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Best of the best in ladies figure skating

Asada, Kim and Kostner break away from the pack

The three world medalists -- Carolina Kostner, Mao Asada and Yu-Na Kim -- clearly separated themselves as the best ladies in the world in 2007-08.
The three world medalists -- Carolina Kostner, Mao Asada and Yu-Na Kim -- clearly separated themselves as the best ladies in the world in 2007-08. (Getty Images)

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By Todd Hinckley
(04/04/2008) - The 2007-08 ladies figure skating season will be remembered more for meltdowns and breakdowns than shining moments. Two world champions, Kimberly Meissner and Miki Ando, struggled to maintain that high level of performance. In Ando's case, that reality brought her to tears -- numerous times.

Despite a season-long storyline of drama, there were some skaters who fought through adversity and performed well this year. In particular, three ladies proved to be the best of the best: world champion Mao Asada, European champion Carolina Kostner and Grand Prix Final champion Yu-Na Kim. Yukari Nakano's performance at the 2008 ISU World Figure Skating Championships vaulted her to the position of "best of the rest." But there is an inspiring group of young Americans -- Mirai Nagasu, Rachael Flatt and Caroline Zhang -- who showed this year that U.S. figure skating still has a bright future.

Mao Asada

Mao Asada had an unsettling 2007-08 season, as far as her coaching and living situations went, but her time on the ice went much smoother. She moved to Lake Arrowhead, Calif., last summer with her sister, Mai, to work with their coach, Rafael Arutunian. The move seemed to pay off, as she won gold at her two Grand Prix assignments -- Skate Canada and the Trophée Eric Bompard.

After coming in second at the Grand Prix Final (her only "loss" this season), she stayed in Japan and did not rejoin her coach. Speculation arose that she was uncomfortable in the United States, but Asada's agent denied that claim. The issue had more to do with her coach and the new rink at Chukyo University than with adjusting to living in the U.S.

The skater completed the rest of the season without a specific coach, but that turmoil did not seem to bother her as she routed the field at the 2008 Four Continents Championships in South Korea and won her first world title a month later.

Like many of the ladies this year, Asada did have trouble with the judges' new deductions for taking off on a jump from the wrong edge. For her, it was issue throughout the season. Complicating her jumping troubles, a proposed ISU rule change to award bonus points for skaters who execute five different triple jumps, all except the Axel, could hurt Asada, who does not have a triple Salchow in her repertoire.

Her strong technical skating could become even more of a factor. For such an elite skater to struggle with her take-offs (and landings) of certain jumps, it is imperative that she maintain the high levels on the other elements. This year, she was able to do just that.

Best: Her resilient comeback during the free skate at worlds. She fell hard on her opening element, a triple Axel, and nearly crashed into boards. She got up off the ice, though, almost immediately completed her highest-scoring element of the program -- a triple flip-triple toe combo that garnered a total of 10.93 points -- and completed her gold medal-winning routine.

Worst: Her sixth-place short program at the GP Final that left her so far back that even a first-place free skate couldn't bring her the gold.

Fast Fact: Even though she was one of the top skaters in the world, Asada was not allowed to compete at the 2006 Turin Olympics because she was too young. She hopes to make up for it that 2010.

Yu-Na Kim

Yu-Na Kim was the best female skater in the world when the calendar flipped to 2008. But over the last three months, a nagging hip injury has slowed the Korean star.

Kim, now 17, missed six weeks during the 2006-07 season due to inflammation in her sacroiliac joint, which joins the pelvis to the base of the spine. The same injury flared up in January and kept her from competing at Four Continents in her home country. Surprisingly, the pain was worse during certain cross-overs than on any jumps. Either way, she was not 100 percent at worlds and was overmatched by her rival, Asada.

She did gut out a strong, first-place free skate, though, which earned her the bronze medal. However, her score of 123.38 points was well off her season high, showing how much she was still hampered by her hip.

Kim won gold at the Cup of China, the Cup of Russia and the Grand Prix Final in Turin. At the latter two, she posted her best overall scores ever -- 197.20 in Russia and 196.83 in Italy. Her free skate at the Cup of Russia really showed her overall brilliance -- she received a negative Grade of Execution (GOE) on only one element, her solo triple Lutz. The rest of the routine was highlighted by six positively-scored triples and four Level 4 spins.

Not even Asada could match that kind of performance this year. If Kim could just get healthy for next year, she should be able to match her Japanese rival.

Best: Her biggest win came at the GP Final (her second career win at that event), but her best performance (and the best by any lady this year) was at the Cup of Russia.

Worst: Most likely affected by her hip, her short program at worlds erased any shot at the gold medal. She could not recover from a fall on her triple Lutz. Low transition scores didn't help her cause either.

Fast Fact: She is just the third woman to win multiple Grand Prix Finals. She has also won back-to-back world bronze medals.

Carolina Kostner

Carolina Kostner continues to make history for Italian ladies figure skating. She was the first Italian lady to become European champion, when she won last year, so now she's also the first Italian lady to win back-to-back Euro titles. Plus, her silver medal at the world championships in Sweden was the highest Italian finish ever.

Kostner, now 21, started the 2007-08 season with a victory on her home ice at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany. But a poor free skate two weeks later at the Finlandia Trophy relegated her to third place at that event. At the Cup of China, a similarly sub-par long program littered with negative GOEs on jumps and low-level spins negated her first-place short program.

At the NHK Trophy, Kostner again won the short program, but this time, her free skate was enough to hold onto the gold medal. It was her first Grand Prix victory and qualified her for her first Grand Prix Final, where she seemed to have her free skate troubles behind her, significantly improving her technical element and program component scores and earning a bronze medal.

She then defended her European title in Zagreb, Croatia, at the end of January, but her performance was far from convincing, defeating Sarah Meier by just 1.84 points. Her free skate was buoyed just enough by her opening element, a triple flip-triple toe loop-double loop combination, which earned a hefty 12.29 points.

The improvement in Kostner's skating was evident, but in order to prove she wasn't just a pretty face, she had to step up against the toughest competition. And at the world championships, she did.

In the short program, she stepped out of her triple Lutz and slightly bobbled the end of one of her spins, but the Italian champ still scored a season-best 64.28 points and took first place, mostly thanks to a superb, opening triple flip-triple toe loop combo. She followed that with a career-best free skate that left her less than a point from the world title.

Her scores still cannot match that of the top two ladies, but Kostner is now clearly a cut above the rest of the pack.

Best: It wasn't perfect, but her free skate at worlds earned a career-best score and won her the silver medal. That was a bigger accomplishment than the gold at Euros against a weaker field.

Worst: Free skates at both the Finlandia Trophy and the Cup of China. At the latter, she had more glaring errors, but the third-place finish in Finland was more embarrassing, since no one else ranked in the top 13 at the time was in the field.

Fast Fact: She's a three-time Italian national champion (2003, '05, '07).

Yukari Nakano

Yukari Nakano, 22, has never had the spotlight shine directly on her. She has been overshadowed by her younger Japanese rivals for most of her prime. But 2007-08 could be looked back upon as the year Nakano emerged from the shadows of her compatriots.

Silver-medal finishes at both of her Grand Prix assignments -- Skate Canada behind Asada and the Cup of Russia behind Kim -- placed her into the Grand Prix Final for the second time in her career.

Nakano has always struggled on her jumps, but in her short program at the world championships, she landed all of them successfully (a triple flip-double toe loop combo, triple Lutz and double Axel). She added a spiral sequence and a flying camel spin, both graded at Level 4. With her other spins and steps, Nakano earned a career-best 61.10 points and placed third in the segment, positioning herself for a run at the podium.

She scored another personal-best in the free skate, 116.30, but two downgraded jumps allowed her to drop to fourth place overall. Still, the crowd in Sweden loved her two performances, and most believed they deserved higher scores than they received. As is, her 59.32-point program component score was the second-highest of the segment. If she can match her technical elements, she could again threaten to make the world podium next year.

Best: Her flawless short program at worlds. It put her in just third place, but she executed every element as best she could.

Worst: Fifth-place finish at the GP Final. Both performances lacked any glaring mistakes, but a wrong-edge take-off deduction in each program kept her out of podium contention.

Fast Fact: Showing the depth of Japanese skating, her bronze medal at the 2008 Japanese Championships was her second national podium finish.

Kimberly Meissner

Kimberly Meissner began her 2007-08 season on a strong note, defeating Ando at Skate America. But she did not maintain that level of skating. She ended the year ranked fifth in the world, according to icenetwork.com's World Figure Skater Rankings, but the 2006 world champion did not perform at that level on the ice.

Meissner, 18, had her best skates of the season in that first outing. Skating at home in the U.S., she began with a 59.24-point short program at Skate America, taking the lead in a match-up of the past two world champions (Ando won in 2007). But Meissner's skate was far from perfect, and it foreshadowed some of her troubles down the road, particularly on her jumps, which were downgraded for wrong-edge take-offs and under-rotations all year. Her score was clearly lifted by Level 4 spins and spirals, and her program components score was the best of the segment.

She struggled on her jumps in the free skate, but more Level 4 spins again gave her the highest program component score of the day and earned the gold medal. Meissner's victory and the outstanding senior debut of the 14-year-old Zhang made U.S. Figure Skating's future look bright.

Meissner would be unable to skate with the best in the world the rest of the year, though. She took silver behind Asada at the Trophée Eric Bompard, finished sixth at the Grand Prix Final, and placed seventh at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

At the latter, she seemed overwhelmed by trying to defend her title. A fourth-place short program put her in position to reach the podium, but three falls in the free skate dropped her down to seventh.

A coaching switch to Richard Callaghan before worlds brought small changes for Meissner. She skated solidly in the short in Sweden but fell twice in the free. The seventh-place finishes at the U.S. championships and worlds were career-worsts.

With the parity in ladies figure skating right now, Meissner is not far from reaching the top again, and she was able to maintain high-level spins despite her jumping troubles for most of the year. That kind of skating will help keep her near the top in the U.S., even with rising stars like Zhang, U.S. champion Nagasu and world junior champion Flatt hot on her heels.

Best: Her gold medal at Skate America. It was her only win of the season, and she scored season-bests in the short, free and overall.

Worst: Free skate at U.S. championships. Her three falls were hard to watch, especially since U.S. fans had grown accustomed to such brilliance from her in the past.

Fast Fact: In 2006, at 16 years old, she became the third-youngest U.S. lady to win the world title (Michelle Kwan was 15 in 1996, and Tara Lipinski was 14 in '97).