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Olympic Figure Skating

Race to be figure skating's queen filled with bumps, bruises in short program

Photo: Al Tielemans/SI

She wasn't perfect, but American Gracie Gold avoided calamity and kept her medal hopes alive with a fourth-place score in the short program Wednesday.

The ladies’ figure skating champion is generally considered the queen of any Winter Olympics, an honorarium of royalty that is similar to the winner of the 100-meter dash, who becomes known as the fastest man or woman in the world, or the superheavyweight weightlifting champ, who earns the marker of World’s Strongest Man.

Add to that designation the fact that the defending champ in Sochi is known to the skating world as Queen Yu-na, and it is almost as if the coronation was presumed to the point where the battle at the Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi was for second place.

In fact, South Korea’s Kim Yu-na is the leader after the first day, but not by much and not without some falls from perhaps her two strongest challengers, Japan’s Mao Asada, a two-time world champion, and Russia’s Julia Lipnitskaia, the 15-year-old who won the European title earlier this season.

Kim’s mark of 74.92 led Russia’s other top skater, Adelina Sotnikova, who was second with 74.64, and Italian veteran Carolina Kostner, in third with 74.12. U.S. national champ Gracie Gold stood a somewhat distant fourth with 68.63, followed by Lipnitskaia, fifth with 65.23. U.S. skaters Ashley Wagner and Paulina Edmunds are sixth and seventh.

If the men’s skaters used up all their best efforts for their strong short programs, the women have certainly set a more modest bar after their first day.

Kim’s performance was good but not close to her transcendent showing in Vancouver four years ago. Skating to “Send in the Clowns,” Kim, 23, seemed more tense than clown-like and happy. She was uncharacteristically jittery during warm-up when she caused gasps in the crowd by popping two jumps and gliding over to the side to converse with her coach.

“In warm-up, I was very nervous,” she said. “I couldn’t jump at all, but I tried to believe in myself and believe in what I’ve done before. … I felt like I was dreaming. I had a lot of thoughts during my performance.”

Once the program began, Kim landed the jumps with little trouble, cleanly landing a triple Lutz-triple toe combination, triple flip and double Axel. Judges were a little harsher on her spins, which are normally either the best in the world or close to it because of her grace and refined edges. She received 74.92 for her efforts in Sochi compared with 78.50 in Vancouver, where she earned a lengthy standing ovation and practically had the competition won after the short program when she played the role of a Bond Girl with confidence and poise.

“It has been four years since Vancouver,” Kim said. “So it is very different. I’m older.”

She is also a national heroine who has crossed the lines of sports starlet into the realm of pop-culture icon. She has worked in projects as a singer, sold over a million phones with her name on them and created her own marketing agency. No matter how Kim skates, she is competing against her persona and her past record.

Sotnikova was the early surprise of the competition. The 17-year-old was Lipnitskaia before Lipnitskaia, a child prodigy, even by figure skating standards, who became Russian champion at age 12, before she was old enough to skate as a senior in international competitions. Once she did advance to the senior ranks, she had trouble matching her domestic success, despite two silver medals at European championships.

Her jumps Wednesday weren’t as challenging as some of her rivals, but from the moment Sotnikova landed a triple toe-triple toe, she had the crowd behind her, and she punched the air after she was done.

“My heart has been waiting to race,” she said. “Now I can’t stop.” If she continues that, Sotnikova -- not Lipnitskaia -- could be the Russian teen who pushes Kim on Thursday.

At 27, Kostner represents the oldest guard, a sort of compromise candidate for podiums who often reaches them by skating clean, not cheating on transitions and keeping high component scores. Kostner has struggled at the Olympics, finishing ninth and 16th in her two previous tries. But she has won five world medals, including gold in 2012, and five European titles.

She is a swift skater with a challenging Bolero program ahead of her in the free skate. It’s the kind of program that can blow up or earn a big score. That makes Kostner a legitimate contender after she has been written off again.

She is also gutsy when others sometimes crumble. Kostner had planned an easier toe loop to start her combination jump, but convinced herself in warm-up that she could land a more difficult triple flip-triple toe instead.

“I didn’t talk to my coach about changing it,” she said. “Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m thankful he left the choice up to me. I wanted to show him that I could do it.”

Gold landed each of her jumps but was a little off-balance on her Lutz combination and the double Axel at the end. She is in a tough position here as an unproven future star who has already appeared on the Tonight Show and graced one of SI’s four pre-Olympic covers, among other things.

Yet she needs to be put up some bigger scores in front of international judges and build on the cachet she earns with each good performance. Without the international resume to boost her reputation, she is still seeking the type of breakout “wow” performance she has already given at the national level. This wasn’t it, but she is still one place from a medal.

“This is about throwing it out there,” she said. “When you have a shaky landing on a triple Lutz, you stick that triple toe . . . I was definitely nervous before and felt sick to my stomach.”

As she did before both sessions of the team competition, Lipnitskaia skated out to cheers of “Julia! Julia!” Her program began when the skater traced the outline of a heart on the ice and then she suddenly shifted her head up as the sound of hard raindrops preceded her music.

The program was nearly flawless … until it wasn’t. Lipnitskaia saved her final jump, a triple flip, for late in her program in order to earn a point bonus. But it was that jump on which she crashed to the ice, spoiling an early challenge to Kim. As fans showered the ice with stuffed animals and flowers, Lipnitskaia sulked into the kiss and cry area and was terribly apologetic afterwards.

“I feel sad,” she said. “I just wasn’t good enough on the jumps.”

Japan’s Asada was the dark-horse choice of many to beat Kim because of her formidable arsenal of jumps in the long program, but Mao came unglued Wednesday, falling on her first jump and popping a triple loop into just a single later. She stood just 16th after the first day, taking herself far out of medal range.

After some shaky programs Wednesday, the queen’s crown is still up for grabs, but the lady who hopes to wear it will need to bring glue and duct tape to make it fit.

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