SOCHI, RUSSIA – She couldn't explain why her legs felt stiff, why she suddenly felt more nervous than she expected. It wasn't about the medals, Kim Yu-na said, or about the emotions of skating in her final Olympics.
Whatever it was, the skater her fellow Koreans call "The Queen'' shook it off. Summoning the trust she had built through months of training, the defending Olympic gold medalist performed with her trademark precision and grace Wednesday to hold off a host of challengers in the women's short program at the Iceberg Skating Palace. The top three skaters — Kim, Russia's Adelina Sotnikova and Italy's Carolina Kostner — are separated by less than a point heading into Thursday's free skate, which will determine who reigns supreme at the Sochi Games.
A foot injury kept Kim off the Grand Prix circuit this season, and she had skated in only one minor event before the Olympics. Still, she was flawless, earning the highest short program score of any woman this season with 74.92 points. Sotnikova (74.64) and Kostner (74.12) are on her heels, and Americans Gracie Gold, Ashley Wagner and Polina Edmunds all sit in the top seven.
Sotnikova saved the day for the home country. After the men's hockey team lost to Finland, the Russians were further dispirited when the woman they thought would dethrone Kim — the 15-year-old marvel Yulia Lipnitskaya — fell on the final jump of her program. Sotnikova stepped up with a fiery, exuberant performance to keep Russia in the hunt for its first Olympic gold in the women's competition.
History is waiting for Kim, as well. She can become only the third woman to win back-to-back Olympic skating crowns, joining Sonja Henie and Katarina Witt. She brushed off that idea, though, saying her goal is to put out the performance she's been working toward in her final Olympic skate.
"If I defend the title, it will be good, but I'm not too ambitious about it,'' Kim said through an interpreter. "It would be very meaningful, but I don't think it's that significant. Even though I did well [Wednesday], you never know what will happen tomorrow. In warmups, I was very nervous. I couldn't jump at all. I tried to believe in myself and believe in what I've done before.''
Kim has said she expected to feel less pressure in Sochi than she did at the 2010 Vancouver Games. She shouldered immense expectations at those Olympics and triumphed, scoring a record 228.56 points.
Since then, she has taken extended time off from skating, but she reasserted her superiority in winning the 2013 world championship. Her plan is to retire from competition after Sochi and run for a seat on the International Olympic Committee.
Kim's performance was tinged with melancholy, set to a string arrangement of "Send In The Clowns.'' In an expressive and fluid skate, her artistry shined through.
Gold, meanwhile, was in the locker room preparing for her performance when it ended. "It got really loud,'' Gold said. "I thought it was rain, but it turned out to be all the clapping and stomping. I'm sure she was flawless.''
Gold's lyrical skate led a strong string of U.S. performances, earning 68.63 points and putting her in fourth place. Lipnitskaya is in fifth after crashing on a triple flip, drawing a loud gasp from a crowd anticipating she would shoot into the lead.
Lipnitskaya's coach, Eteri Tutberidze, said Lipnitskaya fell because she got too close to the boards. When asked if her pupil's youth caused her to bend to the pressure, Tutberidze snapped: "She's an athlete, not a child.''
Lipnitskaya was still scowling nearly an hour after her performance. She said she did not feel nervous and had no explanation for the tumble, but she promised she was not done. "I feel sad,'' she said, "but [Thursday] I will go out there and fight.''
Sotnikova, the Russian champion, had been all but forgotten as Lipnitskaya became a sudden star with her soaring skates in the team event. Sotnikova said she watched the first period of the Russia-Finland hockey game, then took a nap. She didn't see that result, and she didn't see Lipnitskaya's fall.
Her skate to "Carmen'' was the surprise of the night, as athletic and lively as Kim's was lyrical. "I was very happy to come and show a good performance,'' Sotnikova said. "I did what I wanted.''
Kostner also is in the chase after an elegant skate to "Ave Maria.'' After a 16th-place performance at the Vancouver Olympics, she thought her skating life had ended. She returned not to win medals, she said, but to skate for the pure joy of it. "I want to share with people this beautiful moment, this special moment,'' Kostner said. "I want to give my best.''
The Queen concurred with that. Thursday's free skate ultimately will be about Olympic medals — and about history. But the top skaters said they will try to think about something much simpler.
"I think it would be the same for all the athletes,'' Kim said, when asked what it will take to get on the podium. "Show what you have been preparing for.''