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SOCHI 2014

She may be little, but she figures big

5-foot-2 Yulia Lipnitskaya is the talk of the skating world

February 16, 2014|Philip Hersh
  • Yulia Lipnitskaya of Russia performs her free skate during the figure skating team competition last week at the Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi.
Yulia Lipnitskaya of Russia performs her free skate during the figure skating… (Barbara Walton / EPA )

SOCHI, RUSSIA — Yulia Lipnitskaya has gone back to the Moscow area to train for a few days at her home rink.

But her 5-foot-2 presence remains overwhelming in Sochi.

Her two dazzling performances that helped Russia win the team figure skating event a week ago have turned the 15-year-old into the talk of this Olympic town, her entire country and the figure skating world.

"At the beginning of the season, her name wasn't even at the top two of the women's list to make the Olympic team," said Oleg Vasiliev of St. Petersburg, the 1984 Olympic pairs champion. "Now no one is talking about anyone but her."

It has reached the point that Lipnitskaya's mother, Daniela, told the newspaper Komosomolskaya Pravda on Thursday that she and her daughter are already tired of journalists, saying, "Yulia is an ordinary girl, and now she is seriously scared of all this attention."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, February 19, 2014 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Figure skating: In the Feb. 16 Sochi Olympics section, an article about Russian figure skater Yulia Lipnitskaya said that if she wins the gold medal, she would become the second-youngest women's singles Olympic champion, six days older than 1998 champion Tara Lipinski. The age difference would be five days.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, February 23, 2014 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Figure skating: In the Feb. 16 Sochi Olympics section, an article about Russian figure skater Yulia Lipnitskaya said that if she wins the gold medal, she would become the second-youngest women's singles Olympic champion, six days older than 1998 champion Tara Lipinski. The age difference would be five days.

Vasiliev said Friday that the Russian media had been asked not to bother Lipnitskaya during the final days of her attempt to become the first Russian women's Olympic singles champion.

"She is already a big hero here," he said. "If she wins, the reaction would probably be comparable to our hockey team winning."

Lipnitskaya has taken even her compatriots by surprise after missing part of last season with a concussion.

"Her appearance this year was like a fairy tale, from nowhere," said Elena Vaytsekhovskaya, a Russian journalist and 1976 Olympic platform diving champion. "For a big part of Russian sports fans -- which is the whole country during the Olympics -- Yulia is a little, fearless warrior who appeared to save the country's honor."

Lipnitskaya could become the second-youngest Olympic singles champion. Tara Lipinski, the 1998 champion, would remain the youngest by six days.

"She knew she could be this good," Lipinski insisted. "She wouldn't be this prepared if she didn't want that gold."

It is a quest that began in earnest for Lipnitskaya at 9, when she moved with her mother from Ekaterinburg to receive better coaching in Moscow.

It is one that requires her to beat reigning Olympic gold medalist Yuna Kim of South Korea and reigning silver medalist Mao Asada of Japan, when the women's competition begins Wednesday.

The predominantly Russian audience at the Iceberg Skating Palace gave her roaring ovations during her winning short and long programs in the team event, in which Kim did not compete and Asada participated in only the short program. Those Russian fans unfamiliar with the competition may not understand what Lipnitskaya faces in the singles.

Comparing scores is a tricky business, given the different judging panels and tweaks in the scoring system year to year. But it is worth noting that Kim's winning total in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, 228.56, is more than 18 points higher than Lipnitskaya's singles competition personal best of 209.72, which she earned in winning January's European Championships.

"Yulia is the big star of Russia right now," said Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic champion, "but she may not look as big when you put her on the ice with a focused Yuna."

This is Lipnitskaya's first season on the senior international championship level, for which a skater must be 15 by July 1 of the previous year (she was born June 5, 1998), but her second on the senior Grand Prix circuit. Oddly, she has yet to win a senior national title in three tries, finishing second this season to Russia's Adelina Sotnikova, 17, also competing here.

"Yulia is brilliant, wonderful, captivating, but she has a couple technical issues, particularly on the double axel and triple lutz, that she needs to address," Hamilton said. "You have to be sound technically to withstand a growth spurt. I want to see her last and reach a potential that maybe no one has reached before."

After seeing her skate last week, few have bothered to check that Lipnitskaya's career results show inconsistency that may reflect those flaws. The flexibility that allows her to contort herself into positions defying the human skeleton and her sure-footedness on difficult jumps were so mind-boggling they wiped out all other impressions.

Referring to her rival's flexibility, U.S. champion Gracie Gold said, "She's got no spine, but she's got iron in her bones." Gold finished second by 12 points to Lipnitskaya in the team free skate.

The one thing every skating expert says about Lipnitskaya is she has been brilliantly packaged by coach Eteri Tutberidze and choreographer Ilia Averbukh. Their choices of cinematic music allow Lipnitskaya to mask her dispassion and callow interpretive skills with simple gestures, leaving her jumps and brilliant variety of spins in the forefront.

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