MOSCOW — She got the gold. Then she went straight home — to practice some more.
A day after snagging a gold medal for the Russian figure skating team at the Sochi Winter Olympics, Julia Lipnitskaia (lip-NIT'-sky-yah) was back at her usual rink in Moscow, hoping to escape the buzz and stay focused on the individual competition ahead.
Since Lipnitskaia awed spectators at the Olympic rink earlier this week, her body dipping like a graceful rag doll with each downward swoop of the violin in music from "Schindler's List," Russian and foreign fans alike have been desperate to learn more about a girl who, at only 15, seems all too grown up. But scratching the surface hasn't been easy.
"Julia is not a fan of the attention and press in general," her mother, Daniela, told The Associated Press, describing the television crews who have staked outside the rink for hours. "I'm almost afraid she's going to mouth off to someone. She's a girl with character, she's capable of that."
A BRAVE GIRL
Julia Lipnitskaia grew up in the Ural Mountains town of Yekaterinburg, raised by a single mother after her father went to complete his mandatory military service and never came back. Daniela Lipnitskaia says she never had any skating ambitions of her own, and her decision to put her daughter on the ice when she was 4 years old was "totally random."
"At the beginning ... there wasn't anything special there other than her bravery," said Elena Levkovets, Lipnitskaia's first coach. "She would stand up and fall down and stand up again, she didn't cry. She's had that serious face since she was a child."
By the time Lipnitskaia was 10, she had outskated everyone in Yekaterinburg. It was clear that, to continue doing what she loved most, she would have to move to Moscow.
"Her mother is a hero — making the decision to leave takes a special kind of person," said Levkovets, who said the two women would often trade shifts looking after their daughters. "I think she gets a lot of it from her mother — the determination and the diligence. She always came to the rink like it was her job."
Lipnitskaia has become known for her gravitas, both on the ice and off. When President Vladimir Putin gave her a bear hug and pinched her cheek after her first Olympic performance, she gave a wry smile that made her seem less like a star-struck little girl than an elderly woman, amused by the antics of some overenthusiastic suitor. Daniela Lipnitskaia said her daughter, whom she calls "the child," hasn't mentioned the hug since.
"I know that a lot of people think she's haughty," Daniela Lipnitskaia said.' "She's just in her own world, she looks straight ahead."
Outside the rink, Lipnitskaia loves music and horses. When her career took off, her mother was able to buy a cottage outside Yekaterinburg so that Lipnitskaia could go riding whenever she visits. Lipnitskaia posts pictures of the horses on her official page on VKontakte, Russia's Facebook equivalent, along with status updates like: "I want... many, many balloons!"
And while she has kept the press at arm's length, Lipnitskaia uses VKontakte to keep in touch with her fans, commenting or liking everything they post to her page. Only when a photograph of her with a medal drew 30,000 likes and hundreds of comments did she stop trying to keep up.
Even in her performance to the "Schindler's List" music (her personal choice), Lipnitskaia straddles the line between child and adult.
She plays the role of the girl in the red coat, a character who floats above the black-and-white landscape of the film and into the consciousness of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saves more than 1,000 Jews from the Holocaust by employing them in his factory. Schindler notices the girl walking serenely down a street where Jews are being rounded up, some to be taken out of the city and some to be immediately shot. The girl reaches her looted apartment and crawls under her bed to hide. Later in the film, Schindler recognizes her red coat atop a pile of corpses.
At the start of the performance, Lipnitskaia skates forward tentatively, almost reluctantly. She turns around and dashes back toward the crowd, her eyes fixed to some last wish hanging above their heads.
"Julia had to tell a story about the collapse of a child's hope," Ilya Averbukh, Lipnitskaia's choreographer, told the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. "A girl is drawing her dreams in the ice. Then the thunderclap will come, the rain washes away her dream. But nonetheless she continues to draw."
At the end of the performance, the violin melody grows softer and rises until, finally, it disappears. Lipnitskaia pulls herself into a spin with one ankle drawn tightly to her chest, spiraling faster with each turn, like a candle sputtering brightly just as wax licks out the last of the flame. Pulling out of the spin, Lipnitskaia looks back at the crowd one last time.
Daniela Lipnitskaia says her daughter has had to do a lot of growing up this past year, as a growth spurt and a spate of injuries nearly derailed her career. "We had seven (injuries) in one season," she said, recalling how doctors had told her daughter to give up skating. "I think things will work out, because she already went through all of that."
Levkovets, Lipnitskaia's first trainer, will travel to Sochi on Feb. 19 to cheer her on. Most of all, she says she's been dying to see the performance in person for the first time — and see just how far the teenager has come. "She's a child," Levkovets said, "but she's growing up."