SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Julia Lipnitskaya has already shown the world what her pint-sized, 15-year-old frame is capable of doing. The figure skater has already proved that she can keep her cool when everyone else is losing theirs.
But the question on everyone’s lips is can the Russian do it again at the Sochi Games?
Tara Lipinski, more than anyone else, can relate to the thought process that goes into creating a 15-year-old Olympic champion - and she for one cannot wait to see how the new ‘wonder-baby’ measures up against the sport’s established order.
“A lot of people think that winning is easier at that young age but on the flip side she doesn’t have the experience the older skaters have to fall back on,” 1998 Nagano gold medalist Lipinski, who won the big prize aged 15, told Reuters.
“That is what skating is, you go out there and you use all those moments to fall back on, and she is fairly new so it is even harder for her,” the American added.
“Hers is just such a meteoric rise that it is incredible to watch but it is definitely going to be a challenging task for her to be able to stay calm under pressure in such a big event and in her home country no less.”
The words ‘fear’ and ‘nerves’ seem to have no place in Lipnitskaya’s vocabulary.
She is so at ease on the ice that she lifts off into soaring triple-triple jumps without much build-up or warning.
She is so fast around the rink that she probably covers twice as much ground during her programs as her rivals.
As for her spins, she disappears into a blur that does not seem to make her dizzy but leaves everyone else in a whirl.
Her talent, her focus and her youthful exuberance spurred Russia to win the inaugural Olympic team title in Sochi. Her 143 million fellow Russians are waiting anxiously to see if she can beat Olympic champion Kim Yuna and twice former world champion Mao Asada to the individual gold on Thursday.
“What makes this sport so much fun is that you have to do it in four minutes under intense pressure and that’s part of the beauty of the sport,” Lipinski said.
”She does that so well. She can really laser her focus when an arena in her home country is losing their mind and she has the weight of all those expectations on her shoulders. For her age she is incredibly focused.
”For someone like Julia, who has never been to an Olympics, the team competition could have given her a feeling of comfort, that she’s already done it, and gives her a little confidence.
“But at the same time you just hope she peaks at the right moment and that she didn’t put on her two best performances out in the team event and doesn’t have that same energy and cleanliness of those programs in the individual.”
That she even made to the Olympics is a stroke of luck for Lipnitskaya. If she had been born 26 days later she would have been ineligible for the Games because rules state that only skaters who turned 15 before July 1, 2013, can compete.
Her date of birth allowed Lipnitskaya to become the youngest figure skater in 78 years to win Olympic gold for Russia.
If she triumphs on Thursday, she will join Lipinski in a select club of 15-year olds who have captured individual glory.
Lipnitskaya leads the season’s standings in the free program, with her stirring portrayal of the doomed little girl in the red coat from Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List earning her 141.51 in the team event.
Kim, in contrast, is somewhat of an unknown quantity this season. She has not competed against her main rivals at any top-level events, having opted to skip the grand prix series.
However, four years after two breathtaking programs earned her world-record scores - 78.50 in the short and 150.06 in the long - she will be back at an Olympics as the world champion.
“The big surprise is Yuna Kim, you know we haven’t seen her all year and if she comes back in the kind of form she is usually in ... it is going to be a great showdown,” said Lipinski.
Even if she wins, the one thing Lipnitskaya will not be able to do is snatch the ‘youngest women’s Olympic champion’ crown from Lipinski.
Is Lipinski relieved?
“If anyone would take it, I would want Julia to take it but yes, it’s still nice to hold that,” she grinned.
Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel, editing by Keith Weir