SOCHI, Russia -- Women’s figure skating, perhaps the most-anticipated sporting event of any Winter Olympics, kicked off with some exceptional performances on Wednesday night in the short program.
It was a rather subdued and surprisingly sparse attendance to start the event at Iceberg Skating Palace, but as the program progressed, so did the filling of many empty seats. And with it came some much-needed energy, sparked by some of the more prolific competitors.
Much of the liveliness was supplied by reigning Olympic champion Yuna Kim, who appears to be making a case for consideration as the greatest figure skater in history. South Korean flags were waving in full force for Kim, as well as for her less-heralded compatriots.
A large sign reading “We Love Yuna” decorated the division between the two levels of the arena, and judging by the volume of the cheering crowd, it almost seemed like Kim was performing in Seoul and not Sochi.
In group warm-ups, Kim seemed like she had the gold wrapped up with double axels that were effortlessly executed. But in her solo warm-up, Kim stumbled on a jump.
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“For whatever reason I felt nervous and didn’t feel comfortable during my warm-up session,” she said. “During my practices, I always feel pressure. But I did my short program in training during the Olympics successfully in South Korea and Russia.”
There was no stumbling or no signs of nerves when it counted, though. Skating to “Send in the Clowns,” Kim delivered a basically flawless routine. She completed all of her jumps with tremendous grace and poise, leaving little doubt that she would land first place. With a score of 74.92, Kim blew away much of the competition more than midway through the competition.
There had been questions surrounding the 23-year-old’s ability to perform after a foot injury she suffered in 2013, and after competing in just one event this season.
The signs of rust were certainly not there, though. It was a virtuoso performance by Kim, who will likely be mentioned with the likes of Sonja Henie and Katarina Witt as an all-time great if she gives a strong performance on Thursday night in the long program and wins gold.
Kim may have lacked some of the energy that judges look for, and while her performance was exceptional, she doesn’t seem to be head-and-shoulders above other top skaters. Kim also wasn't as strong as her effort in at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. It was her performance in Canada, when she set a world record with a 78.50 in the short program, where she was at her best.
Kim has tempered her expectations in 2014.
“Personally, it’s not my ambition to defend my gold medal. It’s meaningful, but not significant. I did well today, but nobody knows what will happen tomorrow,” she said.
In Sochi, Kim was expected to be challenged by an upstart with home-ice advantage. Yulia Lipnitskaya, the youngest skater in the event, was considered a budding superstar following the team program, in which she gave a dazzling performance.
But the 15-year-old was less impressive during her short program in perhaps a case of the jitters, as she took a rather hard fall on her triple flip, while skating to “You Don’t Give Up on Love,” by Mark Minkov. Despite a poor showing by her standards, the ice was showered with scores of bouquets, and thunderous cheers. It almost seemed as though the Russian starlet was crowned a champion before she took the ice.
Lipnitskaya appeared perfectly positioned for a top showing, as the first competitor following the resurfacing of the ice, and with a full crowd ready to shower her with praise. She would have to settle for fifth (65.23), and wasn’t even the best skater for her country.
Indeed, it was the surprise performance of Adelina Sotnikova, who managed to put together an extremely strong showing and challenge Kim for first place. At age 17, Sotnikova was considered somewhat of a dark horse candidate for gold entering the competition. She earned a very high 74.64 score to finish second.
The Moscow native didn’t seem to be overly bothered by what was happening with her country’s men’s hockey team, who lost to Finland before she had a chance to skate.
“I saw the first period of hockey, and then I went to sleep, and didn’t know what happened,” she said.
While South Korea is well represented with Kim, and the Russian skaters are expected to score high on their home ice, Italy made waves with a pair of impressive performances.
Carolina Kostner, who at age 27 is an elder statesman of the sport, finished third after a particularly strong performance to “Ave Maria.”
“The music somehow makes me so emotional. It’s like a prayer to say thank you for everything I’ve accomplished and everything that I’ve learned from skating. It all really came together,” she said.
The gold medalist at the 2012 World Championship in Nice and the 2013 European Championship in Zagreb had little trouble with her jumps to finish third (74.12), dispelling suggestions that she would have trouble matching up against the best in the world. It was a personal best for Kostner, as she came within 0.80 points of Kim.
Set to “Torna a Surriento,” Valentina Marchei also provided an superb effort to follow her impressive performance in the team event last week. But Marchei may have been somewhat slighted by the judges, finishing 12th (57.02).
The American contingent, who entered with a reasonable opportunity to earn a medal, showed exceptional composure under the circumstances. There was not a large number of American supporters at Iceberg, yet all three U.S. women earned spots in the top seven with mistake-free performances.
Gracie Gold finished fourth (68.63), followed by sixth-place Ashley Wagner (65.61) and upstart Polina Edmunds (61.04), who finished seventh. Much had been made about the U.S. being underdogs in women’s figure skating in Sochi, but few would complain about what they saw from the trio.
Operating with an almost quintessential name for a figure skater, Gold proved why she's one to watch at Sochi, as she barely finished below her personal best. Many experts are taken aback by Gold’s ability to never appear rattled. But she seemed to be bit off-balance on the first jump in her triple Lutz and triple toe loop combo, yet the 18-year-old found a way to complete her landing.
"I just wanted to skate like I belong on the podium," she said. "It's a point game. So, looking at points, a 68 is not just respectable. It's a really good short score."
Wagner was also impressive in her jumps. Skating to Pink Floyd, the talented 22-year-old landed all of her jumps though she had her triple-toe downgraded. But it was a welcomed rebound from her under-achievements in nationals.
Wagner seemed to prove that she very much belongs in Sochi, and as a medal contender, with an overall quality performance, and after a good showing in the team program. Like in the team program, she would take a moment to accept last-moment advice from coach Rafael Arutunian and then skate with general ease.
“Going out there, I showed myself this is just another competition,” Wagner said.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the entire field was Edmunds. This is supposed to be the northern California native’s opportunity to get more of a feel for international competition, but she performed like a seasoned veteran.
It almost seemed as though she skated without any fear, providing an inspired and technical short program by nailing her opening triple Lutz-triple toe combination, and cruising from there. The free skating program begins tonight at 7 p.m. Sochi time.