Kim showed no signs of rust or nerves, performing with the same elegance and class that won her the Olympic gold in Vancouver — and pretty much every other title the two years before that. With a score of 69.97, she's more than three points ahead of defending world champion Carolina Kostner (66.86) and Kanako Murakami of Japan (66.64) going into Saturday's free skate.
"When I first heard the score, I was a little bit surprised," Kim said. "My first thought was probably the spin wasn't good enough, maybe I got a downgrade for that. But that wasn't the case. Yes, I was a little surprised. But I know I tried my best so I have no regrets."
Asada landed her trademark triple axel — judges gave it to her even though replays showed it clearly was two-footed. But she's in sixth, one spot behind U.S. champion Ashley Wagner, after botching her jump combination and popped her triple loop into a single. The Russian phenoms didn't deliver on their promise, with Adelina Sotnikova faltering on her jump combination and Elizaveta Tuktamysheva flopping to the ice after losing an edge on her flying spin.
Gracie Gold is ninth, giving the Americans hope of regaining a third spot at next year's Sochi Olympics. Wagner and Gold need to finish with a combined placement of 13 or better — fifth and eight, say.
The free skate is Saturday.
No female skater had a run quite like Kim did from 2009 through the Vancouver Olympics. She won all but one competition, usually in breathtaking fashion. Did it while carrying the hopes of an entire nation, too. South Korea had never won an Olympic medal, let alone gold, in a sport other than speedskating at the Winter Games, and "Queen Yu-na" was treated like royalty. But she handled the expectations flawlessly, coming as close to perfection in Vancouver as anyone ever has. The records she set in the short program, free skate and overall score still stand, with no one even coming close.
"After the Olympics, I felt empty because I had achieved my goal," Kim said.
After competing at the 2010 and 2011 world championships, where she was second both times, she decided to take a break. After spending most of the previous five years in Toronto and Los Angeles, she returned home. She skated in shows and helped Pyeongchang in its winning bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics. While she didn't rule out Sochi, it didn't seem likely, either.
Then, last summer, she announced her return.
Comebacks in figure skating are notoriously harsh, and not even an Olympic gold medal can protect against gravity, injuries and the pace of progress. For every Evgeni Plushenko or Gordeeva and Grinkov, there are dozens more failures.
"It's really hard to prepare your physical and mental status," Kim acknowledged. "It wasn't an easy to decision to make, but I made it and now I'm just focused to be back."
Actually, it was like old times.
What makes Kim so special is how smooth and effortless she makes everything look. Triple-triple jump combinations take so much strength and effort that you know when most women are going to do them because the lead-in is so lengthy. For Kim, her triple lutz-triple toe combo was simply another element, done as easily as another step or turn. She had an edge call on her triple flip, a minor flaw, but the jump itself was gorgeous as she floated in the air for the briefest of moments before starting to turn.
Even her landings were gorgeous. Rather than scratching the ice, she glided along like a pebble skipped across the water.
But just as it was in the olden days, it was Kim's presentation that was particularly exquisite. She doesn't simply feel music, it's part of her soul. She acknowledged each nuance of music with every inch of her body: a soft tilt of her head, a brush of her fingertips and, of course, that penetrating gaze.
Her only "flaw" was with her spins. The first two got level threes, one below the maximum. Most skaters would have taken that gladly — she got positive grades of execution on both — but for Kim, perfection was, and still is, the norm.
"Other than that first spin, I felt great," Kim said. "Because I gave my best, I would give myself the full 100 percent."