SEOUL, Jan 10 (Reuters) - Kim Yuna carried the expectation of a nation on her shoulders when she skated her way to the title at the Vancouver Games, and while South Koreans will settle for nothing less than gold in Sochi the Olympic champion seems more at ease with the pressure.
The first lady of South Korean sport, Kim single-handedly made figure skating popular in a country where 44 of its 45 Winter Games medals have come in short track and speedskating.
She delivered the performance of a lifetime four years ago, wowing the crowd with a record-breaking routine, and with long-time rival Mao Asada snapping at her skates she will need to put on another breathtaking show to keep her crown.
But while South Koreans will be twisting themselves up in knots for nights of jangled nerves and ceaseless tension, Kim is a picture of calm.
“I’ve already achieved my goal of winning an Olympic gold medal so I don’t have any burden or feel greedy about results,” said the 23-year-old before she left for Europe in December.
That sentiment will not be shared in South Korea, where people are growing accustomed to seeing Kim’s face advertising everything from instant coffee to financial services.
Kim has already said she will deliver her Olympic skating swansong in Sochi and concedes she is anxious about what she will do when her life is no longer spent on edges.
“It’s true I feel uneasy,” Kim told local media about bringing the curtain down on her figure skating career.
”I’ve done it since I was seven, I’ve done nothing but this. I have this fear about whether or not I’ll be able to do other stuff well. I also have this fear about starting everything from scratch, without really knowing what I‘m doing.
“But after Sochi I won’t feel empty. I did my share. I just feel worried about my life after retirement.”
Sochi will mark the final battle between Kim and Asada, who have been rivals since their junior skating days.
While the Japanese skater has been the season’s standout so far, winning top events such as Skate America and the NHL Trophy, Kim’s preparations for Sochi were interrupted by a foot injury that kept her off the ice for several weeks.
She returned to competition at the Golden Spin in Zagreb in December, and while she won the event introducing her new programme, she fell on the first jump of her opening triple lutz-triple toe loop combination in the free skate.
”I have been compared to Mao since we were both junior skaters,“ Kim said. ”We’ve felt the rivalry since then so we wanted to avoid each other.
”However, she has been my motivation. If she had not been there I would not have become the skater I am today.
“This season will be the last one for Mao as well. I hope she leaves with no regrets.”
Kim said the foot injury had come at a bad time, forcing her to miss several big events, but that the Olympics had always been the final goal.
“I have injuries almost 365 days a year. Every athlete has big or small injuries,” she said.
“I have to admit it was a disadvantage not taking part in events like grands prix because my rivals got good scores there. But like I said, most important is the Olympics.”
Looking back on her career, Kim said she had learned patience and how to control her mind through skating. And while she will be waving goodbye to competition in February she hinted she may not be leaving the ice permanently.
“Although I don’t know exactly what I will do after retirement, I don’t want to let go of figure skating completely.” (Editing by Patrick Johnston)