SOCHI, Russia — Russia reasserted itself as the world’s dominant figure skating power Sunday at the Sochi Olympics, and it did so on the shoulders of a 15-year-old sprite.
With impossibly light triple jumps, contortionist spins and the mettle of a seasoned champion, Julia Lipnitskaia led Russia to gold in the inaugural Olympic team event, scoring first-place marks for her free skate one night after earning top marks for her short program, as well.
The gold medal was Russia’s first of the Sochi Games. And President Vladimir Putin, sporting a bright red track suit, was first to congratulate the host nation’s newly minted heroes as they came off the ice, wrapping 31-year-old Evgeni Plushenko in a warm embrace, patting Lipnitskaia on the head and sharing words of thanks and advice to each team member who played a part.
The United States took bronze, managing to narrow its deficit to Canada ever so slightly on the final day of the competition. But after a rocky performance relegated the Americans to fifth at the outset, the U.S. could mathematically do no better than third Sunday despite terrific performances by 18-year-old Gracie Gold, whose free skate was second only to Lipnitskaia’s, and world dance champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who were peerless.
“This was an incredible opportunity that all of us really delivered on,” said Ashley Wagner, 22, a West Potomac High graduate whose short program Saturday helped ensure the United States advanced to the medal round. “I think all of us can go home with our heads held high. An Olympic medal for Team USA, that’s an honor.”
The Sochi Games marked the debut of figure skating’s team event, created to maximize the strong international TV ratings for the sport.
Under the format, each of the 10 countries that qualified chose one man, one woman, one pair and one dance team to perform short programs, with point values awarded for each placement. The five highest-scoring countries advanced to the medal round, in which they performed free skates in the four disciplines, with substitute skaters permitted in any of them.
Russia took a commanding early lead, winning two of the four short programs (women’s and pairs), and entered the final day of competition with 47 points to Canada’s 41 and the United States’ 34. That was a staggering amount of ground for the U.S. to make up in Sunday’s three free skates — men’s, women’s and ice dance — given that the biggest possible point differential in a single event was four.
Up first for the U.S. was 19-year-old Jason Brown, who had started the morning awestruck over sharing the practice rink with Plushenko, the Russian icon he had watched on TV at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
Barely one year removed from junior-level competition, Brown was the lone man who didn’t perform a quadruple jump, a skill he’s still learning. But he has won over judges and crowds, nonetheless, with his performance skill and exuberance. He started well and got the crowd clapping to the “Riverdance”-inspired program that earned him silver at last month’s U.S. championships. But he fell on a triple Salchow at the outset of a three-jump combination and fell shy of the marks he’s capable of.
Plushenko took the ice to wild cheers but flapped his arms for more. That he was competing at all was an act of defiance, after having undergone back surgery just last year (the 12th surgery of his career). But the three-time Olympic medalist insisted on making these Games the final act of his brilliant career, and he delivered again Sunday, earning top marks for his free skate.
The women’s free skate followed. Gold was terrific in her Olympic debut, opening with a triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination and following with a double axel-triple toe that established her technical chops. Performing to “Sleeping Beauty,” she looked every bit the fairy-tale princess in her sparkly pastel dress, which melted from shades of ice blue at the jeweled neck to lavender at the skirt.
Gold’s season-best marks vaulted her to the lead and kept her there until Lipnitskaia competed. The young Russian was just three when Plushenko won his first Olympic medal, in 2002. Afterward, she confessed it had made her nervous to follow Plushenko on Sunday after he had won his free skate.
“I didn’t want to let the team down,” she said.
Performing to music from “Schindler’s List,” Lipnitskaia wore a long-sleeved red dress that evoked the red-coated little girl (and lone spot of color) in the film’s scene of the Krakow ghetto. With somber expression, Lipnitskaia staged a technical tour de force, opening with a triple Lutz-triple toe combination, spinning with a ballerina’s grace and pulling off triple jumps as if playground tricks.
With her second skate in two nights, Lipnitskaia scored more points for Russia (20) than Plushenko (19). By then, Russia’s lead was so insurmountable that the final discipline, the dance free skate, amounted to a mathematically irrelevant, yet beautiful, spectacle.
“Russia will fight to the end,” ice dancer Ekaterina Bobrova said. “Russian figure skating is coming back. That’s the message we want to send to the world.”