SOCHI, Russia, Feb 11 (Reuters) - While teenage prodigy Julia Lipnitskaya was winning over hearts with her breathtaking debut in the team competition at the Sochi Games, world and Olympic champion Kim Yuna was saving herself for the individual.
South Korea’s “Ice Queen” missed the team event, leaving the pint-sized Russian dynamo to charm the home crowd to their feet with an emotional portrayal of the doomed little girl in the red coat from Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.
When Lipnitskaya learned backstage she had become figure skating’s youngest Olympic gold medallist in 78 years by winning the team competition, the intense teen cracked a rare smile: “Wow, that’s funny?,” she exclaimed.
The 15-year-old - who drew comparisons to Nagano Olympic sensation Tara Lipinski - upstaged Mao Asada in the short programme to help Russia win the team skate-off.
But the Japanese skater did not challenge her in the free programme, withdrawing to ready herself for a rematch, and Lipnitskaya has never faced Kim in an individual contest.
So will Kim’s new programme on a global stage win over the sport’s finicky and opaque judges or will Lipnitskaya’s momentum with the partisan crowd inspire her as it has compatriot Yevgeny Plushenko?
“I haven’t met her in competition. It’ll be interesting,” said Lipnitskaya, whose rink-side cool fills competitors like America’s 18-year-old Gracie Gold with awe and no little envy.
“She’s dynamite,” Gold told reporters. “She’s completely unfazed.”
Tatiana Tarasova, who once coached Asada, said Lipnitskaya had more tricks up her sleeve.
“She can do more than she did. She can do one more cascade of triple-triple (jumps),” Tarasova enthused. “Kim does not have such phenomenal rotations. When she (Lipnitskaya) rotates she becomes a blur.”
The teenager’s self-aware gesture of donning a red team Russian baseball cap as soon as her performance ended showed that skating’s new darling already knows how to play to the cameras and the crowd.
But coming to the Olympic ice as a relative unknown, she is free of the expectations and pressure heaped on the shoulders of her older rivals.
“Her nervous system is young and strong, she doesn’t yet realise the importance of the competition,” Tamara Moskvina, who has coached four pairs to Olympic gold medals, said.
“She is a fresh name, light-footed, beautiful,” she told Reuters. “She burst on to the Olympic podium completely deservedly but also completely unexpectedly.”
Whether the breakout performance will buoy Lipnitskaya in the women’s competition seems to be anyone’s guess since the inaugural team event has upset the sport’s traditional mores - giving her a shot at becoming a double Olympic champion at only age 15.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, this was only the team competition. Second, Kim Yuna will skate in the individual competition,” said Olympic ice dance medallist Ilya Averbukh, who choreographed Lipnitskaya’s programme.
“There are four more years ahead to turn from a starlet into a star. ... You become a star when you have a history of defeats and victories,” he told Russian sports daily Sovietsky Sport.
The back-to-back format of competitions in which skaters like Lipnitskaya who give it their all risk peaking too soon is unheard of.
“We don’t know. Maybe she will tired or unable to focus,” Moskvina said.
Many skaters say they are still having trouble getting their heads around the team competition’s Olympic trial run.
“I will get the medal tomorrow and put it in a box somewhere and think how great it is to get a medal just for the short programme,” joked Russian ice dancer Ekaterina Bobrova, who skated only one segment of the team event.
“I still don’t really understand what it is all about ... maybe in the future it will come after the individual programme because it is very emotional - it isn’t easy.” (Editing by Ed Osmond)