VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Kim Yu-na put one hand to her mouth and let the tears flow.
All that pressure, so many expectations. The "Queen" took it all on and delivered royally.
The South Korean won the Olympic gold medal Thursday night, soaring to a world-record 228.56 points and shattering her previous mark by more than 18 points. It may go down as one of the greatest performances in figure skating history, and it's sure to set off wild celebrations from Seoul to Pyongchang. It's South Korea's first medal at the Winter Olympics in a sport other than speedskating.
Even Kim seemed to be dazzled by the show she put on, gasping when she saw the monstrous score. Coach Brian Orser gave a Rocky-like victory pump, shaking his clasped fists over each shoulder.
"I can't believe this day has finally come for me," Kim said.
Longtime rival Mao Asada of Japan won the silver medal, but it was no contest — even with Asada landing both her triple axels, one in combination with a double toe loop. Joannie Rochette, skating four days after the sudden death of her mother, won the bronze, giving Canada its first women's medal since Liz Manley's silver in 1988.
The Americans, meanwhile, are going home without at least one medal for only the second time since 1952. The other time? 1964, three years after a plane crash wiped out the entire U.S. team on its way to the world championships.
Mirai Nagasu was fourth while U.S. champion Rachael Flatt dropped to seventh.
Kim came in bearing almost incomprehensible pressure. Not only was the reigning world champ the biggest favorite since Katarina Witt in 1988 — she's lost just one competition over the last two seasons — she carried the weight of an entire nation on her slim shoulders.
The most popular athlete in South Korea, she's been dubbed "Queen Yu-na" — check out the sparkly crowns that twinkle in her ears — and she needs bodyguards whenever she returns home from her training base in Toronto. Anything she does creates a frenzy, and even a simple practice draws a rinkful of photographers.
Kim seemed to shrug it all off earlier this week, saying after the short program that it felt like any other competition. But it was clear Thursday that it meant so much more — for her and Orser, a two-time Olympic silver medalist who was devastated to lose the "Battle of the Brians" to American Brian Boitano in '88.
She grinned as she hopped up to the top spot on the podium, tugging at the bottom of her dress. When the gold medal was put around her neck, she kissed both sides and held it up. Her lip quivered when the South Korean anthem began, and then came the tears.
"I don't know why I cried," Kim said. "This is the first time I have cried after my performance and I'm surprised I cried."
There were simply no visible flaws in Kim performance, from her skating to her expressions to that lovely cobalt blue dress. While other skaters slow down as they approach their jumps to steady themselves, she hurtles into them at full speed yet touches down with feathery lightness. Her connecting steps are like art on ice, and her edges show not even the slightest hint of a harsh scrape, just the sound of her crisp edge. Her spins were centered so perfectly the tracings look as if they were made with a protractor, and she's got to be quadruple-jointed with all the positions she manages in her combination spins.
But what really makes her transcendent is her performance skills. She breathed life into Gershwin's "Concerto in F," moving across the ice like notes on a score. As the music lifted the first time, she put one hand on the small of her back and gave a flirty little smile that set shutters clicking throughout the building.
When she finished, you could almost see the pressure fall away as Kim bent over and cried. The tears fell no matter how hard she tried to blink them back, and she held up her hands helplessly when she reached Orser. So many stuffed toys and flowers littered the ice the full complement of sweepers had to be deployed — not once, but twice.
It almost wasn't fair that Asada, skating next, had to try and one-up that.
She couldn't. Not even close.
Asada, who has swapped titles with Kim since their junior days, is one of the few women who even tries a points-packing triple axel, and she did two on this night. But she melted down later, stumbling on the footwork into her triple toe and forcing her to cut it to a single.
Asada looked stone-faced as she waited for her marks. She didn't even crack a smile when she got her silver medal.
"The triple axel I landed I'm happy with," Asada said, "but I'm not satisfied with the rest of my performance today."
For Rochette, the medal is a culmination of "a lifelong project with my mom." Therese Rochette, 55, had a massive heart attack just hours after arriving in Vancouver to watch her daughter skate, and Rochette has been the picture of courage this week.
Supported by her father, Normand, and longtime coach Manon Perron, Rochette decided to go ahead and compete. Her performance Thursday wasn't perfect; she two-footed and stepped out of a triple flip, and had shaky landings on a couple of other jumps. But she made up for those errors with an emotional and expressive portrayal of "Samson and Delilah."
"I feel proud and the result didn't matter," Rochette said. "I'm happy to be on the podium."