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Carolina Kostner relaxed coming into figure skating worlds

Photo: SASA ZINAJA/EPA

Carolina Kostner skipped the Grand Prix tour this year, but won her fifth European title in January.

LONDON, Ontario (AP) -- Carolina Kostner could have taken her gold medal from last year's world championships and run.

She finally had the title many had been predicting for the better part of a decade. Better yet, she'd redeemed herself from those dismal performances at the Vancouver Olympics and 2009 world championships, where she spent more time sprawling on the ice than a kid learning how to skate.

But to retire would have meant ignoring the precious lessons those awful times taught her.

"The reason is just that I love it," the Italian said Tuesday. "I cannot expect from everyone to love my skating, but I love to do it. I'm not ready to give that up yet. I know that there is a small chance that I can really repeat that perfection like last season. But it's in my heart, and every time I go on the ice I take it with me and say, 'You've got there and now you should enjoy it.'

"I try," she said, smiling. "It's not so easy but I try."

The World Figure Skating Championships begin Wednesday with the men's and pairs short programs. The women's competition begins Thursday, and Kostner is not even the favorite in what could be the toughest field assembled since the Vancouver Games in 2010.

Olympic champion Kim Yu-na is back for the first time since 2011, and Mao Asada is the best she's been since winning her second world title in 2010. The Russians have their best team since the days of Irina Slutskaya and Maria Butyrskaya. And don't overlook U.S. champion Ashley Wagner, silver medalist at the Grand Prix Final.

"This might be one of the most challenging world championships in the ladies event we've seen in a while," Wagner said. "To get onto that podium with everybody that's competing here would be such a huge accomplishment, just because everyone is so talented."

That Kostner was talented was never in question. Tall and lithe with the natural elegance of a ballerina, she makes even the simplest of stroking drills captivating. She may not have Asada's power, but she's a strong enough jumper to contend with the best.

She went to her first European championships at 16, simply hoping to make it out of the qualifying round. She wound up just missing a medal, finishing fourth overall.

The next year, she was fifth at the world championships.

"Everybody was talking about this huge talent, huge talent and then you kind of have big expectations on yourself," Kostner said. "And my career grew and grew and grew and I was just expecting more every year."

Expectations can be a heavy burden, however, and Kostner struggled under the weight. Her bronze medal at the 2005 world championships made her a favorite for the Turin Olympics, and she was chosen to carry Italy's flag in the opening ceremony. But she bombed in the short program and was only slightly better in the free skate, finishing ninth overall. A month later, she was 12th in the watered-down, post-Olympic field at the worlds.

She had rebounded by 2008, winning her second straight European title and finishing second to Asada at the worlds. But with Vancouver looming, she fell apart again.

Instead of contending for a medal as expected at the 2009 worlds, she finished 12th, doing three single jumps in her free skate and failing to land even one clean triple.

It was even worse the next year in Vancouver, where she fell three times on her way to a 16th-place finish.

"I think everybody has ups and lows in their lives, and we learn from the biggest disappointments, right?" the 26-year-old Kostner said. "You get to learn how to be humble. To be humble to yourself, to be humble to others. You learn to respect and you learn the value of a medal much more.

"You fall and you realize that, 'OK, the result is not everything.' It's your life and it's important that you are in balance with your private life and your skating, and it's important that you really love what you do," she said. "Yes, it was really hard times. I'm quite a sensitive person and the press in Italy - it really (hurt) me. People would write, 'It's over, and 'She's done.' So I told myself, no results anymore, just skating. That's what I started skating for, right?"

But a funny thing happened: Once Kostner stopped caring about her results, she had her best year yet. She swept all the major events last season, winning her first Grand Prix Final title, her fourth European championship and, in her crowning achievement, that world title.

"When I won worlds last year, I just recognized the value of it," she said. "The much better feeling was finishing the program and just seeing the respect of everybody, the appreciation of the audience. Much more than having the gold medal around my neck.

"I always thought it would be such a strong feeling, but in fact it was much different," she added. "It was just being there on the ice and going through all these difficult times, it was a much more powerful emotion and feeling than the medal around your neck."

After a decade of chasing success, Kostner decided to skip the Grand Prix series this year. She wanted time to herself and to be with her friends, to not have to adjust to a new time zone every week.

"I would wake up in the morning and say, `Today I don't feel like moving,' and then I could just leave my pajamas on and be lazy," she said, laughing.

Though she had some second thoughts once the season began, the break has rejuvenated her. Kostner won her fifth European title in January, and arrived at the worlds happy and secure in herself.

"Yes, I hope I'm going to have a good skate, but it's not the one reason I'm here," she said. "I mean, I love this."

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