SOCHI, Russia — COLUMN | There was a whole country leaning on a very small pair of shoulders, and Julia Lipnitskaia very nearly held up. But the pressure of the Olympic figure skating short program Wednesday night drained and unnerved even the most experience-toughened champions, so it was no surprise or disgrace when the 5-foot-2 skater couldn’t quite deliver what all of Russia wanted from her.
The magnificent defending Olympic champion Kim Yu-na of South Korea stumbled in her warm up and said later, “I was so nervous I couldn’t jump at all.” American Gracie Gold described herself as “white as a sheet.” Japan’s Mao Asada, a silver medalist four years ago, fell twice on her routine.
Yet none of them faced what Lipnitskaia did, knowing the ambition of an entire country was placed on her, especially after a crushing disappointment earlier in the day when Russia’s hockey team was knocked out of the Sochi Games. No wonder she got weary and stumbled on that triple flip.
Lipnitskaia’s face as she waited for her scores was a picture of barely contained juvenile distress. For days all of Russia had doted on her and projected her as Kim’s only real rival for a gold medal, and when she took the ice in dark blue lace and sequins, she brought the Iceberg Arena to a state of rapture. For the first part of her 2-minute 40-second routine, she showed her signature light-footedness and ethereal arms that waved like orchid branches. But Lipnitskaia also seemed impossibly small on the ice.
Afterward, as she waited for her marks, she looked even tinier, almost cradled under the arm of her coach, Eteri Tutberidze. She greeted the row of digital numbers, which put her in fifth place and not even close to Kim, with an eerie solemnity. Then she walked backstage and into the media interview zone, where she maintained her composure for a minute more before she cracked. She gave a brief interview to the Russia One TV station, the intense lights of which must have felt searing and scrutinizing. According to the International Olympic Committee, more than three-quarters of the Russian population have watched some portion of the Sochi Games.
“For the jump I didn’t have enough strength,” she said, according to an official interpreter. “I got very tired on the steps sequence.”
She added, in a near whisper, “I will fight tomorrow.”
Then she stepped out of the light and cried.
Her coach insisted it wasn’t a matter of being too young or too nervous or of bearing too much public weight. “It was a technical mistake, nothing else. It was not because she was under pressure or too nervous, no, just a technical mistake,” Tutberidze said.
She added, “She’s an athlete, not a child.”
But you couldn’t help noticing that the women who led at the end of the night were older, and stronger looking. In third place was Carolina Kostner, 27, of Italy, and in second was Adelina Sotnikova, 17, of Russia, who trailed Kim by just a fraction of a point. Maybe it was because Sotnikova was skating as the dark horse, or maybe it was because she was just fresher, having sat out the team competition. For whatever reason, she soared on her jump and filled up the ice with a faultless performance.
“This is the lovely sport of figure skating,” American Ashley Wagner said wryly, “and it’s always full of surprises.”
There was no questioning Lipnitskaia’s competitive toughness; this wasn’t a matter of choking. She already proved she has all of the qualities to be a champion in the team competition: mettle, stamina and toughness. The “little genius,” as she was called, had enchanted all and earned a clenched fist and pat on the head from Russian President Vladimir Putin with her revelatory debut. “She is dynamite. She is completely unfazed,” Gold had said of her.
But at some point in the days afterward she lost a little something. To shelter her and lessen the pressure, she and her coach returned to Moscow to train between the team and the singles events. When she came back to Sochi, she did her best to avoid the glare of attention. Earlier in the week following one of her practices, a photographer asked her to pause for a picture. “No,” she said coolly and continued walking.
In retrospect, it was perhaps simply too much to ask a 15-year-old to skate in every phase of both the team and singles competitions — she was the only medal contender to do so — against such a deep, mature field. A certain amount of fatigue and distraction is inevitable at the Olympics to begin with. Gold provided a lively insight into the experience. The 18-year-old American was plagued by tentativeness Wednesday and considered it a major victory that she was still on her feet after her opening jump combination.
“I was in the air, and I was thinking, ‘Is this my Olympic moment? I’m going to be on my butt?’ ” Gold recounted. “I just thought, oh my gosh, this is not a good feeling.”
Gold was in fourth place heading into Thursday’s long program.
Above all, Lipnitskaia had to reckon with Kim, the formidable reigning 23-year-old champion nicknamed simply, “The Queen.” All week, Kim radiated diva-ness and superiority. “I have heard a lot about Julia Lipnitskaia,” she said with an unmistakable hint of the regal.
Kim’s performance to “Send in the Clowns” was that of a great, fully grown champion who understood how to deal with Olympic intensity. Quaking on the inside during warmups, somehow she regained her self-possession and mustered a skate that was commanding in both art and athleticism. “I tried to believe in myself and believed in what I’ve done before,” she said. Some day, perhaps Lipnitskaia will do it, too.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.