Mao Asada of Japan trains at the Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi, Russia, on Thursday, hours after arriving at the host city of the Olympics. / Yonhap
By Kim Young-jin
One of the most tantalizing storylines of the Sochi Olympics is the possibility of a figure skating showdown between Korea's Kim Yu-na and Japan's Mao Asada ― longtime rivals who are winding down their competitive careers.
Asada, who arrived in Sochi on Thursday (KST), says she's ready for the challenge. "The time has come. That's how I feel,'' Asada said in Tokyo before leaving for Russia.
"My physical fitness and skating have been very good since the start of the year. I will adjust my condition after arriving in Sochi and go out competing with a positive attitude.''
The two skaters have a lot in common. At 23, both have captured the hearts of their respective countries, and carry national expectations on their shoulders. Both faced bumpy roads after their showdown in Vancouver four years ago, in which Kim skated away with the gold.
And the two will walk off the competitive stage together, after short programs on Feb. 20 and free skates the following day.
Their decade-long rivalry came to a head in Vancouver, where Kim wowed the world with two stunning performances. Asada struggled with her jumps and settled for silver.
In the years following, Asada changed coaches and revised her jumping technique. The readjustment was not easy, and she placed sixth in the World Championships in 2011 and 2012. She has shown signs of consistency of late, winning three Grand Prix gold medals in the run-up to Sochi.
Kim, who admits she struggled with the immense expectations of her fans, reduced her competitive events and tackled other projects. In 2010, she became a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and later contributed to Korea's successful bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics. She skipped recent Grand Prix events due to a foot injury.
Much attention will be focused on Asada's jumps. While she is the only skater to routinely attempt triple axels in competition, she has yet to cleanly land one this season.
She told reporters she would attempt two 3.5-revolution jumps in Sochi, but it appeared she remained flexible on the total number of triple axels she would try. "If I attempt just one triple axel rather than two in the free, it will make the whole program more balanced," she said. "My idea is changing a little bit.''
Speed skaters arrive
The South Korean speed skating contingent arrived at the Olympic Village on Wednesday and expressed high hopes despite questions over the quality of the ice. Kevin Crockett, coach of the team, said the surface was "funny.'' Some skaters have said the ice was soft.
Lee Seung-hoon, who races in the 5,000-meter event Saturday, said he was focusing on the competition, not the ice.
"Everyone will be competing on the same ice,'' he said. "I don't think the ice conditions will make any difference. Obviously, skaters have their own preferences, but I don't think the ice alone can really determine the final standings.''
Speed skaters and short-track skaters will garner attention from Koreans, as the country has been a powerhouse in the sports.
The country has three reigning Olympic speed skating champions: Lee in the men's 10,000 meters, Lee Sang-hwa in the women's 500 meters and Mo Tae-bum in the men's 500 meters.
Must-see races include the men's 500 meters on Feb. 10, when Mo will attempt to repeat. The following day Lee Sang-hwa will attempt to become the third female speed skater ever to repeat as Olympic champion in the 500 meters.
In short-track skating, teenage sensation Shim Suk-hee will race in the women's 500 meters on Feb. 13, the 1,500 meters on Feb. 15 and 1,000 meters, Feb 21.