SOCHI, Russia — Five days of competition remain in the Sochi Olympics, but the host nation already has anointed its champion of the Winter Games.
She is the tiniest athlete among them, 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia, who led Russia to gold in figure skating’s inaugural team event Feb. 9, received a congratulatory pat on the head from President Vladimir Putin and within days was bestowed with Russia’s highest sporting tribute, the Honored Master of Sports award.
And Garbo-like, Lipnitskaia retreated to a private rink in Moscow to resume her Olympic training as her legend grew.
“Lipnitskaia is a goddess,” proclaimed the headline of a major Russia newspaper.
“Lipnitskaia is the princess of the ice,” gushed another headline.
“Lipnitskaia is the future of figure skating,” yet another declared.
But there was so much substance behind the grandiose declarations that Lipnitskaia’s teammates, who had helped earn Russia’s team gold and could just as easily have resented the praise heaped upon her, only smiled.
“She is,” Russian ice dancer Ekaterina Bobrova said, “a tiny genius.”
Lipnitskaia returns to Sochi’s Iceberg Skating Palace on Wednesday for the start of the women’s competition.
There is no dispute about her technical skill. Lipnitskaia opens both her short and free-skate programs with an exceedingly difficult triple Lutz-triple toe combination, displays breathtaking flexibility on her spins and cleverly tucks several high-risk jumps in the second half of her performances to collect bonus points.
And there’s no indication that she’ll buckle under pressure. In January she became the youngest woman to win the European championships. During Sochi’s team event, she had the full weight of the world’s biggest country on her shoulders. While many countries, including the United States, tapped two different skaters to perform the short and long women’s program, Russia tasked Lipnitskaia with both. And on successive nights she won each, earning the maximum points for her country — a feat even four-time Olympian Evgeni Plushenko failed to do for the motherland, finishing second in the men’s short and first in the long.
“What she does as an athlete is very incredible,” said Alexandria’s Ashley Wagner, 22, a two-time U.S. champion who is making her Olympic debut. “To be 15 and to be at the Olympics, it either really works for you or it really works against you. I was 16 at my first world championships, and it really worked against me. So the fact that she has come in here and been so focused and has her eye on the prize — that’s very admirable for a 15-year-old. She’s wise beyond her years.”
With her part in Russia’s team championship, Lipnitskaia became the youngest female figure skater in 78 years to win Olympic gold. If she wins the individual gold, awarded after Thursday’s free skate, she’ll be the first Russian woman to do so. Despite its rich figure skating tradition, Russia has never had an Olympic champion in the women’s event — largely because its most promising female skaters were funneled into pairs or dance under the former Soviet system.
Lipnitskaia is hardly the lone gold medal contender at the Sochi Games. The women’s field is daunting and deep, led by defending Olympic champion Kim Yu-na of South Korea and 2010 Olympic silver medalist Mao Asada, regarded as a level above their rivals when healthy and in-form.
Freshly minted U.S. champion Gracie Gold, 18, has made impressive strides since she started working with Frank Carroll, who coached Michelle Kwan and Evan Lysacek to Olympic medals. Wagner is a battle-tested scrapper, with Grand Prix podium finishes to prove it. And 15-year-old Polina Edmunds is a wild card for the U.S., with an array of difficult jumps that catapulted her to silver at nationals last month.
With so many women capable of technically rigorous programs, the difference between gold and silver may well come down to subjective factors that defy strict analysis.
How much will the emotion of the predominantly Russian crowd at the 12,000-seat Iceberg Skating Palace lift Lipnitskaia and, possibly, sway the judges?
And what sort of artistic impression will Lipnitskaia make: Will she come across as a girl performing acrobatic feats on skates? Or as a seasoned competitor with authentic emotional range?
Carroll, a coach known for his meticulous eye, voiced skepticism Tuesday.
“She’s a little girl,” Carroll said of Lipnitskaia. “She’s very, very good. Extremely talented. I admire her skating; I think she’s wonderful.
“Is she a 10? Can she score 10 in the [performance-based] components or 9.5? I don’t think so. I think that she will be that way, and she will mature with time and be fantastic. But I don’t think that time is now.”
Precisely that concern was on the mind of Lipnitskaia’s choreographer, Ilya Averbukh, a famed Russian ice dancer, as he set to work developing her programs for the run-up to Sochi.
Though still in grade school, Lipnitskaia chooses her music for competitions. After watching the movie “Schindler’s List” multiple times, she reportedly fell in love with the idea of portraying the red-coated girl who appears in the heart-rending scene in the Krakow ghetto. It is a chilling premise for a long program — one Lipnitskaia handles with almost reverent sobriety.
“We wanted to keep Julia’s girlish beauty and her flight, but at the same time we did not want her to be looked at as a child. We wanted to show a growing girl,” Averbukh told Russian reporters. “That was why we staged her program very seriously and profoundly, so that this depth could add maturity to her skating”
There has always been seriousness about Lipnitskaia even from age 4, when her mother first brought her to Elena Levkovets for figure skating lessons in her home town of Ekaterinburg, the coach said.
Lipnitskaia’s father left before she was born to join the military and never returned, according to media reports.
“When she got to our school, she was already different,” Levkovets said of Lipnitskaia during a telephone interview from the rink in Russia’s Urals. “She was very brave. She was very talented and, at the same time, a very serious girl.”
Lipnitskaia delighted in playing games when it was time to play, the coach added. But when it was time to work, she worked exceptionally hard.
“After two years it was clear she was a leader in our group,” Levkovets said. “It was very easy for her to learn things; you didn’t have to tell her more than once. At that time we were learning jumps — one- or two-rotation jumps — and it was very easy for her.”
She progressed so quickly that at age 11, her mother moved her to Moscow for more intensive training.
And as Levkovets watched on TV as her former pupil led Russia to its first gold medal of the Sochi Games, she felt a joy that defied description.
“To say that I was very happy and I liked it, is to say nothing,” the coach said. “I think that a new young star is being lit in Russia right now. She is only 15, so all roads are open for her.”