Russia's pixie perfect figure skating golden girl
Julia Lipnitskaia, all 5-foot-2 of her, stepped onto the Olympic ice in a red coat to skate to music from the movie Schindler's List. Just like the girl in the red coat in the predominantly black-and-white film, the 15-year-old Russian figure skater captured the eye and leaped out from her competition with unparalleled artistry, flexibility and blurring spins.
When the music stopped on Sunday night (local time), and she had landed the last of her 10 jumps, a mesmerised partisan crowd that included Russian president Vladimir Putin was on its feet applauding, whistling, and chanting, 'Yu-li-a! Yu-li-a!' and "Russ-ee-ya! Russ-ee-ya!"
The Sochi Olympics had found its ice princess.
Having already announced her arrival with a spellbinding short program in the inaugural team competition on Saturday night (local time), the debutante from the Ural Mountains clinched the team gold medal for Russia - the host nation's first gold of these Games-and became the youngest athlete ever to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics.
She is six days younger than another figure skater with a similar last name, Tara Lipinski, the American who won at 15 in Nagano in 1998.
Canada won the team silver, and the United States took bronze with an energetic, flawless first-place performance from ice dancers Charlie White and Meryl Davis and an elegant difficult Sleeping Beauty routine by 18-year-old Gracie Gold.
In posting the highest women's score in the short and long program over the past three days, Lipnitskaia established herself as a gold medal contender in the women's singles event, which begins next week. Despite Russia's storied tradition in pairs, ice dancing and men's skating, no Russian woman has ever won in singles.
This time, it looks like the Russian roster is loaded in all disciplines. In the team event, which featured a man, woman, pair and dance team from each country, Lipnitskaia and the Russian pairs team swept, and three-time Olympic medalist and 2006 champion Evgeni Plushenko brought the house down after battling back from back surgery. Known for his soaring jumps, power, and his charisma (some would say preening), the 31-year-old had the crowd in the palm of his hand.
They roared when he landed his quadruple toe jump, and went nuts when he lifted his finger to his lips to quiet them down during his performance. He was a controversial pick to the Olympic team because of his injury troubles last year, but he proved he can still jump - though he was limping a bit afterward and said his back was not 100 per cent.
"I skated for my kids, my wife, and my country," he said.
His coach, Alexei Mishin, said: "Evgeni has charisma and power. Maybe somebody does not like him, but the majority loves him and respects him. The minority is jealous."
Lipnitskaia admitted she was apprehensive about skating after Plushenko, whose adoring fans showered him with so many flower bouquets and stuffed animals that it took 12 young skaters to shuffle around the ice and pick them up.
"I was a bit nervous skating after Evgeni because I didn't want to let the team down," she said. "He was very happy for me at the end and congratulated me in the kiss and cry (area). My main motivation today was not to let the team down."
She had a hard time articulating how it felt to skate so well on the world's biggest stage.
"I don't know how to explain the feeling I had out there," she said. " I'm very happy to have helped win the first gold medal for Russia. I got nervous in the middle of the program, I'm not sure why, it's completely unlike me, so the jumps weren't great in the second half, I didn't feel totally comfortable. The jumps didn't feel like mine at that point. I wouldn't say I got tired, but some errors still crept in. But even with some flaws it was OK."
Other skaters, Russian and non-Russian, gushed over the young talent.
"A young genius," said Russian ice dancer Ekaterina Bobrova.
"She was incredibly composed," said US skater Ashley Wagner. "You felt the audience when she stepped out on the ice, so for her to go out and put out such a solid performance at 15 is impressive. Granted, we've been backstage with her and she doesn't seem 15 to us at all. She's like a wise 40-year-old woman trapped within a 15-year-old's body. Honestly, it is very inspiring to see someone so young so composed."
Gold added: "She's only 15. She's completely unfazed. She's got no spine, but she's got iron in her bones."
Lipnitskaia was to travel to Moscow on Monday and begin training Tuesday for the women's singles competition.
Skating competition continues on Tuesday (Wednesday NZ time) with the pairs short program. The men begin on Thursday, dance begins on Sunday and the women on February 19.