Japan has its golden girl

Shizuka Arakawa's violin fantasy turned into a golden reality.

The 24-year-old figure skater set a personal best in the free skate with technical tricks and passion to win women's Olympic gold yesterday.

It was an electric atmosphere at the packed Palavela, where Arakawa, who had a combined score of 191.34, will be remembered for her jumping expertise and smooth execution as she skated to Giacomo Puccini's Turandot violin fantasy.

"I hope this will be an inspiration for the future generations of skaters," a surprised Arakawa said.

"I think I will realize that I have won a gold in the next two or three days."

She completed six triples in her routine of four minutes nine seconds, but turned a planned triple toe loop into a double on the end of a triple salchow.

"I made a mistake in the program, but I could skate with pleasure."

Arakawa, who said she started figure skating because she wanted to wear "beautiful costumes" was a surprise gold medallist because of her international inconsistency and because of the two strong skaters ahead of after the short program.

American Sasha Cohen, who won silver (183.36), and Irina Slutskaya of Russia, the bronze medallist (181.44), were the favourites to win the title of figure skating queen.

Slutskaya, 27, is the world champion, seven-time European champ and 2002 Olympic silver medallist. Cohen, 21, has two world silvers and finished fourth in Salt Lake City.

Arakawa finished ninth at last year's world championships, but does have a worlds gold from 2004.

Her win kept the Russians from completing a sweep of the figure skating medals.

Slutskaya was obviously disappointed with third. "That's competition and it's pressure all of the time. I don't think anything now; I'm glad I have a medal," she said.

The Canuck contingent was solid.

Joannie Rochette, 20, moved up four places, to fifth, with her free skate, while Mira Leung, 16, set a personal best.

"I'm very surprised. I didn't think even if I skated my best that I would finish so high," said Rochette of Ile-Dupas, Que.

Rochette stumbled on a step sequence and added a hop at the end off her double loop to keep from falling.

The buildup to her loop, two-thirds through the program, was sensational and the bobble took away her flow.

"I made some little mistakes, but nothing enormous."

Rochette, who had seven triples in her program, but only triple-double combos, had a combined score of 167.27.

Vancouver's Leung had one of the best technical components of the night -- a triple flip, double loop, double loop combination -- and was 12th.

"You want to announce yourself to the world and I think she did that here," her coach, Joanne McLeod, said.

Although Leung popped a double Axel and turned a planned triple salchow into a double, she earned a PB for her combined 145.16. She said her Olympic competition was better than she had hoped.

"This has been a very good experience for me. I'm happy about what I've done here. I don't really have any regrets."

While several nations did well in skating, the Russians excelled.

Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin won the pairs title, and the ice dancing crown went to Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov. Evgeni Plushenko won the men's championship.

After winning gold last Thursday, Plushenko was asked about the future skaters in his country. He said Russia would not lose its grip on the figure skating world.

Speaking in broken English, he said there were lots of good, young skaters in Russia, who just had to "work hard."