[UPDATE at 3:00 p.m.] Kim Yu-na skates into first after the short program. Americans Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner are fourth and sixth, respectively.
The grand finale of this year’s dramatic figure skating competition begins on Wednesday with what promises to be an epic showdown between two ice queens.
The term has never seemed more apt for competitors than it is for South Korea’s Kim Yu-na and Russia’s Julia Lipnitskaia. Both have ice in their veins when it comes down to competition; there is no reason to believe that either of them will have an off night tonight.
Kim, the 2010 Olympic champion, is a tremendously consistent competitor vying to become the most dominating woman in the Olympics since the legendary Katarina Witt.
Lipnitskaia is a 15-year-old whose steely stare has struck fear into the hearts of other skate competitors while capturing the hearts of fans around the world.
But at its core, this expected showdown is about truly about the heart of women’s figure skating. Over the past eight years, skating fans have been thankful that the new scoring system’s requirements of complicated footwork and spins, speed and edges, had killed the disturbing trend of the so-called “baby ballerinas” – teenagers who lack maturity but were nimble enough to do big tricks before their bodies developed.
Before the new scoring system, the ages of the past three Olympic champions were 16 (Sarah Hughes of the United States), 15 (Tara Lipinski of the United States) and 16 (Oksana Baiul of Ukraine). Since the new scoring system, the ages of champions have been 19 (Kim) and 24 (Shizuka Arakawa from Japan). If Kim is a little off, will judges be willing to award the title to another baby ballerina? And will an American be able to sneak into the wide-open race for a bronze medal?
If you watch every four years, this is the guide for you. We’re going to go through some of the basics of the short program and describe who to watch. During prime-time coverage, I’ll be fielding questions and providing commentary on Twitter, @newsbysamuels. We’ll recap on Thursday, and then give some predictions on who will win.
What is the short program and what should I be looking for?
Wednesday’s short program features seven required elements. Out this Olympics is the requirement to do a spiral sequence because most of the skaters were laughably bad at them. Each skater will do three spins, a section of fancy footwork and three jumps. There can be no cheating on the jumps – no more than a quarter-turn of a rotation can take place on the ice, or the jump gets downgraded.
The key move tonight will be the jumping combination. If a woman wants to win the short program, she must perform a triple lutz followed immediately by the triple toe loop.
Let’s take some time to learn this jump, because it’s important and will make watching more enjoyable. To recognize any jump, you have to watch the feet. Remember that skater’s blade has two sides. When a skater leans their body and puts the pressure on the side of the blade between the legs, it is called using an “inside edge.” When the pressure put on the other side of the blade, it is called using an “outside edge.”
There’s a photo on the blog Rinkside Cafe that visualizes the difference nicely. The Lutz uses the outside edge. The setup usually involves a skater lifting one leg off the ice so it forms a 90-degree angle with leg on the ice. The leg off the ice will then extend all the way out, and dig into the ground to generate the launch into the air. The skater must take off using the more difficult outside edge. If she doesn’t, the jump is considered easier and gets fewer points. We call that a “flutz.”
Here’s what it a good Lutz looks like, exemplified by the reigning Olympic champion and the woman who had has the best Lutz of all time, Tonya Harding (That’s not a joke. She did):
Lipnitskaia performs this combination, but she doesn’t perform it very well. Her jumps don’t get much height and she sometimes gets perilously close to doing more than 1/4 of a rotation on the ice. Under a strict judging panel, the Russian phenom might not score well on this particular element.
And if they downgrade this combination jump, I’d expect her to be out of contention for a gold medal. The other women are terrific skaters in the final part of the event, Thursday’s long program, and she might not be able to catch up.
Of all the competitors, the 15-year-old will be facing the most scrutiny and the most pressure. But along with the lightning fast spins, her biggest strength is her toughness. So I’d expect perfection.
Kim will probably have the least pressure. The jump combination is one of her best moves.
Kim completely dominated the Olympics in Vancouver, and the quality of competition hasn’t improved much since then – so these Olympics are hers to lose. She gets more height and distance on her jumps than any woman in the world and possesses a lightness on the ice that many other women don’t have. She performs difficult footwork and is a great spinner.
Unlike her idol, Michelle Kwan, Kim does not possess the ability to take judges on a tense, emotional journey. Her last major international event was the 2013 World Championships, when she delivered a performance even stronger than the one she did to win her Olympics.
You might recognize Kim’s old rival, Mao Asada, 2010′s Olympic silver medalist. Asada is a completely different skater than she was in 2010; she got a new coach, who gave her a more joyous look on the ice. She improved her posture and jumping technique for every move, except her trademark triple axel. She is the only woman attempting this move – you can tell the axel easily, it’s the only jump that goes forward – although she has indicated that she’ll likely only try one this year. In the last Olympics, she landed three.
Asada hasn’t been terribly consistent performer since the coaching change, but she performs better with pressure. So it’s unclear how she’ll do, especially if she decides to go for the triple axel in the short program.
Of the three American women, Gracie Gold is the one to watch in the short program. She is one of the best jumpers in the world and has been making great strides since joining new coach Frank Carroll. Carroll, who is now balding in that scary way that would frighten small children, is best known for his success coaching Kwan and Evan Lysacek, 2010′s gold medalist.
Gold is hard worker, but lacks the sense of drama of Carroll’s two most famous proteges. Gold is stiff in her upper body and doesn’t have the depth in edgework as Kim or Asada. Her strength is the second part of the competition, Thursday’s long program, so a great short program could put her in medal contention.
Alexandria’s Ashley Wagner is out to prove she can skate as well as the best of them. That will be a tall order because honestly, she’s not one of the best of them. Wagner doesn’t perform that key combo discussed above – the triple lutz, triple toe – and has a history of cheating jumps when the pressure is on. Wagner can’t afford that.
Her short program to Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” is alluring and effective, but she needs help from the other skaters (and by help, I mean, mistakes) to do well and a season’s best performance. I wouldn’t expect much from her.
I’m almost willing to bet that Wagner will again be outperformed by the other United States skater, Polina Edmunds. Just 15, she already has the jumping technique and consistency that Wagner does not. Her weakness is her age. She’s an immature skater, her edges aren’t very deep (How can you tell an edge? A lean of the body) and could use more speed. But she’ll improve on those things quickly because she is trained by one of the greatest ice dancers of all time, Russia’s Marina Klimova.
But it wouldn’t be unsurprising to see her in the top 10 after the short.
If you’re looking for a sentimental favorite, I’d support Carolina Kostner from Italy. She is in her third Olympics and has evolved into an elegant skater, who can strike picturesque positions on the ice. At 27, she no longer has the technical content of the other skaters, but she remains competitive because she is a supreme artist.
As you could see, there are a lot of moving parts to this competition. It will be fun to watch!