SOCHI, RUSSIA – For a 15-year-old figure skater, Yulia Lipnitskaya already has amassed an impressive collection of admirers. Russian teammate Ekaterina Bobrova called her a “tiny genius.’’ Another countryman, Nikita Katsalapov, said she is “our heroine,’’ while pairs skater Ksenia Stolbova said she watched Lipnitskaya skate and was “inspired.’’
Even American skater Gracie Gold, one of Lipnitskaya’s rivals in the Olympic women’s competition, paid homage to the flexibility and nerve she showed in her Winter Games debut. “She’s completely unfazed,’’ said Gold, the U.S. champion. “She’s got no spine, but she’s got iron in her bones.’’
What Lipnitskaya wants is gold in her hand. No Russian ever has won the women’s title at the Olympics, but the teen from Yekaterinburg has positioned herself to make a run at it in her home country. Defending gold medalist Kim Yu-na of Korea — whose own legion of groupies has dubbed her “The Queen’’ — is the prohibitive favorite. Lipnitskaya, though, is gliding into the competition on a roll, with a wild Russian crowd at her back.
Already, Lipnitskaya has become the youngest skater in 78 years to win an Olympic gold medal after two brilliant programs that propelled Russia to victory in the team event. Before her short program in that competition, Bobrova said she worried that her young teammate would be overwhelmed by the pressure of performing before a full house cheering her every move.
Lipnitskaya responded by topping a field that included world champion Carolina Kostner, 2010 Olympic silver medalist Mao Asada and American Ashley Wagner. Then she did it again in the free skate of the team event, cementing her status as the skater who could steal the marquee event of the Winter Games.
“Now I fully know the ice and the arena, and I can relax a bit and skate better in the individual event,’’ she said after the team victory. “I felt calmer, even better than at other competitions.
“I am well prepared, and I always try to be self-confident, even if something goes wrong. Also, I could please the audience. It’s a joy for me.’’
The reigning champ
Kim, 23, has been sidelined most of this season with a metatarsal injury to her right foot. She missed the entire Grand Prix season and has competed in only one minor event in Croatia. Still, she enters the Winter Games as the reigning world champion and an imposing presence who earned gold at Vancouver.
Since Vancouver, Kim has competed only intermittently, but her already considerable stardom has escalated. Forbes Magazine last year estimated her annual earnings at $14 million, ranking her No. 6 among female athletes. When she arrived in Sochi, a horde of Korean media camped out at the practice rink for hours to watch her training session.
The first figure skater from Korea to medal at the Olympics, Kim split with coach Brian Orser after Vancouver and reunited with former coach Shin Hea Sook. Despite her long layoff from competition, she said her previous Olympic experience will benefit her in Sochi.
“This is now my second time, and I think it will be easier than it was in Vancouver,’’ she said. “I try not to feel pressure. I am not focusing on winning the gold medal twice. I am focusing more on taking part in the Olympic Games rather than winning twice.’’
The United States’ hopes rest with Gold, who looked strong and confident in winning her first U.S. title last month, and Wagner, who would rather forget her experience at nationals.
Wagner has dumped the “Romeo and Juliet’’ free skate she has performed this year, going back to last year’s “Samson and Delilah’’ program. She had only three weeks to fine-tune it, and while she admitted it is a risky move, she felt she needed the fresh start.
“This music makes me competitive,’’ Wagner said. “It raises the hair on my arms and makes me excited and just go out there and be vicious. Juliet is not that vicious. I am so passionate about what I do, and so driven to get on that Olympic podium. I just felt in my heart that [the Romeo and Juliet] program was not going to get me there.’’
The Olympics could represent a changing of the guard in women’s skating. Both Kim and Asada have announced they will retire after the Sochi Games. If Lipnitskaya wins gold, she would be the second-youngest skater to do so, only five days off the Olympic record set by 15-year-old Tara Lipinski of the United States at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
That would swell her ranks of admirers exponentially. But she will have plenty of competition from a deep field aiming to make just as great an impression.
“Yulia is a machine and an excellent skater,’’ Gold said. “When it comes down to competition, it’s not always about the best skater. It’s about who skates the best in that competition. We’re going to try to beat her at her own game and on her own turf and, at the end, leave everything out on the ice.’’