SOCHI, Russia, Feb 8 (Reuters) - Teenage Russian prodigy Julia Lipnitskaya pushed her petite frame through dizzying jumps to upstage older rivals in a spectacular debut at the Winter Olympics that had the home crowd roaring wildly.
The 15-year-old, the youngest skater in the competition, was backed by chants of ‘Julia, Julia’ and deafening cheers that drowned out her music.
“In practice I was warned the screams would be loud and the music would not be audible so I was prepared. But I did not think that it would be quite so loud,” Lipnitskaya told reporters.
“Luckily it helped me.”
Her first-place finish in the short programme helped give Russia a six-point lead over Canada in the team competition and showed her surprise victory at last month’s European Championships was no fluke.
Opening to the sound of thunder and rain showers, the blue-clad Lipnitskaya was a whirlwind, dancing gracefully to composer Mark Minkov’s ‘You Don’t Give Up On Love’.
If she can repeat her display in the individual event, she could become the first Russian to win the Olympic women’s title.
Female Russian skaters rarely make the podium at the Winter Games.
The country’s most successful female skater, Irina Slutskaya, won a silver in Salt Lake City in 2002 and a bronze in Turin four years later.
When she retired there seemed to be no one waiting in the wings. The sport suffered after the collapse of the former Soviet Union as many parents could not afford to finance the careers of their children and many coaches and athletes went abroad.
That has now changed with not only Lipnitskaya but Adelina Sotnikova, 17, who won her first senior national title at the age of 12 and has bagged numerous medals on the world stage since, competing in Sochi.
Lipnitskaya seems unfazed by the expectations.
She seemed more jittery in front of the reporters, as she clutched flowers backstage, than she did on the ice where the teenager nailed a soaring triple-Lutz triple-toeloop combination and spun so fast she was almost a blur.
“I have probably never felt as calm as I did tonight. I‘m shocked myself,” said Lipnitskaya.
An intense youngster immersed in the insular world of skating, she was already thinking ahead to how she could improve on a performance that earned her 72.90 points, a personal best this season.
“I travelled a bit at the end of my final spin but I will correct it in the free skating,” said Lipnitskaya.
When Japan’s twice former world champion Mao Asada finished, Lipnitskaya was more interested in hearing what jumps her rival landed than she was in fielding questions from reporters.
Asada, 23, fell attempting a triple Axel, allowing Lipnitskaya and Italy’s Carolina Kostner to move ahead.
“I was unbelievably nervous. I felt more pressure than I expected,” said the Japanese. “I’ve got to settle my nerves.” (Editing by Tony Jimenez)