Never be fooled by big sequins and a smile. In a competition billed as the most predictable of the four figure skating disciplines, three women are locked in an intriguing battle for the gold medal that will conclude Thursday.
Wednesday’s short program was figure skating at its most jaw-dropping. There was difficult, effortless athleticism. There was elegance. And yes, judging was questionable. All these qualities have laid the foundation for a pressure-fueled final with the top three women less than one point apart, and two young and hungry skaters ready to pounce if any make a mistake.
This game is as mental as it is physical. Thanks to the wholly unnecessary team competition, skaters had one less day to practice and prepare. That contributed to a flaw-filled men’s final that was one of the worst nights of figure skating ever witnessed.
Hopefully, the women will be better. Their long program runs about four minutes. The person who wins tonight will perform at least six triple jumps, including two in combination. She will be speedy and skate with maturity. During evening coverage, I’ll be providing commentary and fielding questions @newsbysamuels. For one last time, let’s dissect this final competition of the Olympics:
Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Four years ago, South Korea’s Kim Yu-na had been so dominant in the sport that she rightfully earned the title “the Queen.”
But Wednesday, there was tyranny from the masses. After delivering one of the most outstanding short programs I’ve ever seen, judges docked points on one of Kim’s spins. It appears they preferred the spunk of 2010’s short program. A woman who is used to double-digit leads in this portion of the competition now finds herself less than a point in front of two women who completed considerably less difficult programs.
The message to the Queen was the same message judges sent to Evgeni Plushenko in 2010, as well as Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in this year’s ice dance competition: You cannot waltz into a gold medal. You are going to have to work harder than anyone to earn it.
Kim had the least pressure going in, but now has the most pressure. She skates last. The pressure will mount with each performance.
If she is going to win this gold medal, Kim must remain mentally focused. She has no room for error, given the judges’ seeming eagerness to award the gold to someone else.
It is unquestionable that she is this competition’s best jumper; her jumps are high, straight and have unbelievable carriage over the ice. But judges have downgraded Kim on her presentation, and she has historically been criticized by some, including my new BFF, Dick Button, for not skating with enough extension or emotion. So she must also sell this program by demonstrating her command over the edges. (How can you tell an edge? A lean of the body.) And she must demonstrate flow and dizzying speed. (Speed always wins the Olympics.)
It’s not looking good for Kim, but I wouldn’t bet against her yet. Throughout her entire competitive career, she has never come less than third in a major international competition.
“Chanflation,” as in the questionable elevation of Canadian Patrick Chan’s scores, is out. But is Russiaflation in? Adelina Sotnikova skated charmingly, but lacked the technical content and the elegance of the two other women she fights for a gold medal. Her marks were generous for her frenetic program to a cacophonous version of Bizet’s “Carmen,” prompting questions about whether the judges were doing too much rooting for the home team.
Nonetheless, Sotnikova is here to fight. Although she is the Russian national champion, Sotnikova has not even come close to making the imprint of her teammate, 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia. Sotnikova doesn’t even have haters. Everyone is acting like they forgot about her, the same sort of attitude that once troubled Dr. Dre.
But I digress. Sotnikova’s long program is packed with difficult moves, but it’s dubious whether or not she can actually complete them under pressure; her record in international competitions is largely unremarkable. Of the six women in the final group, she is the least reliable skater in the four-minute long program besides Ashley Wagner.
It will be a miracle if she gets to the podium. But anything can happen in figure skating.
Carolina Kostner is the favorite for the gold medal on Thursday.
Before the short program, this was an unfathomable sentence. But the 27-year-old Italian surprised the world by going for a more difficult jumping combination — one that used an edge for a takeoff, as opposed to just digging into the ice — and wowing us with a mesmerizing rendition of “Ave Maria.” She demonstrated her maturity by holding strong edges and fully extending her arms, creating a mature, elegant body line. That her marks were so close to Kim’s indicates the judges are willing to award her the gold medal.
She is coming into Thursday with the best long program of the night to Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero,” a piece of music that was once untouchable because it had been so memorably skated to by ice dancing legends Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. This version was choreographed by Lori Nichol, the woman who crafted some of Michelle Kwan’s most memorable masterpieces. A far cry from Kostner’s theistic “Ave Maria,” this version of “Bolero” will start with Kostner hypnotically shaking her hips. Her presentation of this program has ranged from a sublime sensuality to a cartoonish flirtation, but Thursday she’ll have to use her elegance and steady landing edges to gather points and seduce the audience’s affection. If she lands all her jumps, she will be your gold medalist.
But Kostner’s big problem is her consistency. One miss — a double instead of a triple, perhaps — could slide her even further down.
Gracie Gold of the United States is still in this race. Her short program was not the best. She miraculously landed all her jumps, which lacked her trademark height. Her body leaned in the air during those jumps, a big no-no that usually results in a fall.
The fact that she landed demonstrated a newfound tenacious quality about Gold, emboldened by her new coach, the legendary Frank Carroll.
Gold’s strong suit is this second portion of the event because it gives her two more minutes to pack in jumps that exceed the quality of her competitors’. She is not a perfect skater yet — her spins are largely unimpressive and her footwork sequence lacks the deep edges and speed of other skaters. But she is coming into this program with lots of momentum. If one of the top three messes up — one or two falls — look for Gold to sneak in for a bronze medal.
The game face that struck fear in the hearts of competitors turned into the more familiar face of a frightened 15-year-old on Wednesday when Julia Lipnitskaia fell on her triple flip.
The flip jump has an unusual entry. The skater starts backwards and launches from the ice by using the side of the blade in between the legs. Historically, it has bedeviled many an Olympian — Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, Michelle Kwan in 2002, and, this year, Yuzuru Hanyu. Nonetheless, the mistake was costly, and she finds herself in fifth place.
She is the first skater of the final group. Expect her to do spectacularly because she truly channels the power of the music from “Schindler’s List.” Yet her jumps don’t have much height or distance (Sandra Bezic on NBC claimed that was only because she is 5 foot 2. I take issue with this theory, as the best jumper of all time, Japan’s Midori Ito, was only 4-9). I expect her to be good, maybe even win the long program, but she finds herself too far behind the other skaters.
Alexandria’s Ashley Wagner is the big question mark of this long program. She started the season strongly but has been fizzling ever since. Wednesday’s short was no exception; she botched her triple flip-triple toe loop combination.
Wagner’s a likable, powerful skater — you can notice her power by the broad steps she takes on the ice — and her short program was filled with sass. Her work ethic over the past four years has been remarkable. But she still lacks the technical content to compete with the top skaters and needs other women to make a lot of mistakes to reach the podium.
The long program has not been her friend. Her breakdown at this year’s national championships was seen as an aberration, but it wasn’t. She had calamitous long programs at 2013’s national championships and the last world championships. So the odds are not good for her to turn in a memorable performance.
Despite the odds, I think she’ll be okay. First of all, it’s hard to imagine her giving up when she worked so hard to get these games.
Wagner’s long programs usually feel great when they are new, but get tired and hackneyed by the end of the year. The fact that Wagner is now skating a remixed version of last year’s piece to “Samson and Delilah” – something new – should help. But honestly, I’d be more excited about Polina Edmunds, the American teenager, who has tremendous upside. She won’t end up on the podium Thursday, but will likely become the next great American women’s champion.
Other things to watch: Will the Japanese women make a surge? Akiko Suzuki and Mao Asada, 2010’s silver medalists, are great skaters and know how to rally. Neither will medal, but they are going to try. This event has the potential to be a great closer to the Olympics.
My predictions: 1. Kostner, 2. Kim, 3. Gold, 4. Lipnitskaia, 5. Sotnikiva 6. Wagner.