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Olympic Stud of the Olympics: Kim Yu-Na!

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Image Credit: George Bridges/MCT/LandovThe 2010 Winter Olympics aren’t over yet: The US and Canada are tangling in an overtime gold-medal hockey match that everyone I know is watching, regardless of whether they care about hockey or not. But unless someone on that ice manages to score 14 goals using only their teeth, we’ve seen the best individual performances these Games have to give.

Here at PopWatch, we’ve brought you our picks for the Olympic Stud of the Day over the past two weeks, those men and women who made our hearts stop with their athleticism, strength, endurance, and character. We’ve seen moments both triumphant (Evan Lysacek!) and touching (Joannie Rochette!); we’ve applauded those who overcame long odds (Lindsey Vonn!) and those who fell victim to their own limitations (uh… Lindsey Vonn!). We’ve seen firsts (the Americans who medaled in Nordic combined), and lasts (the celebratory, career-capping gold for skating pair Shen and Zhao, who can hopefully stop living in separate dorm rooms now).

But who was the best? Who, when we look back at the Vancouver Olympics, will we remember the most? Please take a moment to google the lyrics to the South Korean National Anthem, because our Olympic Stud of the Olympics is…

Kim Yu-Na!

On paper, Kim’s accomplishments seem quite mundane: The 19 year old South Korean figure skater only won one medal. She didn’t overcome personal tragedy or heartbreak. She was the prohibitive favorite coming into these games, and the current world record holder under the new scoring system. Even before her Olympic performance, people were calling her Possibly The Greatest Female Skater Of All Time. And after her brilliant short program, there was absolutely no reason to expect she wouldn’t coast to a win.

But think about it: More often than not, doesn’t that sort of build-up end in disappointment? Peyton Manning threw an interception in the Super Bowl. Roger Clemens liked to choke in the clutch. In Torino, Bode Miller crumbled under the weight of expectations. Tiger Woods, we hardly knew ye. Heroic backstories are easy. Actual heroism is really, really hard.

Unlike Apolo Ohno or Michael Phelps — certainly America’s most celebrated current Olympians, men whose consistent excellence has won them much-deserved fame — Kim has but one opportunity to be a hero. There is no next heat, no next event, no chance for redemption. There is just a short program, and then a long program, and it is over. Combined, those two skates last seven minutes — about the length of time it takes to eat the average bowl of cereal. In those seven minutes, Kim had to honor a lifetime of training and sacrifice. And she had to do it while carrying the dreams of 48 million shrieking, cameraphone-wielding South Koreans on her back.

Unlike Shaun White — another media-savvy athlete whose Olympic moments spin by in a flash — Kim is the lone star of her nation, competing in an event no South Korean has ever dominated. Because of her rare, solitary talent, her fame is all-encompassing. She had to flee her home in order to train in peace. She’s courted much of her celebrity, certainly (the girl sings her own ad jingles, for crying out loud), but even without commercial endorsement, the obsessive attention of her countrymen would likely be impossible to bear.

At these Olympic Games, Kim smashed her own world record by 18 points. She did it not by muscling her way through unprecedented jumps or impassionately executing tasks to collect points, but by transforming the requirements of her sport into art. She made it look effortless. And she did it when it mattered. The relief on her face after skating Thursday night’s weightless, elegant, almost error-free long program was joyously palpable. In that one moment, she had no pressure, no expectations, no doubt. In that one moment, she was free. There is technically no such thing as a platinum medal — much to Evgeni Plushenko’s dismay — but if I had one, I’d give it to her.

Your turn, PopWatchers? Who was your Olympic Stud of the 2010 Winter Olympics?