rinks.