In team figure skating, Russian 15-year-old a revelation

The astonishing performance of Russian figure skater Yulia Lipnitskaya in the team figure skating competition Saturday capped a perfect Day 1 of the Sochi Olympics.

By , Staff writer

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    Yulia Lipnitskaya of Russia waves after competing in the women's team short program figure skating competition at the Iceberg Skating Palace during the 2014 Winter Olympics Saturday in Sochi, Russia.
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Day 1 of the Sochi Winter Olympics could hardly have been more welcome.

For the past week or more, the world has been obsessed by the Sochi Olympics without really thinking about the Sochi Olympics at all. Would they be safe? Were they the plaything of a quasi-dictator? Should foreign heads of state attend the opening ceremonies? Was Sochi even ready for this moment?

On Saturday, the athletes reminded us why we care about this so much in the first place.

Recommended: How much do you know about the Winter Olympics?

It was American Sage Kotsenburg, who, before last month, last won a snowboarding event when he was 11 years old, unveiling his "Holy Crail," a trick he had never tried before in his life – "never" – to win the first gold of the Sochi Games and the first Olympic gold in the history of slopestyle.

It was Norwegian Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, whose last win is usually the last time he skied, winning his record-tying 12th Winter Olympic medal (a gold) in the 10 km biathlon.

It was Justine and Chloe Dupont-Lapointe, Canada's sister squad, taking gold and silver in the freestyle moguls (with a third sister, Maxime, finishing 12th).

And it was 15-year-old Russian figure skater Yulia Lipnitskaya putting together a short program of such breathtaking brilliance in the team competition that it left the Iceberg Skating Palace trembling and perhaps even South Korean ice queen Kim Yuna quaking in her sequins.

The night before, at the opening ceremony, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach lectured just about everyone for allowing politics into the runup to the Sochi Games.

On Saturday, the athletes themselves made his argument for him, and far more persuasively.

Before Saturday's slopestyle event, it was asked: How badly will the event suffer – particularly for American audiences – from the loss of superstar Shaun White, who dropped out of the event, saying the course was too dangerous.

Now it must be asked: Could White possibly have topped this?

Slope too dangerous? I'll just throw in a quadruple-twisting, behind-the-back tail grab for the first time ever and see how that goes, Kotsenburg seemed to say. And why not? He was the last American rider to qualify for the Olympics, the longest of long shots.

If that's not an Olympic story, what is?

A Russian figure skating sweetheart

In the runup to the Sochi Olympics, it was asked: Who will be America's figure skating sweetheart?

Now it must be asked: Could it be a Russian?

This is not to overlook Ashley Wagner, or Gracie Gold, or Polina Edmunds, the three actual Americans in the women's singles competition next week. Yet there are moments so breathtaking that nationality loses its meaning. Were Nadia Comaneci or Oksana Baiul somehow diminished because they were not American?

Lipnitskaya has a lot of work to do before she can be mentioned in the same breath. She has a free skate in the team competition Sunday, and then she has to do it all over again in the women's competition later in the Olympics.

But there was a healthy dash of such transcendence in the Iceberg Palace Saturday. The judges must have seen something wrong with Lipnitskaya's performance. The rest of us did not. It is their job to dissect her skate frame by frame and see where a foot might have been out of place, an edge missed. It is our job to enjoy it, and not a single person in the Palace didn't.

It was the performance of a debutante, an announcement of the arrival of an Olympic athlete into a new and more rarefied atmosphere. The figure skating world knew that Lipnitskaya was one to watch. Now, it must wonder if she is the one to watch. 

And nor was that all at the Iceberg Palace Saturday night.

By the time American audiences watch the team event Saturday night, NBC will surely have distilled it down to a tension-filled 30 minutes, maybe a bit more. In truth, it lasted almost five hours here in Russia. And Saturday night was already the event's second session, having started Thursday, before the Olympics were technically even open. On Sunday, the men, dancers, and women still needed to come out for their free skate.

An event adapted to the app generation and supposedly shrinking attention spans, it was not.

But that's what made it beautiful.

The patient buildup through competitors more likely to invent a time machine than win a medal in some circumstances might be seen as a colossal waste of time. Here, it was like excellence in time-lapse, watching the progression of the sport from the exceptional to the unearthly. When Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the Canadian ice dancing champions and defending Olympic champions, at last came onto the ice, the Palace seemed to melt.

The pairs that had come before, all world class in their own right, had only served to underline more clearly the genius of the Canadians' craft. The crowd watched, and a gold-medal performance took shape before it, like a palpable thing, extraordinary in its grace.

Then Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White went out and, remarkably, did them one better, lifting Team USA to a third place finish heading into the finals.

Later, when the building seemed still to be trembling from Lipnitskaya's skate, Italian Carolina Kostner took to the ice in a shimmering dress of pure white. Though Kostner has had an accomplished career, it has been a largely overshadowed one. She is the classic bronze-medal hopeful – enough talent to sometimes make it to the podium, enough flaws often to miss it.

The strains of Schubert's "Ave Maria" began, and she skated, and it was perfect – song and sequin and step all seamlessly one, an apotheosis of sport unique to figure skating. And when she stopped, she looked heavenward in a prayer that may have been choreographed but, at that moment, seemed utterly genuine.

It was her birthday, and as she sat down to receive her score, she began to cry. True, she has come second to Lipnitskaya, as everyone would tonight, but she had bested Japanese superstar Mao Asada, and that performance – every single point of it – was needed to get Italy into the event's medal round.

As Kostner cried, the Italian team danced around her. They might have lifted her on their shoulders and carried her around the Olympic plaza if they could have.

But for Kostner, it was enough, it seemed, and a smile sparkled through the tears.

For her, and for us, it was a perfect Olympic day.

Fifteen more to go.

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