Julia Lipnitskaia, all 5-2 of her, stepped onto the Olympic ice in a red coat Sunday to skate to music from the movie Schindler’s List.
Just like the girl in the red coat in the predominantly black-and-white film, the 15-year-old Russian figure skater captured the eye and leaped out from her competition with unparalleled artistry, flexibility and blurring spins.
When the music stopped, and she had landed the last of her 10 jumps, a mesmerized partisan crowd that included Russian president Vladimir Putin was on its feet applauding, whistling, and chanting, “Yu-li-a! Yu-li-a!” and “Russ-ee-ya! Russ-ee-ya!”
The Sochi Olympics had found its ice princess.
Having already announced her arrival with a spellbinding short program in the inaugural team competition Saturday night, the debutante from the Ural Mountains clinched the team gold medal for Russia — the host nation’s first gold of these Games — and became the youngest athlete ever to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics.
She is six days younger than another figure skater with a similar last name, Tara Lipinski, the American who won at 15 in Nagano in 1998.
Canada won the team silver on Sunday, and the United States took bronze with an energetic, flawless first-place performance from ice dancers Charlie White and Meryl Davis and an elegant difficult Sleeping Beauty routine by 18-year-old Gracie Gold.
In posting the highest women’s score in the short and long program over the past three days, Lipnitskaia established herself as a gold-medal contender in the women’s singles event, which begins next week. Despite Russia’s storied tradition in pairs, ice dancing and men’s skating, no Russian woman has ever won in singles.
This time, it looks like the Russian roster is loaded in all disciplines. In the team event, which featured a man, woman, pair and dance team from each country, Lipnitskaia and the Russian pairs team swept, and three-time Olympic medalist and 2006 champion Evgeny Plushenko brought the house down on Sunday after battling back from back surgery. Known for his soaring jumps, power and his charisma (some would say preening), the 31-year-old had the crowd in the palm of his hand.
They roared when he landed his quadruple toe jump and went nuts when he lifted his finger to his lips to quiet them down during his performance. He was a controversial pick to the Olympic team because of his injury troubles last year, but he proved he can still jump — though he was limping a bit afterward and said his back was not 100 percent.
“I skated for my kids, my wife and my country,” he said.
His coach, Alexei Mishin, said: “Evgeni has charisma and power. Maybe somebody does not like him, but the majority loves him and respects him. The minority is jealous.”
Lipnitskaia admitted she was apprehensive about skating after Plushenko, whose adoring fans showered him with so many flower bouquets and stuffed animals that it took 12 young skaters to shuffle around the ice and pick them up.
“I was a bit nervous skating after Evgeny because I didn’t want to let the team down,” she said. “He was very happy for me at the end and congratulated me in the kiss and cry [area]. My main motivation [Sunday] was not to let the team down.”
She had a hard time articulating how it felt to skate so well on the world’s biggest stage.
“I don’t know how to explain the feeling I had out there,” she said. “I’m very happy to have helped win the first gold medal for Russia. I got nervous in the middle of the program, I’m not sure why, it’s completely unlike me, so the jumps weren’t great in the second half, I didn’t feel totally comfortable.
“The jumps didn’t feel like mine at that point. I wouldn’t say I got tired, but some errors still crept in. But even with some flaws it was OK.”
Other skaters, Russian and non-Russian, gushed over the young talent.
“A young genius,” Russian ice dancer Ekaterina Bobrova said.
“She was incredibly composed,” U.S. skater Ashley Wagner said. “You felt the audience when she stepped out on the ice, so for her to go out and put out such a solid performance at 15 is impressive.
“Granted, we’ve been backstage with her and she doesn’t seem 15 to us at all. She’s like a wise 40-year-old woman trapped within a 15-year-old’s body. Honestly, it is very inspiring to see someone so young so composed.”
Gold added: “She’s only 15. She’s completely unfazed. She’s got no spine, but she’s got iron in her bones.”
Lipnitskaia will travel to Moscow on Monday and begin training Tuesday for the women’s singles competition. The U.S. skaters are also planning to leave Sochi and train in several undisclosed European locations.
Skating competition continues Tuesday with the pairs short program. The men begin Thursday, dance begins Sunday and the women on Feb. 19.