SOCHI, Russia — Sidelined by injury much of last fall, the woman widely regarded as figure skating’s queen, South Korea’s Kim Yu-Na, cautioned this week that her time atop the sport had come four years earlier.
She was 19 at the 2010 Vancouver Games, where, with impeccable grace and ethereal jumps, she set scoring records with performances that bordered on perfection.
On Wednesday at Sochi’s Iceberg Skating Palace, where the women’s competition got underway, Kim proved herself fallible only in prognostication.
On a night when Russia’s 15-year-old skating prodigy fell, two-time world champion Mao Asada imploded and a trio of Americans battled to stay in the medal hunt, Kim reasserted her claim to royalty by taking the lead in the short program.
Skating to “Send in the Clowns,” Kim followed the basic technical script she executed so masterfully en route to gold in Vancouver. But unlike so many rivals aspiring to her throne, she didn’t perform the difficult jumps — triple Lutz-triple toe combination, triple flip and double Axel — as a sequence of points-based elements. Instead, she wove them into a seamless dance on ice, its technical rigor masked by the confidence behind it.
No jump seemed beyond Kim’s reach; there were no errant takeoffs, no shaky landings to put the audience on edge. She was a skater in full command. And she was awarded 74.92 points to take the lead heading into Thursday’s free skate, which will crown the 2014 Olympic champion.
“I felt like I was dreaming,” Kim said afterward.
For the three Americans making their Olympic debut — Alexandria’s Ashley Wagner, 22; 18-year-old Gracie Gold of Chicago; and 15-year-old Polina Edmunds of San Jose — it was a matter of fending off nerves and fighting to finish upright despite missteps along the way. All showed mettle even though each fell short of her season’s best marks.
Wagner, a two-time U.S. champion, is sixth (65.21). And Edmunds is seventh (61.04).
With the top three bunched within eight-tenths of a point, the medals are very much in play Thursday. But given the 5.49-point gap between third and fourth, Gold faces a tough challenge to reach the podium. Wagner stands 8.91 points out of bronze.
A West Potomac graduate, Wagner was downgraded for her opening triple flip-triple toe combination after not fully rotating the second element. Still, she skated on gamely to Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond.”
The triple-triple has been Wagner’s biggest challenge this season, and it tripped her up at the U.S. championships, where she finished fourth. So when she launched into it Wednesday, she gave herself some blunt self-talk.
“Girl, you need to get your butt up in the air and rotate three times the best you can!” Wagner said when asked what went through her mind. “So that’s exactly what I did.”
On balance, she deemed the short program a success.
“Going out there, I showed myself that this really is just another competition,” Wagner said. “Yes, the Olympic rings are everywhere; people are skating lights-out performances. But it’s another competition; it’s another day’s work. And that’s how I’m going to treat tomorrow.”
Gold readily admitted taking the ice scared. And she knew on takeoff of her opening triple Lutz-triple toe that she was listing to one side.
“I was in the air, and I was thinking, ‘Is this my Olympic moment? I’m gonna be on my butt?’ ” Gold recounted. “I said, ‘No!’
Instead of substituting simpler jumps to keep from falling, Gold kept attacking. She landed the combination, albeit with a wobble, and hit everything that followed, including the double Axel that comes near the point of fatigue.
“When I was in the double Axel, I was like, ‘I have come too far not to land this stupid double Axel,” Gold said. “I did not train that hard to go down and mess up this one jump. I am landing it with a smile on my face!’ ”
For Russia, it was a day in which sinking Olympic fortunes were resurrected by a figure skating teen. But the 17-year-old Sotnikova wasn’t the teen expected to play the savior’s role just hours after Russia’s star-studded hockey team was bounced from the Games. That was 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia, the reigning European champion, who had led Russia to the team gold the previous week.
After opening with a beautiful triple Lutz-triple toe combination and following with stunning spins and spirals, Lipnitskaia fell in a heap on a triple flip near the end of her program. Her marks, 65.23, were well shy of her season’s best. And the capacity crowd showered her with bouquets and cheers in an attempt to cheer her.
After leaving the ice, Lipnitskaia broke down in tears. She was unable to speak as TV cameras and reporters gathered around, then whispered: “The points are not that low as I expected. I will fight tomorrow.”
No amount of fight can redeem the Games for Asada, who fell on her triple Axel, once regarded as the gold standard in women’s figure skating, and omitted a required combination later in the program, landing in 16th place.
“I lost the fight within me,” said Asada. “It was all mental.”