Figure skating: Kim Yu-na holds off another Russian teen, but barely

Olympic champion Kim Yu-na scored highest in the women's figure skating short program Wednesday at the Sochi Olympics. But a Russian teen (no, not that one), is hot on her tail.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Russia's Adelina Sotnikova is pleased with her score in the women's figure skating short program at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics Wednesday in Russia.

Somewhere in the deepest reaches of Siberia, it seems, there is a factory that churns out tiny Russian girls who make stunning debuts on the world stage.

Kim Yu-na is glad that there is not a third week of the Olympic program in Sochi or she would surely have to face down another one. It must feel like Olympic whack-a-mole: one falls down and another one pops up in its place.

Little more than a week after a 15-year-old Russian with braided blond hair turned the team figure skating event into the Yulia Lipnitskaya debutante ball, the aged Adelina Sotnikova has shown her how it's done.

At 17, Sotnikova may be too worldly wise to have Lipnitskaya's "excuse me for a moment while I go win the Olympics" face. But Sotnikova has leveraged that vast gap in experience into something Lipnitskaya does not yet have: flair.

In fact, she did Lipnitskaya, who fell on her triple flip, one better. She didn't fire a warning shot at Kim. She acquired target lock. 

Kim's virtuoso performance in the women's figure skating short program Wednesday night may have restored order to the figure skating world. But only just.

Heading into the free skate Thursday, Kim is in first with 74.92 points. Sotnikova sits second with 74.64 points – 1.74 points more than Lipnitskaya had in the team short skate. And lurking in third, only 0.80 behind Kim, is Italian Carolina Kostner, who is proving that teenagers don't get to have all the fun. By the measure of the Russians, she's having a December renaissance at age 27. 

As for the Americans, each skated as well as could possibly have been expected, meaning Gracie Gold is sitting in fourth with 68.63 points, waiting to pounce if one of the top skaters falters; Ashley Wagner is in sixth; and America's own 15-year-old prodigy, Polina Edmunds, is in seventh. Gold is the only one with a realistic chance of medaling, and if she does, it would be an enormous accomplishment.

Though she's taken huge steps toward becoming a polished figure skater during the past year, the marks from Wednesday night clearly show that the judges do not yet consider her to be in quite the same league as Kim, Sotnikova, Kostner, or even Lipnitskaya when they skate clean. Two of those four will have to make a major mistake – and Gold will not – if she's to get on the podium.

But with the exception of a historic implosion by silver-medal favorite Mao Asada, who astonishingly sits in 16th place, there were mercifully few mistakes among the top skaters. Even Lipnitskaya skated a clean program apart from her fall.

Yet the night was truly about the top three.

First there was Kim, skating in the third group – usually reserved for middling qualifiers – because she's had to sit out almost the entire season with a foot injury. In the one event she entered, she fell twice and still won. But that wasn't likely to happen here, and she took to the ice with no one quite sure what to expect.

Now we know. When it's Kim, always expect brilliance.

It was not Vancouver, where Kim came as close to a 6.0 performance as the world has seen since it ditched the 6.0. But it wasn't far off. It was skating of the highest order, as though Kim dropped a pot lid on the Iceberg Skating Palace and said, "Enough, this is mine now."

The dim flickers of our short sports memory caught fire. Yulia who?

And while the Russians aren't likely ever to forget what Lipnitskaya did in the team event, neither are they likely to forget what Sotnikova did Wednesday night.

There are, of course, similarities. The limber frames, the ecstatic and energetic movement of youth, the powerhouse jumps. But while Lipnitskaya at times moves through her performance as though it were an item on her grocery list (albeit a lovely one), Sotnikova is all in for every moment.

Her entire skate seemed to to be a primal scream. Completely forgotten for 1-1/2 weeks, Sotnikova skated as if to ensure that she could not be ignored, every movement rich with emotion, every outstretched finger crackling with electricity.

Of course, like Lipnitskaya, Sotnikova is hardly an unknown in the figure skating world. She had two podiums (both silver) on the Grand Prix this season. But like Lipnitskaya, she appears to be treating the Olympics as her coming of age. She hardly could have done it more emphatically.

Strangely, the same could be said of Kostner. Her career is long and distinguished. She is a world champion and has been on the podium at the World Championships many other times. But she's never seemed to have that moment, when everyone was buzzing about her. She has been competent, but she has rarely been transcendent. On Wednesday, she was, for the second time in two weeks.

Her reprisal of the "Ave Maria" short program that she did in the women's team event was, if anything, even better. When she was world champion in 2012 over a disappointing field that did not include Kim, she scored a 61.00 in the short program. Wednesday, she scored a 74.12.

That will get people talking about you.

Indeed, if you just look at the program components scores, the scores where judges have more rein to give their impressions of a skate, Kostner won Wednesday night, beating even Kim.

And in that skate, every one of her 27 years shone through – a program of maturity and grace that no 15-year-old, no matter how talented, could possibly muster.

Three skates, three protests against claims of insignificance etched into the ice, each in its different way.

On Thursday, they'll be the three most important women in the arena, a waiting world balanced on their skate blades.

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