Olympics / Sports

Russia's Yulia Lipnitskaya performs in the team ladies free skating during the Winter Olympics at the Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi, Russia, on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group/MCT)

Russian teen dazzles, carries Russia's hopes at Winter Games

SOCHI, Russia -- Yulia Lipnitskaya has gone back to the Moscow area to train for a few days at her home rink.

But her 5-foot-2 presence remains overwhelming in Sochi.

Her two dazzling performances that helped Russia win the team figure skating event a week ago Sunday have turned the 15-year-old Lipnitskaya into the talk of this Olympic town, her entire country and the figure skating world.

"At the beginning of the season, her name wasn't even at the top two of the women's list to make the Olympic team," said Oleg Vasiliev of St. Petersburg, the 1984 Olympic pairs champion. "Now no one is talking about anyone but her."

It has reached the point that Lipnitskaya's mother, Daniela, told the newspaper Komosomolskaya Pravda on Thursday that she and her daughter are already tired of journalists, saying, "Yulia is an ordinary girl, and now she is seriously scared of all this attention."

Vasiliev said Friday that the Russian press had then been asked not to bother Lipnitskaya during the final days of her attempt to become the first Russian women's Olympic singles champion.

"She is already a big hero here," he said. "If she wins, the reaction would probably be comparable to our hockey team winning."

Lipnitskaya has taken even her compatriots by surprise after missing part of last season following a concussion. That Russia has won only two gold medals here so far, both in figure skating, brightens the spotlight already on her.

"Her appearance this year was like a fairy tale, from nowhere," said Elena Vaytsekhovskaya, a Russian journalist and 1976 Olympic platform diving champion. "For a big part of Russian sports fans -- which is the whole country during the Olympics -- Yulia is a little, fearless warrior who appeared to save the country's honor."

The contrast between her size and a baby face with her steely-eyed, unsmiling fearlessness on the ice has struck skating stars like two-time Olympic champion Katarina Witt of Germany and everyone who watched Lipnitskaya live or on television in the team event.

"I am totally fascinated by her," Witt said. "If you look at her body, you see a girl, but there is an older, more mature soul in that body. I am really in awe."

Lipnitskaya could become the second youngest Olympic singles champion. Tara Lipinski, the 1998 champion, would remain the youngest by six days.

"She knew she could be this good," Lipinski insisted. "She wouldn't be this prepared if she didn't want that gold."

It is a quest that began in earnest for Lipnitskaya at 9, when she moved with her mother from Ekaterinburg to get better coaching in Moscow.

It is one that requires her to beat the reigning Olympic gold medalist Yuna Kim of South Korea and reigning silver medalist Mao Asada of Japan, when the women's competition begins with Wednesday's short program.

"Yulia is shaking up the entire competition, and she is going to give everyone a run for their money," Witt said.

The predominantly Russian audience at the Iceberg Skating Palace gave her roaring ovations during her winning short and long programs in the team event, when Kim did not compete and Asada participated in only the short program. Those Russian fans unfamiliar with the competition may not understand exactly what Lipnitskaya faces in the singles.

Comparing scores is a tricky business, given the different composition of judging panels and tweaks in the scoring system year-to-year. But it is worth noting that Kim's winning total in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, 228.56, is more than 18 points higher than Lipnitskaya's singles competition personal best of 209.72, which she got in winning January's European Championships.

"Yuna at her best had a cleanliness and precision about her skating that put her in a league of her own," said Evan Lysacek, the 2010 men's champion.

The question is how close to her best Kim, 23, will be this week. For the second year in a row, she comes into a major championship untested in a significant international event. Last season, she still was in a league of her own at the world championships, winning with the second highest score ever (218.31).

"Yulia is the big star of Russia right now," said Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic champion, "but she may not look as big when you put her on the ice with a focused Yuna."

Kim had yet to leave Seoul when Lipnitskaya skated the team event, where her scores added up to 214.41. The skaters have never met in the same competition.

This is Lipnitskaya's first season on the senior international championship level, for which a skater must be 15 by July 1 of the previous year (she was born June 5, 1998), but her second on the senior Grand Prix circuit. Oddly, she has yet to win a senior national title in three tries, finishing second this season to Russia's Adelina Sotnikova, 17, also competing here.

"Yulia is brilliant, wonderful, captivating, but she has a couple technical issues, particularly on the double axel and triple lutz, that she needs to address," Hamilton said. "You have to be sound technically to withstand a growth spurt. I want to see her last and reach a potential that maybe no one has reached before."

After seeing her skate last week, few have bothered to check that Lipnitskaya's career results show inconsistency that may reflect those flaws. The flexibility that allows Lipnitskaya to contort herself into positions defying the human skeleton and her sure-footedness on difficult jumps were simply so mind-boggling they wiped out all other impressions.

Referring to her rival's flexibility, U.S. champion Gracie Gold said, "she's got no spine, but she's got iron in her bones." Gold finished second by 12 points to Lipnitskaya in the team free skate.

The one thing every skating expert says about Lipnitskaya is she has been brilliantly packaged, in the most skillful and effective of ways, by coach Eteri Tutberidze and choreographer Ilia Averbukh. Their choices of cinematic music allow Lipnitskaya to mask her dispassion and callow interpretive skills with simple gestures, leaving her jumps and brilliant variety of spins in the forefront.

Lipnitskaya's short program music is "You Don't Give Up on Love" by Mark Minkov, a Russian composer best known for his film scores. She starts on one knee, drawing a heart on the ice with a finger, looks up at the sound of a storm, skates unemotionally through the next 2 minutes, 50 seconds and finishes on a knee, redrawing the heart rain had erased.

In the long program, she is the doomed "girl in the red coat" from the holocaust movie, "Schindler's List." As John Williams' haunting music begins, Lipnitskaya looks anxiously over her shoulder. When she reprises that pose four minutes later, after doing 11 jumps, three spins and a footwork sequence with a nearly blank face, it has cleverly created a sense of poignancy.

"Yulia lets her emotion come from the music," said Sandra Bezic, who choreographed Brian Boitano's winning Olympic programs. "What good is emotion if you can't do the technical?"

There is no doubt technical ability is what gives Lipnitskaya a chance to upset more aesthetically refined skaters like Kim, Asada and Carolina Kostner of Italy, especially under scoring rules that force skaters to sacrifice presentation to tick off mathematical boxes with pre-defined movements.

"On one hand, Yulia continues the best traditions of the Russian figure skating school," veteran Russian coach Elena Chaikovskaya said. "On the other hand, she is a real golden nugget, a real genius, totally unique in combining a very modern skating style with components of extreme complexity."

Being so young gives Lipnitskaya a substantial advantage, allowing her to jump and spin more easily. Vasiliev said her motivation just to get one of Russia's two Olympic women's spots "made her work twice as hard."

Lipinski had a similar morphology and monomaniacal commitment to the task when she became Olympic champion.

"People will say you can burn out, you can get injured," Lipinski said. "If you want to win an Olympic gold medal, sometimes you have to do it to the extreme."

Part of what has made Lipnitskaya so compelling is the world's fascination with the next big thing, especially when it is so small and young and seemingly fragile.

"It is how we always look at kids who are so innocent and so cute," Vasiliev said. "If a little kid produces something like this that you don't expect, it makes you cry sometimes."

When Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated the team figure skating gold medalists, he patted the littlest one, Lipnitskaya, on the head.


(Tribune Newspapers reporter Sergei Loiko contributed from Moscow.)

(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services



blog comments powered by Disqus