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Olympics / Sports

Russia's Julia Lipnitskaia ascends to new heights in figure skating

SOCHI, Russia -- Julia Lipnitskaia could depart Sochi as the czarina of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Before this week is out, she could leap into her sport's starring role. And she could further captivate a Russian nation that already is mad about her.

That's a full plate for a 15-year-old.

"I know," said Tara Lipinski, the 1998 gold medalist who is here as an NBC analyst, "but she's really got a good shot to win the gold medal."

In 1998, Lipinski was also 15. The Nagano Olympics were supposed to be Michelle Kwan's, just as most people have assumed Sochi's would belong to defending champion Yuna Kim of South Korea.

The Philadelphia-born Lipinski upset Kwan to become the youngest woman to win gold. Sixteen years later, she is convinced that the slightly younger Lipnitskaia could do the same here in her home country.

"Judging from how prepared she looks," Lipinski said, "she really believes this is her moment. And why not? She's the real package."

For the rest of the world anyway, that package was unwrapped during last week's team competition when -- with a pair of confident, artistic, and near-flawless skates -- Lipnitskaia helped Russia win the first team gold medal.

Those performances and the positive reactions they provoked from both the largely Russian crowd at the Iceberg Skating Palace and the judges, catapulted the 5-foot-2 teenager to the top of the handicappers' charts.

"She is a genius," gushed her teammate in that event, Evgeni Plushenko.

Her long program in particular was extraordinarily elegant, as she displayed a flexible body, a confidence that bordered on cockiness, and a ballerina's sensibilities.

But it also was controversial.

Wearing a red dress, like the ethereal young girl in the otherwise black-and-white film, Lipnitskaia performed to music from "Schindler's List, the Steven Spielberg film on the Holocaust.

While some questioned both choices, the Russians pointed out that both West Germany's Katerina Witt and America's Paul Wylie had skated to the same music in the past and that Witt, too, wore a red dress.

Lipnitskaia's sudden ascendance is not unusual given these Games' locale. Since she burst into the headlines last week, she has been sought by Russian photographers and reporters but somehow has managed to avoid them.

"Julia is not a fan of the attention and press in general," her mother told a Russian news service. "I'm almost afraid she's going to mouth off to someone. She's a girl with character. She's capable of that."

All this attention and gold-medal talk focused on the 15-year-old must seem odd to the vastly more experienced Kim, who, after winning in Vancouver four years ago, stepped away from the sport only to return and capture the 2013 world championship.

If Kim has been overlooked here, it's probably because she has yet to perform in Sochi. South Korea did not qualify for the team event.

"The Russian girls went from juniors to seniors, and now they're having their first Olympic Games," she said through an interpreter, without mentioning Lipnitskaia by name. "They are not as experienced at it, but it is fun to be in your first Olympics."

How much fun the American girls will have remains to be seen.

U.S. champion Gracie Gold opened eyes here with a stirring free skate in the team finals. But despite a career-best score, she finished 12 points behind Lipnitskaia.

"Julia is a machine and an excellent skater," said Gold, just 18 herself. "But when it comes down to competition, it's not always about the best skater. It's about who skates best in that competition.

"We're just going to try to beat her at her own game and on her own turf."

The Americans will have their own 15-year-old in the event, Polina Edmonds, a Californian whose mother is a Russian-born skating coach. She is 18 days older than the Russian phenom and finished second to Gold at nationals.

Until recently, the U.S. skater given the best chance of medaling in Sochi was Ashley Wagner, 22. But a disastrous national championship nearly cost her a spot on the team, officials skipping over third-place Mirai Nagasu to select the fourth-place Wagner.

At her first news conference here Saturday, Wagner was bombarded with critical questions: Why the lousy nationals? Why did other skaters say she should not have been picked? Why did she look so angry in a Twitter photo that went viral?

"Everything happens for a reason," she said calmly. "Nationals was horrible. That strong skater did not show up there. But I took the time after to talk to my coach and work out how to move forward."

Among the other strong medal contenders are Japan's Mao Asada, who was off her game in the team event, and Italian veteran Carolina Kostner, the 2012 world champion.

But the big crowd in the Iceberg figures to have eyes only for Lipnitskaia. And though the sport's scoring system is less subjective now than it was in the days when Russia ruled, the roar of a crowd can impact a judge.

"She is so young and so good," Plushenko said. "She could be the face of Russian skating for many years. And now this could be the start of that."

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Distributed by MCT Information Services


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