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Olympics / Sports

'Queen Yuna' insists she's not feel heat despite challengers for her crown

SOCHI, Russia -- When Yuna Kim boarded a Korean Air flight last week from Seoul to Russia, she was offered a seat in first class.

Kim, the reigning Olympic and World figure skating champion, declined the offer and joined her South Korean Olympic teammates in coach.

Even if Kim, who is referred to as "Queen Yuna" by her fans and many in the sport, doesn't act like royalty, it hasn't prevented others from giving her the royal treatment.

Kim has been at the center of almost smothering attention since she landed in Sochi. Her practices have been mob scenes, where photographers jostle to shoot her every move.

Part of the attention has been because Kim's primary rivals have been training in seclusion away from the Sochi area.

Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold of the U.S. were in Graz, Austria; Japan's Mao Asada, a two-time World champion, in Armenia; the Canadians in Manheim, Germany; Italy's Carolina Kostner nearby in Oberstdorf; and Russian 15-year-old phenomenon Julia Lipnitskaia in Moscow.

But Kim's place as the headliner in the Winter Olympics' marquee women's competition is primarily the result of what she did in Vancouver four years ago and what she hopes to do at the Iceberg Ice Palace on Wednesday and Thursday.

Four years after winning the Olympic title with the greatest performance in figure skating history, Queen Yuna now looks to extend her reign and become the first skater, man or woman, to win back-to-back gold medals since East Germany's Katarina Witt in 1984 and 1988.

With a victory, Kim would also join Witt and Norway's Sonja Henie (1928, 1932, 1936) as the only women to win consecutive Olympic titles.

"The era in which I am participating and those of the other two are so different," Kim said. "A lot of time has passed and our abilities are different."

On the latter point most in the sport agree, insisting a second gold medal would cement Kim as the sport's greatest ever.

"If she wins I would say she's at the top, yeah," said Elvis Stojko, a three-time World champion and twice Olympic silver medalist for Canada.

But many in skating believe Kim's performances at the 2009 Worlds and 2010 Olympics have already sealed her position atop the sport's history.

The victories are certainly the two most dominant performances in the post-6.0 era after the 2002 Olympic judging scandal.

In winning the 2009 World title, Kim became the first woman to break the 200-point barrier (207.71). A year later she won the Olympic gold medal, smashing her own world record with a 228.56 score and a performance that was simply perfect.

Kim was so dominant in Vancouver that silver medalist Asada's score of 205.5 would have won the 2006 Olympic gold medal by nearly 25 points.

"It has taken figure skating to another level," former Olympic champion Kristi Yamaguchi told the Register after Kim's performance. "Just look at the score, the whole package, it was a night to remember."

The score wasn't the only big number Kim has put up.

Forbes magazine last year ranked Kim as the sixth highest-paid female athlete in the world with a reported annual income of $14 million from appearance fees and endorsements deals with Hyundai, Korean Air and Nike.

She had her own TV show, an ice skating version of "Dancing With The Stars" called "Kim Yuna's Kiss and Cry." A compilation of her favorite songs, "Yuna Fairy on Ice," was the nation's top-selling album.

And Queen Yuna's reach extends beyond South Korea.

She has been invited to appear before the United Nations and played a leading role in the successful bid of Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the 2018 Winter Olympics. In Los Angeles, the city council designated a "Kim Yuna Day."

But the flight between Vancouver and Russia has at times been bumpy. In August 2010, she left her longtime Toronto-based coach Brian Orser in a public and bitter split.

Kim moved to Los Angeles to train with Peter Oppegard, an Olympic bronze medal-winning pairs skater and the brother-in-law of five-time World champion Michelle Kwan.

In October 2012, she returned to South Korea to train with her childhood coaches Shin Hea Sook and Ryu Jong Hyun.

Kim won the 2013 World title with another dominant performance. Her free skate component score (73.61) was the best of her career.

But she has battled injuries on and off since Vancouver, and recent leg problems have limited her training and competition schedule in the months leading to the Olympics. Others question her motivation.

"Does she have the fire?" Stojko said. "Is she really doing it for her? Is it the federation? When it comes down to it right at that moment when you have the pressure on you, that fire has to be there to take you above that pressure?"

Yet Queen Yuna insists she's not feeling any heat.

"I try not to feel pressure," Kim said after a recent training session. "In Vancouver I was at my first Olympic Winter Games and I wanted to be as good as I can. This time I think it will be easier than it was in Vancouver."

(c)2014 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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