The angelic lightness of Yu-Na, the profound sorrow of Joannie.

Scenes from the Olympics.
Feb. 26 2010 11:37 AM

Ladies' Free Skating

The angelic lightness of Yu-Na, the profound sorrow of Joannie.

South Korea's Kim Yu-Na. Click image to expand.
South Korea's Kim Yu-Na 

The Winter Olympic ladies' free skating competition ended up being about two strikingly different narratives. First, the nationalistic competition between Japan and South Korea, embodied here in the elegant forms of the top two skaters, silver medalist Mao Asada and gold medalist Kim Yu-Na—who, it must be said, blew the field away, winning by more than 23 points. Second, the communal intimacy of watching bronze medalist Joannie Rochette skate mere days after her mother died suddenly at the age of 55, soon after she arrived in Vancouver to watch her daughter skate. If Olympic officials and commentators had distressingly glided past the death of the Georgian luge competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili (as Nancy Franklin argued in The New Yorker), in Rochette's case they had managed, for once, to appropriately handle death. They did not overmilk the pathos of the situation.

And last night the right skater won. Yu-Na skated with angelic lightness, in an elegant royal blue dress that fluttered evocatively as she spiraled. In South Korea, she is a major celebrity (and requires bodyguards to keep the fans away). As is well-known, she went early to Toronto to train outside the limelight; she was under tremendous pressure to win. But that pressure never weighed down her skating. Yu-Na's jumps were high, tight, and confident, her transitions graceful, and her program filled with an arresting flexibility, confidence, and grace, evident in every arabesque and spin. But grace wasn't all she had: Every now and then she cocked her chin or brought her hands down around her hips flirtatiously; these moments were like surreptitiously palmed love notes at a cocktail party—surprising, complex, delightful.

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As my colleague Hanna Rosin argued, in celebration of the overt sexiness of Yu-Na's Bond Girl performance, one of the strange things about figure skating is the way it asks us to pretend the performers aren't "tarted up." But Yu-Na is sexual without being garish; my only complaint about the Bond program was that is seemed impermeable, so perfect was her facade, so expert. (A perverse complaint, I recognize.) I liked that in the free skate Yu-Na wasn't afraid to seem a little younger and more vulnerable. Vulnerability is one of the provinces of artistry—and figure skating is the most artistic of the winter sports—Yu-Na, like male skater Johnny Weir, had it in spades. As my friend Eleanor put it, simply, as the program came to a close, "Whatever it is, she's got it." The judges agreed: Yu-Na's score of 228.56 was a new record.

You could see the tension on Mao Asada's face, despite the armature of a gloved red-and-black dress, complete with a choke necklace, that loosely evoked French fin de siècle courtesans. I'd left the short program rooting a bit for Asada, whose performance that night had an upwelling brio grounded by precision. In the free skate, she performed with technical proficiency, refusing to be utterly rattled by Yu-Na, landing not one but two triple axels. But she wobbled once or twice, and some of her transitions seemed stiff in comparison with Kim Yu-Na's. She failed to rotate all the way on a triple flip and received a downgrade from the judges.

If Asada was dauntingly proficient, Yu-Na was fluently masterful. Such grace rarely comes spiced up with so much sly foot-on-the-ground playfulness. Yu-Na complicates the categories we come to "ladies" figure skating with. She, more than any skater on ice, posed the question: Why isn't it called "women's," anyway? On the podium for the awards ceremony, she teared up while Asada stared stonily ahead, disappointment evident in every tight muscle of her face. It's a real bummer to watch three great performances—the third being Joannie Rochette's—and then realize that one of the skaters is seething with self-loathing and disappointment. Japan and South Korea have a complicated history; this was the first time South Korea has gotten a medal in a Winter Olympics sport other than speed skating, and it almost seemed as if Asada were busy feeling she's failed not just herself but her nation.

On any other occasion, I might comment on the strange popularity of the flesh-toned fabric-covered skates (which make the women's legs look hooved) or argue that far too much nude pantyhoselike material was involved in the women's outfits. I would say that I'd wished the young American skater Mirai Nagasu had medaled. But none of that mattered because I was too busy rooting for Joannie Rochette to make it to the podium.

The Olympics are full of manufactured feeling, but this was a dose of the real thing. Rochette's performance was moving, nuanced, and intimate. You could feel Rochette's desire to be there, with the crowd, even in the midst of her loss (the evidence of which was written all over her face every now and then). Having lost my own mother a year ago, I could imagine some of what she was experiencing, and, like everyone else watching, was struck by her grace and composure and clarity. TV commentators often go for cheap sentiment, but in this case, the words courageous and inspiring really did apply. (Too bad many of us can no longer hear them without a dollop of cynicism attached.)

Rochette's performance had a timeless patience to it and was suffused with a sense of longing. She has said her mother was very important to her skating; she even told reporters that she'd had to ask her mother to come watch her practice once a week, as a way of motivating herself. (Rochette noted, too, that it can be embarrassing for a young adult to say she needs her mom—her frankness won me over utterly.) If some of her footwork seemed less artful than Yu-Na's, the height of her jumps less stunning, so be it. She had our attention, and not merely because her mother died, but because her mother died and yet she went on to skate with a real quality of being present. You could see what this meant to her, and in that sense her mother lingered over the performance like the track of the skate on the ice. The performance was an act of ritual attentiveness, and we were lucky to witness it. At the end of her lovely, focused program—in which she offered up a number of solid jumps—she craned her neck upward and blew a kiss—to her father and, perhaps, also to her mother. Her eyes moved around the stadium almost as if she were looking for her. I couldn't help feeling that I wanted to say, as one motherless daughter to another, what millions surely thought: Surely her mother would have been proud. It's not sappy to say so.

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Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

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