Russian sensation Julia Lipnitskaia
With a name like Gracie Gold, it only makes sense that the U.S. figure skater is gaining a lot of attention before the women's singles competition next week at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Competing in one of the most anticipated events of every Winter Games, the young American has a bunch of stiff competition if she wants to earn a medal against the world's best. Between Gold (pictured left below) and Ashley Wagner, the U.S. still has a decent shot at bringing home some hardware in this marquee competition, but it won't be easy.
The Sochi field is top-heavy with proven veterans and upstart youngsters poised to make a run at the gold medal. Here's a look at the top trio of first-place contenders heading into the competition.
|Short Program||Wednesday, Feb. 19||10 a.m.||NBC SN|
|Free Skating||Thursday, Feb. 20||10 a.m.||NBC SN|
Julia Lipnitskaia, Russia
The 15-year-old Russian has become the darling of the Olympics after starring in the team portions for the host country.
Lipnitskaia had the arena erupting with her confident and elegant displays that earned her first-place finishes in the short program and free skating events. In the process, she helped Russia clinch a statement victory in the first-ever team figure skating competition of the Winter Games, getting President Vladimir Putin's personal stamp of approval in the process.
Leon Watson of the Daily Mail gave some perspective on the big night Lipnitskaia put together on the ice.
Julia's unparalleled artistry, flexibility and blurring spins mesmerized a partisan crowd that included Mr Putin.
When the music stopped, and she had landed the last of her 10 jumps, they were on their feet applauding, whistling, and chanting her name.
At six days younger than Tara Lipinski, the American who won at 15 in Nagano in 1998, Julia became the youngest athlete ever to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics.
It's not like Lipnitskaia has come out of nowhere, as she also won the 2014 European Championships in January.
What's made her style so compelling is her rare amount of moxie for a 15-year-old, to go along with her technical ability and grace. She'll certainly have a target on her back going into the singles event, but she'll also have the full-fledged support of the home crowd behind her.
With the way she performed throughout her two programs during the weekend, there's reason to believe Lipnitskaia can win the individual gold medal and cement her status as the icon of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
Yuna Kim, Korea
2010 gold medalist Yuna Kim has her work cut out for her if she wants to defend her title as Olympic champion.
Who Will Win?
Lipnitskaia looks like she's peaking at the right time, but Kim has proven she can rise to the occasion on figure skating's biggest stage. They call her "Queen Yuna" in Korea for a reason, as she is one of the country's most recognizable and rich athletes, per BBC Sport.
In 2010, Kim set a world record with 228.56 points, with a nearly perfect routine at Vancouver.
Kim didn't take part in the team portion of the Olympic events this weekend, and this will mark the first time she and Lipnitskaia will ever compete on the same ice. Alissa De Carbonnel of Reuters spotlighted the upcoming Kim-Lipnitskaia duel.
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 Lipnitskaia, whose rink-side cool fills competitors like America's 18-year-old Gracie Gold with awe and no little envy.
At the age of 23, Kim is still in the prime of her skating career after winning the 2013 World Championships and will be a major player for the gold.
Not to be forgotten among the hype over the top two competitors is Japanese star Mao Asada.
Asada was outclassed by Lipnitskaia and Italian Carolina Kostner in the women's short program during the team event before pulling out of the free routine on Sunday, but still remains a favorite to reach the podium on Feb 20. Asada also made headlines in the team event when she scored higher than Wagner despite suffering a fall.
In 2010, Asada finished with a total of 205.50 points to earn the silver medal behind Kim. Throughout the years, Asada has endeared herself to crowds with her bright energy and she is currently ranked as the No. 2 skater via ISUResults.com behind Kostner.