VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Back and forth they go, trading titles in a figure skating version of leapfrog.

Mao Asada wins the world title one year, Kim Yu-na the next. Kim wins the Grand Prix final, her rival is runner-up. Asada gets the highest marks ever, Kim tops her.

Is it any wonder the women’s Olympic gold-medal finale is setting up to be blockbuster of a show, with Kim and Asada playing a game of ”Can you top this?”

”Having these two women fairly close and skating well and creating this rivalry that’s been there in the past it’s just good for the audience,” Brian Orser, Kim’s coach, said after Wednesday’s practice. ”It will keep everybody on the edge of their seats. It’s exciting, and it’s exciting for Yu-na.”

Kim, the reigning world champion, has the inside track to the Olympic title after a sizzling performance in Tuesday night’s short program. The South Korean’s 78.5 points broke her world record and, more importantly, put her almost five points in front of Asada.

But all that means is the game is officially on for tonight’s free skate.

Asada, the 2007 world champ, was as dismal at last year’s world championships as Kim was brilliant. The Japanese star finished fourth, starting a slide that continued into this season. She was second to Kim — who else? — at Trophee Eric Bompard, the season’s first Grand Prix event, but Kim was in a class all her own. She finished a jaw-dropping 36 points in front, the kind of gap usually separating first from 15th.

Asada struggled so badly at her next event she didn’t even qualify for the Grand Prix final, an event she’s won twice. Kim, naturally, won it.

But Asada bounced back with wins at the Japanese nationals and last month’s Four Continents.

”We were ready for that,” Orser said. ”She seems like a pretty feisty competitor and I was never underestimating she would show up in top form.”

Asada is one of the few women in the world who trains for the triple axel, and she’s the only one to do two of the three-revolution jumps in the free skate. If she lands a good one tonight, she might leap right over Kim.

A triple axel has a base value of 8.2 points, but Asada plans to do one in combination. Throw in the style points, and those two jumping passes alone could be worth almost 20 points.

”Usually I think there’s like a 10-point difference,” Asada said after the short program. ”So I feel good there’s only this difference between myself and Yu-na.”


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