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Ice dancer Kim carries weight of skating-mad South Korea

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Anticipating the Olympic women's figure skating finale will leave you just as breathless as watching the long program itself. In modern skating, the four-minute performance has become a frantic to-do list for athletes checking off every spin, step, spiral, jump and facial expression they can cram into the allotted time.

If anyone can make it look effortless, it is the favorite to win the gold medal on Thursday, Kim Yu-Na of South Korea. She leaps, she floats, she emotes. She combines the presence of Katarina Witt with the technique of Shizuka Arakawa.

Five skaters trailing Kim will try to unseat the reigning world champion and record-holder known as "The Queen." She carries the grand expectations of a skating-mad nation.

Kim must stay on her feet to thwart the upset hopes of familiar foe Mao Asada of Japan — a rivalry amplified by the historic animosity between their countries.

Joannie Rochette, whose 55-year-old mother died of a heart attack on Sunday, is the grieving homeland favorite. She's in third place after a moving performance in Tuesday's short program.

Japan's Miki Ando, a powerful jumper and former world champ, is in fourth.

Two irrepressible Americans are fifth and sixth.

Ladies, start your orchestras.

The gold is Kim's to lose. Brian Orser, her coach, describes the frenzy that surrounds his skater "like traveling with Princess Diana."

"Now she needs bodyguards and it's really incredible," he said.

Kim, 19, trains in Toronto, in part to escape the scrutiny she receives at home. She earns about $5 million per year in endorsements, which includes her signature cell phone. She's followed by paparazzi and a media horde. Gossip and analysis of her skating burns up the Internet.

Kim has a 4.88-point lead over Asada. The two skaters, who have vied for the top titles over the past three years, will perform contrasting programs. Kim will skate to Gershwin's airy and upbeat "Concerto in F." Asada, who has the difficult triple axel in her repertoire, skates to the dark, dramatic "Bells of Moscow" by Rachmaninoff.

"Usually I think there's about a 10-point difference so I feel good that there is only this difference between myself and Yu-Na," Asada said.

South Korea is looking for its first Winter Olympics medal in a sport other than speedskating. South Korea has won four speedskating golds here so far. Japan's Midori Ito won the women's figure skating silver in 1992 and Arakawa won gold in 2006. Japan's Daisuke Takahashi won the men's bronze last week.

"I can think of it two ways," Kim said Tuesday. "I could let the pressure get to me or I could try to maintain the good start I had today."

There is no love lost between Kim and Asada, nor between their countries. Japan occupied the Korean peninsula for 35 years until the end of World War II. Koreans' pride was tinged by humiliation when Sohn Kee-Chung won the country's first Olympic gold medal at the 1936 Olympics, in the marathon, but was forced to compete for Japan and with a Japanese name.

The rivalry was heightened again at the 2002 World Cup, co-hosted by South Korea and Japan. South Korea's "Red Devils" outclassed Japan, advancing to the semifinals. Baseball is another sport in which they try to out-do each other.

Female figure skaters have rock star status in Asia, which has eclipsed the U.S. as leader in the sport. Ito, Yuka Sato and China's Chen Lu got the wave going. Japan's Ando won the world title in 2007. She is the first and only female skater to complete a quadruple jump in competition but won't risk it here. Like Kim, she used to be all about technical skill but both have improved their ability to evoke a mood or play a character. Ando portrays Cleopatra in her long program.

"My coach explained by using the example of my father, who died when I was 10," Ando said. "'You have to see your father,' he said. I think my he is watching me from the sky."

Don't count out the Americans. Rachael Flatt, in fifth place, has a clutch long program and beat Kim in the long at Skate America. She's worked diligently to clean up her edges, takeoffs, landings and her triple flip-triple toe combination.

"Her programs show the two sides of her personality," said Flatt's mother, Jody, after practice Wednesday. "The short is her bubbly, playful side and the long displays her passionate side."

Flatt's skating, like the studious teenager herself, is consistent, disciplined. It's only fitting that she's planning to become a biomechanical engineer or surgeon. Like clockwork, she ticks off one difficult element after another to maximize points. Her coach, Tom Zakrajsek, is a master at working the system.

When you picture Flatt on the ice, picture her schedule back home: Wake up at 5:15 a.m., school at 6:30, at the rink by 9, back to school by 12:15 p.m., back at the rink from 3 to 6, then conditioning and ballet sessions, then homework. And she fits in time to walk her two sheepdogs, Fred and Ethel (Lucy died last year).

There is no room for error.

American Mirai Nagasu, 16, seems to get better with each performance after slumping through a year of growth spurts, foot injuries and tearful breakdowns which she termed her "evil Mirai" period. Her coach, Frank Carroll, who coached Evan Lysaceck to gold last week, banned the crying.

She kept her composure Tuesday despite a nosebleed in the middle of her program. She performs to Bizet's "Carmen" in the long. If Nagasu was an actress, she'd be a scene stealer.

"My dad wanted me to play golf," said Nagasu, whose parents own a sushi restaurant in Arcadia, Calif. "You can make a lot of money from golf. But golf was too hot."

It will be hot at Pacific Coliseum Thursday night. Figure skating loves its battles — the Battle of the Brians, Battle of the Carmens. Get ready for another one.

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