Russian Sotnikova shocks Kim Yu-na on extraordinary night of figure skating

Russian Adelina Sotnikova put in a free skate of such technical quality at the Sochi Olympics Thursday that Kim Yu-na and Carolina Kostner couldn't keep up, despite skating beautifully.

Ivan Sekretarev/AP
Adelina Sotnikova of Russia competes in the women's free skate figure skating finals at the Iceberg Skating Palace during the 2014 Winter Olympics Thursday in Sochi, Russia.

On Thursday, Russian Adelina Sotnikova found herself.

And so did the rest of the world.

Two weeks ago, few of us knew any Russian women's figure skaters at all. Now we know two, and we are not likely to forget either any time soon.

A week ago, we were asking whether Yulia Lipnitskaya could repeat her performance from the team event to challenge South Korea's Kim Yu-na for gold in the women's event. In the end, she didn't need to. Sotnikova did it for her, becoming the first Russian woman to win Olympic gold in singles figure skating.

This wasn't the most unlikely possible result before the women's figure skating program began on Wednesday. But it's close. Kim skated about as well as she possibly could over both nights and she still lost. And it wasn't particularly close.

While there will surely be some attempts to create a controversy around the results – the Russian won in Russia! – there should not be. In fact, in this case in particular, the scores make it clear that the judges essentially had no choice but to give Sotnikova the gold.

Yes, she was that good.

To the eye tuned to the 6.0 scoring system – she didn't fall! – and unaware of the difficulty of various skating elements, that superiority might not be immediately apparent. She did not look as lithe and graceful as Kim in Vancouver, a skate that still remains the standard for perfection in the post-6.0 era.

In truth, she might not have looked as lithe and graceful as Kim did even on Thursday. But Kim is not quite who she was in Vancouver. And Sotnikova put together a program whose difficulty and execution Kim simply could not match. Sotnikova won the free skate by skating a more difficult program than did Kim, and with one exception, doing all of it more precisely.

It was proof, for the first time, that the time Kim has taken off since Vancouver due to a semi-retirement and injury has at last caught up to her. So brilliant was she in Vancouver that it has taken the skating world four years to do it. But thanks to a technically astounding free skate by Sotnikova Thursday, Sochi will be remembered not as Queen Yu-na's golden curtain call, but as the first light of a new post-Kim era in the sport.

It was that kind of night.

For the Americans, the evening played out almost precisely to expectation. Polina Edmunds put down a marker as one to watch for the future, finishing an impressive ninth. Ashley Wagner will be pleased with a clean skate that put her in seventh. And Gracie Gold skated beautifully.

Indeed, her marks were one of the most promising signs for the future of American figure skating. Despite one fall, she posted a score of 136.90, blowing away her personal best. She has already hinted she will try for the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018, and if coach Frank Carroll can add a bit more artistry and polish to her skating – something at which he excels – she could be a strong medal contender. With her and Edmunds, there are the inklings of a renaissance in the sport in the US.

She finished fourth, lurking below the top skaters, as expected, in hopes one of them would slip and fall down the standings. 

None of them did, and after the carnage that was the men's free skate, which came down to deciding whose mistakes were less cataclysmic, it's important to take a moment and just drink in what happened Thursday night.

On Wednesday, three skaters – Kim, Sotnikova, and Italian Carolina Kostner – put on performances of the highest order in the short program. At the end of the night, they were all within 0.8 points of one another.

On Thursday, they each did it again.

That is not supposed to happen. The free skate is just one notch above cruel and unusual punishment. For four minutes, you are expected to jump and spin and jump and smile and hold your hands just so and jump and spin and jump again. It is said of the free skate: "There is no place to hide." If you fall on the first jump, get up. You've got 3-1/2 more minutes to skate and six more jumps to do. In front of the entire world. Have fun.

Especially under the current scoring system, in which skaters try to squeeze in as many points as possible into their free skate, it is nothing less than a wringer.

Here is what Kim had to say after missing out on gold after the free skate:

"It has been four years since Vancouver, so I was exhausted."

And:

"When I finished I was so tired."

And how about Kostner:

"I have nothing left. I am exhausted."

Bear in mind, too, that the short program finished after midnight Wednesday and many skaters were up for a practice session at 7 a.m.

Now consider what Kostner, Kim, and Sotnikova did Thursday. It strains belief. There were some bobbles that the judges noticed in all three of their performances, and Sotnikova stepped out slightly on the landing of her last jump in a triple flip, double toe, double loop combination.

But besides that, nothing.

Three Olympic free skates. Three near-perfect programs.

You can even throw in Mao Asada, who was out of the medal race because of an apocalyptic short program, but who on Thursday nailed an insanely difficult free skate. At the end, she dissolved into tears, wondering where she might have been if anything approaching that skate had appeared Wednesday.

It was a night that should be remembered for all the right reasons.

Kostner, the 27-year-old who has always faltered on the Olympic stage, delivered the performance of a career. "It was a dream to skate a dream competition, and it happened to be at the Olympic Games," she said. Asked to describe her Olympic experience in Sochi: "Magical."

Kim, the Olympic champion, gave the world all it could possibly have asked for – two skates of assurance and precision to help us remember that Vancouver moment when perfection was etched with every arc of her blade on the ice. "I am so glad it's over," she said. "I'm so happy to be here, because it's my last competition as a skater."

And the Russian who everyone forgot found something amazing within herself. Two years ago, she said, "All of my competitions were very bad. I didn't know if I had what it takes to be successful."

But something changed Thursday. "I found something totally different in myself today," she said. "I had a bit of nerves before I skated, but just before I started I was completely calm. I just felt how much I love to skate. I think I found a new me."

Perhaps what the Russians wanted most from this Olympics was a gold for the men's hockey team.

But maybe, just maybe, this is much better.

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