- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Michelle Kwan isn’t coming back, and there’s no American woman ready to take her place at the Vancouver Olympics.

Get over it.

The Winter Games’ glamour sport will be in its usual glamour spot in Vancouver, British Columbia, with live, prime-time coverage for every event — even the snooze-inducing compulsory dance. Between big names making comebacks, the phenomenon that is Kim Yu-na and the friends-and-former-training-partners-turned-rivals, there will be plenty of fodder to keep everyone’s favorite Olympic soap opera running.

“Figure skating endures,” said David Neal, executive vice president of NBC Olympics. “The Olympics are an international gathering, and that’s what you present. It’s all about stories.”

None will be bigger than Miss Kim’s.

The reigning world champion is the heavy favorite for gold after dominating women’s skating like few others the past two seasons. She’s had one loss since the 2008 world championships, and that was in December of that same year. She won the world title with a record score last March and then topped it at the Trophee Eric Bompard, overwhelming a star-studded field that included her old rival Mao Asada and three-time European champion Carolina Kostner.

Her short-program score at Skate America was so monstrous it would have made her a contender in the men’s event. She lost the free skate to Rachael Flatt but had such a big lead it didn’t matter. She struggled again in the short program at the Grand Prix final but came back to win the free skate and the event.

“She wears the title really well,” coach Brian Orser said. “Her confidence is better; she kind of has a little bit of a skip to her step. But when you see her skate, you see her train, see her with all the other kids, you wouldn’t know that she’s the world champion. She doesn’t gloat. She just goes about her business.”

As South Korea’s best hope for a gold medal in anything besides speed skating, Miss Kim is already a megastar in Asia. Her nickname is “Queen Yu-na,” and she needs bodyguards whenever she’s in South Korea. She does commercials for everything from bread to mobile phones to cars and was listed as the 10th-most-popular athlete — in Japan.

U.S. audiences may love rooting for fellow Americans, but Miss Kim has the same kind of appeal that made Katarina Witt so bewitching. Guys who think axels are part of a car will be scrambling for the rewind button after seeing her “Bond Girl” short program.

She comes with a sweet back story, too. Though Miss Kim has surged ahead in recent months, her rivalry with Miss Asada dates back to their junior days and is expected to be rekindled in Vancouver. A showdown took center stage the last time the Olympics were in Canada, with the “Battle of the Brians” providing one of skating’s greatest competitions.

One of those Brians? None other than Mr. Orser.

“Trust me, it’s been a question that’s come up many times. I want all of the focus to be on her. The attention should be on her, and it’s going to be her games,” said Mr. Orser, who finished second to Brian Boitano. “This is her thing, and I want it to be her experience. I’ve moved on from the Olympics in ‘88. It took a long time — it took a really long time — to put it into perspective. And now I find myself where I am now, and it’s really, really exciting.

“All that knowledge and all that wisdom, what if I had won? I wouldn’t have learned any lessons that now I can pass on to Yu-na.”

For as superior as Miss Kim has been, the gold is not a given. Ukrainian Oksana Baiul was the last favorite to win the gold medal, in 1994, and there will be two other world champions in the Vancouver field, Miss Asada and her Japanese teammate, Miki Ando.

As for the Americans, their streak of winning at least one medal at all but one Olympics since 1952 is in jeopardy. (The lone shutout was in 1964, three years after the entire U.S. team was killed in a plane crash.) No American woman has medaled at the world championships since Kimmie Meissner and Sasha Cohen won gold and bronze in 2006, and neither will be in Vancouver. Miss Kim, Miss Asada and Miss Ando, meanwhile, have combined to win seven of the last nine world medals.

Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu are talented, but they have little experience and even less international cachet. The 17-year-old Rachael has been to one world championships, finishing fifth last year, while the Olympics will be the first major international event as a senior for 16-year-old Mirai.

What they lack in results, however, they make up in personality. Rachael is like the Energizer bunny, juggling training and travel with a course load that would make a valedictorian weep. If there’s a contest for best quote, Mirai will give Johnny Weir a run for his money.

“We don’t have a strong Michelle Kwan or Kristi Yamaguchi to lead us,” said Mirai, who has said it’s an “embarrassment” the American women are no longer at the top of their sport. “But I feel that even though we’re young, we have big dreams to lead us.”

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