On this night, it wasn’t the precocious 15-year-old Russian ice princess who mesmerized the judges and audience at Iceberg Skating Palace. It was the reigning Olympic champion Kim Yuna, known as Queen Yuna in South Korea, whose exquisite short program put her one step closer to becoming the first skater since Katarina Witt to win back-to-back gold medals.
Kim, wearing a chartreuse dress and skating to Send in the Clowns, looked like a prima ballerina floating on the ice, her landings quiet and light as a feather, her passion evident from her facial expressions down to her graceful fingertips.
She said she was nervous during her warmup, but once the music started, “I felt like I was dreaming.” Her program drew a high score of 74.92 and an ovation from Russian fans, who know good ballet when they see it.
What those fans didn’t realize was that their hearts were about to be broken for the second time in three hours. The Russian men’s hockey team’s stunning quarterfinal loss to Finland left a huge burden on the slender young shoulders of 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaya, who cast a spell on the nation — and TV viewers around the world — last week during the team competition.
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Her performance was watched by Russian President Vladimir Putin and fueled patriotism across the country. On Thursday, the audience gasped as Lipnitskaya fell on her triple flip jump. She sits in fifth place.
“I don't know what happened,” she said. “I wasn't nervous. I didn’t feel too much pressure. The marks weren't as low as I expected. I feel sad. I wasn't good enough. [On Thursday], I will go out there and fight.”
A lesser-heralded Russian, 17-year-old Adelina Sotnikova, saved the night for the home crowd. Skating second-to-last, she dazzled with her spins and is right behind Kim in second place with 74.64 points. Carolina Kostner, the 27-year-old Italian, is in third with 74.12 after an emotional Ave Maria routine. Kostner considered retiring after the Vancouver Olympics and said her music selection “is like my prayer saying thank you for all I have accomplished.”
American 18-year-old Gracie Gold is fourth at 68.63, within striking range of a medal. Her U.S. teammates Ashley Wagner and Polina Edmunds are in sixth and seventh place, respectively. Gold, in a crimson red dress, was a bit wobbly on her triple lutz-triple loop combination and her double axel, but managed to fight through and land them.
“When I came down [on the combination], I was in the air and I thought, ‘Is this my Olympic moment? I’m gonna be on my butt?’ I said ‘No!’ ”
As for her imperfect double axel, Gold said: “I was like, ‘I have come too far not to land this stupid double axel. I did not train that hard to go down and mess up this one jump. I am landing it with a smile on my face.”
She said she had a similar insecure moment at a competition last fall, and didn’t pull it off.
“So, to come here and feel stiff and white as a ghost but get out there and shoot the fear in the face is what I’m all about now,” Gold said.
Wagner also talked herself through a shaky jump combination. She came out pumped up after receiving a letter of encouragement from former U.S. Olympian Michelle Kwan. Wagner is a two-time U.S. champion, but finished fourth at the 2014 nationals, and was placed on the team anyway, so she has something to prove.
“I thought, ‘Girl, you need to get your butt up in the air and rotate three times the best you can.’ So that's exactly what I did,” she said. “Overall, I’m really happy. For an Olympic event, what I’m up against, that was a solid performance. I’ve got to build my confidence up after nationals.”
Edmunds, 15, was making her senior international debut. The Santa Clara, Calif., native wore a bright yellow dress and was full of youthful exuberance as she skated to Besame Mucho. These Olympics are especially meaningful because her mother, Nina, is Russian.
“It's been so special because my mom spoke to me and my brothers in Russian at home, so to be here in another country where everybody is speaking Russian and I can understand it is pretty cool,” she said, clutching her lucky stuffed animals.
One drawback to being such a young Olympian is that she still has homework. Edmunds, a high school sophomore, brought along her books. Her Spanish assignment is to interview a Spanish-speaking Olympian and write a paper.
“I finished my math and right now, I'm trying to read some of The Great Gatsby for English,” Edmunds said.
Two-time world champion and 2010 Olympic silver medalist Mao Asada had a forgettable performance, falling once and reducing her triple loop to a double. She fell to 16th.
“My timing was off,” she said. “I couldn’t move the way I wanted to out there. I've been feeling nervous since the team event. I went through Vancouver and this was my second Olympics. But I just couldn't build on the experience from last time. I lost the fight within me. It was all mental.”