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Canada's Kaetlyn Osmond performs during the team women's figure skating short program at the Iceberg Skating Palace at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Saturday, Feb, 8, 2014. (Harry E. Walker/MCT)

Tiny Russian teen stars in a big way

SOCHI, Russia -- The Iceberg was in an uproar from the minute Russia's Julia Lipnitskaia took the ice for her warmup. It had to be overwhelming for a 15-year-old so tiny it looks as if she could fit in the smallest part of a set of traditional Russian nesting dolls.

"Of course there was a bit of worry but, thank God, I coped well with everything I had to do," Lipnitskaia said. "I knew I had to be calm."

And Lipnitskaia's skating in the team event short program Saturday night gave an electric and resounding demonstration that she has the stuff to win the singles if favored Yuna Kim of South Korea falters in her attempt at a second straight Olympic title.

Poised beyond her size and age, basking in the home crowd's rollicking chants of "Julia!" and "Ross-ee-yah!" Lipnitskaia began with an immaculate rendering of the toughest combination (triple lutz-triple toe loop) any woman in the world attempts. At the end, she did a spin that defied the limits of the human skeleton.

"I've never seen anything like the atmosphere out there today," she said. "There wasn't any silence for a single second."

She finished first in the short program, ahead of 2012 world champion Carolina Kostner of Italy, who turned 27 on Saturday and celebrated by skating brilliantly. "My best birthday ever," Kostner said.

Reigning Olympic silver medalist Mao Asada of Japan fell on her triple axel but was propped into third by her usual high component marks.

Next was Ashley Wagner, whose redemptive but unremarkable fourth-place performance combined with a winning short dance by Meryl Davis and Charlie White to put the United States in the team event position everyone expected.

With the short programs completed and the field cut from 10 to five countries, Team USA moved from a tie for fifth into third and remained there after the pairs free skate.

The Americans have 34 points to 47 for Russia and 41 for Canada. Those positions are likely to remain the same after the competition finishes with the men's, women's and dance free skates Sunday.

The judges dinged Wagner for an under-rotated triple-triple combination, but she left feeling her goal had been accomplished a month after poor performances at the U.S. Championships created controversy over her selection to the U.S. Olympic team.

She finished fourth at nationals but got the nod ahead of third-place Mirai Nagasu based on results over the past year. Wagner said Nagasu recently sent her a message of support.

"I needed to prove to myself and everyone who doubted in the slightest my being here that I'm here, I'm here to compete -- and get used to it," Wagner said.

"I needed that for my confidence. It was more about proving to myself that I could get past a bad competition."

U.S. champion Gracie Gold will do Sunday's free skate for the U.S. Wagner, who was disappointed with her scores, will leave Sochi for about a week of training in Germany and return before the Feb. 19 start of women's singles.

(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

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