SOCHI, Russia – Yuna Kim, the consistently elegant reigning Olympic champion, said her legs felt dead during her warmup skate, a feeling that produced an awkward landing on a practice jump, the kind she seldom experiences.
The fans inside the Iceberg Skating Palace gasped at the sight. Kim's face expressed puzzlement and suddenly it felt like maybe, just maybe, this was when the icon known as "Queen Yuna" might begin to fade.
Kim shrugged off nerves and doubts, found her legs and delivered a brilliant and beautiful short program for a score of 74.92, enough to finish the night in the lead heading into Thursday's long program.
[Related: Gracie Gold puts herself in medal contention]
"My legs didn't move, and I couldn't do my jumps properly," Kim said. “When I was on the ice I was trembling. I was very nervous, my legs started shaking. … I tried to believe in myself and believe in my practices."
Kim leads but the competition in this loaded field is right behind her. Russian Adelina Sotnikova was magnificent and is in second place with a 74.64. Italian Carolina Kostner, the 2012 world champion, was also nearly Kim's equal, finishing in third with 74.12.
Meanwhile, American Gracie Gold, who fought through a near-fall on a combination jump, came in with a sound and satisfying performance and stands in fourth with 68.63.
"When I was in the air on some of those jumps," Gold said, "I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, what is this? This is not a good feeling.' I knew I had to fight. I have come too far not to land this stupid jump. I have not come this far to mess up. I am landing it with a smile on my face."
Gold said it was a sign of her growth and burgeoning confidence.
"Shooting the fear in the face is what I am all about now," she said.
Ashley Wagner, of Alexandria, Va., is in sixth place at 65.21. Polina Edmunds of San Jose, Calif., is in seventh at 61.04.
Two pre-Olympic favorites struggled.
Mao Asada of Japan fell early and pulled out of a combination to register an incredibly disappointing 55.51. The silver medalist from Vancouver had her sights set on besting Kim but is in 16th place and almost assuredly out of medal contention.
Meanwhile, Russian sensation Julia Lipnitskaia fell hard during her otherwise electrifying routine and scored a 65.23, then skated off the ice in extreme disappointment as her home fans rained bouquets and teddy bears down on the 15-year-old.
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Thursday’s free skate is longer with more jumps and higher scores, allowing for more opportunities to make up ground and for others to fall back. Skaters such as Gold, Lipnitskaia and Asada, all of whom harbor dreams of earning a medal, will need the current top three to falter in order to reach the podium. As they say in skating, though, ice is slippery and anything is possible.
Kim will be the long program's 24th and final skater after Lipnitskaia (19th), Kostner (20th), Sotnikova (21st), Gold (22nd) and Wagner (23rd).
In the end, Wednesday was about how the 23-year-old Kim, one of the greatest skaters of all time, reasserted herself. Her combination of floating leaps and flowing spins is almost impossible to match, even after she took two years off from competition between the Vancouver Games and now.
But surprisingly, Kim, who is known for her steely demeanor, was as nervous as she could recall before skating in the short program. She said when she took the ice that her legs had no strength, and when she couldn't handle some warm-up jumps, she had to fight the fear of failure from creeping into her mind.
"My legs didn't move and I couldn't do my jumps properly,” Kim said. “When I was on the ice I was trembling. I was very nervous, my legs started shaking. … I tried to believe in myself and believe in my practices."
The nervousness was so uncharacteristic that the South Korean media, which covers Kim relentlessly, was shocked and kept asking how it was possible.
"I am a human being," she said.
She is. It's just that when she skates in the Olympics, it's not always easy to tell.
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