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Asian skaters are front-runners for gold

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Asian women dominated the last three women’s world championships. Now comes the really big show.

South Korea’s Kim Yu-na of South Korea, and Japan’s Mao Asada and Miki Ando enter tonight’s short program at the Vancouver Olympics carrying the great expectations of their nations on their fragile shoulders.

Nothing less than gold will do.

Current world champion Kim is favored. Her chief rival is Asada, the 2008 world champ and the rare female who can land a triple axel. Ando, the 2007 world winner, has had a strong season and Olympic experience.

Kim is coached by Brian Orser, the two-time Olympic silver-medalist, who says his pupil “knows there’s pressure and it’s understandable. She knows she has a huge fan base in South Korea and a growing one around the world. They adore her and want her to do well. She’s been able to sort of acknowledge that.

“She loves skating and competing and she’s doing it for the right reasons.”

Kim’s motivations might be different from the interests back home, though. To some Koreans, the gold is a foregone conclusion, a dangerous approach considering the last Olympic favorite to win the women’s title was Oksana Baiul in 1994. Kim is the most overwhelming choice for gold since Katarina Witt in 1988.

But Orser doesn’t seem concerned about outside expectations, and he’s pleased with Kim’s practices.

“Having confidence in what you do on the ice and being able to do your best, there’s a comfort in that,” he said.

Asada was a disappointing fourth at last year’s worlds and didn’t even make the Grand Prix final, which Kim won over Ando. But Asada rebounded to win her fourth Japanese title, then beat Olympic teammate Akiko Suzuki to win Four Continents last month.

When Asada is on, she’s an elegant skater, and the triple axel that virtually no other women attempt could be decisive. Not surprisingly, that jump is the first thing Asada is asked about — always.

“As for the triple axel, I have that once in the short and twice in the long program, and I’ve prepared those, practiced for those,” Asada said. “I hope to challenge myself and (do) those.”

Also in the mix are American teens Rachael Flatt (17) and Mirai Nagasu (16).