Yulia Lipnitskaya Skates into Pantheon of Young Superstars at Olympics

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Yulia Lipnitskaya Skates into Pantheon of Young Superstars at Olympics
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Little Yulia Lipnitskaya will have commentators reaching for a thesaurus throughout the Winter Olympics in search of poetic superlatives.

NBC's Johnny Weir anointed the 15-year-old's first jump Sunday "impeccable," and Tara Lipinski later chimed in with "breathtaking" as Lipnitskaya's long program in the team figure skating event assured host Russia of its first gold medal in Sochi.

But if you step back and ignore the sequins and chiffon for a moment, what you see in Lipnitskaya is a ballerina on blades who brings a linebacker's mentality to the ice.

Forget about counting the dynamo's triple jumps and note instead that she suited up for Mother Russia's team on back-to-back days, skating the long and the short program for her victorious team on Saturday and Sunday.

None of the other contenders for the ladies' individual medals took that chance. Their teams and coaches elected to have them keep a little extra energy tucked in the tank, even though the ladies competition doesn't start for another 10 days.

With her performance, Lipnitskaya now joins the pantheon of mini-sized teens who have stunned Olympic audiences by packing an extraordinary amount of explosive energy into a petite package.

Associated Press
Russian gymnast Olga Korbut was the darling of the 1972 Munich Olympics

Fittingly, that select club's first member was another Russian, gymnast Olga Korbut. The 4'11" Korbut became known as the "Munich Munchkin" when so much adoration was heaped upon her at the 1972 Olympics that she took to wearing a wig and wide-brimmed hat when she went out shopping during the Games.

While Korbut is remembered for her pigtails and waif-like look, people forget that she also showed amazing grit as a 17-year-old in Munich. She was in contention for gold in the individual all-around event until she slipped from the uneven bars and finished shedding tears while placing seventh.

But she sprang back into sizzling action the very next day, winning gold with daring leaps on the balance beam and then adding another gold in the floor exercises.

Lipnitskaya's on-ice demeanor suggests she has that same unerring resolve and determination. With some of the skaters you can see a look of relief when they hit the first big combination jump of a routine. When Lipnitskaya landed her opening triple lutz-triple toe jump as cleanly as freshly fallen snow, it was as if she had done nothing more significant than bury a free throw.

Such self-assurance is the mark of these pint-sized teen sensations.

Mary Lou Retton—all four feet and eight-and-three-quarters inches of her—had it when she scored a pair of perfect 10s late in the competition to win the all-around gold in gymnastics at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

So did 4'11" Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Summer Olympics, when she scored the first 10s in Olympic history. Comaneci seemed like such a seasoned veteran in Montreal that when a reporter asked whether she would choose to retire, the Romanian had to remind him that hey, "I'm only 14."

But the tiny teen that Lipnitskaya is most reminiscent of is of course Lipinski. The American stood 4'10" in Nagano in 1998 when she stole the gold many prognosticators were certain was destined to hang from Michelle Kwan's neck.

Like Lipnitskaya, Lipinski was just 15 at her Olympics, and she didn't flinch when Kwan skated first and put up a seemingly insurmountable row of near-perfect 5.9 scores for artistry.

Instead, Lipinski tackled a program that had a pair of triple-triple combination jumps that set it apart as more difficult than Kwan's. She also made a point of taking flight for her best jumps right in front of where the judges sat and then stared into their eyes each time she nailed another big one.

That takes a mix of charisma and unflappable confidence, and Lipnitskaya clearly has it after posting a 141.51 score Sunday that easily distanced her from the rest of the field.

At 5'2", Lipnitskaya is the figurative giant of this group. And the cheers she received Sunday must be echoing in the ears of the two women who perhaps arrived in Sochi thinking the battle for the ladies' individual gold would be a two-woman fight.

Defending gold medalist Yuna Kim of South Korea and returning silver medalist Mao Asada of Japan face a tough showdown with each other, and also with Lipnitskaya. The one sure thing about the competition is that when Lipnitskaya performs on home ice, she will receive the night's loudest ovation, and that roar could sway the judges.

NBC will celebrate Lipnitskaya's chance for gold at every opportunity between now and then, just as it put up a pair of promos about her on Sunday, reminding viewers of how many minutes remained until she'd skate.

Only someone who's numb from head to toe could fail to feel the momentum building for Lipnitskaya.

As for Kim and Asada, it's almost as if we should feel sorry for them. After all, they're both 23, which suddenly seems very old.

 

Tom Weir has covered eight Winter Olympics as a columnist and reporter for USA Today. You can follow him on Twitter at @TomWeirSports.

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