In figure skating circles, defending Olympic champion Yuna Kim of Korea is simply known as "The Queen." During Wednesday's short program, she performed like royalty.
The 23-year-old Kim is a grizzled veteran in the world of ladies' figure skating, and while she came into the Sochi Games as one of the favorites, she has been relatively out of practice, essentially retiring after winning gold in Vancouver before coming back four years later as if she never missed a day.
Terry Gannon, calling the event for NBCSN with Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, asked, "How do you step away, then come back like Michael Jordan did, and not lose a step?"
It was incredible. To be away from competitive skating at this level like Kim has only made her short program that much more impressive. She was essentially flawless, scoring a 74.64 to set a mark none of the skaters to follow her were able to match.
They did, however, come close.
Adelina Sotnikova of Russia stomped her skates on the ice after her impeccable short program performance, celebrating in front of an electrified home crowd. She was as perfect as she could have been, and it was still only good enough for second place.
"That was very, very, very generous by the judges," Weir said after Sotnikova's score of 74.64 was announced, suggesting that perhaps the home crowd and raucous reaction to her skate influenced the judges.
After the event completed, however, Weir backpedaled a bit, suggesting that Kim's effort in the short program would have separated her from the pack four years ago, but taking that much time away from competition has allowed other skaters to get better and closer to her level of dominance.
The 17-year-old Sotnikova, for example, actually scored better in the technical elements than Kim, falling behind only slightly on the components score. It may have been a generous score by the judges, but upon closer review, it looked warranted.
Ten years Sotnikova's elder and four years older than Kim is Carolina Kostner, who has as good of a chance at gold on Thursday as the two just ahead of her in the scoring. Kostner skated elegantly to Ave Maria, recording the highest components score of the three leaders but falling back on her technical elements, which were not scored as high as the other two ahead of her.
"How in the world Sotnikova ended up ahead of Kostner, whose poise and lyricism is light years ahead of the Russian's, is anyone's guess," was columnist Christine Brennan's review of the situation in USA Today.
It really looked like both Sotnikova and Kostner skated as well as they possibly could, not just on that night, but also on any night of their respective careers, and they still weren't good enough to catch The Queen.
They were close, but Kim still beat them. And Kim had to complete her program earlier in the night, placed in a group with other skaters who were not scoring anywhere near what she accomplished. On Thursday, Kim will be with the medal contenders, giving her every advantage to defend her gold.
"This … is different compared to the previous season. The rules and how they give me the score are all different," Kim told Nancy Armour of USA Today through an interpreter. "So I did the best I could, and I didn't think about anything else. But after I showed my program, all my nerves, they went away. That's why I smiled."
One skater who was expected to be with the medal contenders but will perform much earlier in the night during the free skate is Mao Asada, the silver medalist in Vancouver and Kim's archrival in the figure skating world. Asada skated last in the short program but fell on her attempted triple axle—she was the only competitor to attempt the jump—which made the rest of her program fall apart, as she never seemed to recover from the gaffe. By her standards, Asada had a disastrous short program and sits in 16th place after one night, far out of medal contention.
There was more drama on Wednesday than just Asada falling. Yulia Lipnitskaya, the 15-year-old Russian phenom who helped her country win a gold medal in the team skating event last week, fell on a triple flip midway through her program. Lipnitskaya has become the darling of the Russian skating program—it was Sotnikova until very recently, creating a bit of a rivalry between the two compatriots in Sochi—and there was an audible gasp from the crowd when she hit the ice.
"She never misses," Lipinski said at the end of Lipnitskaya's program. "I am so shocked."
"And when she did," Gannon added, "the reaction in here was like the Russian hockey team being scored on again."
That was the second-best line of the night—the best coming from Johnny Weir, who said the final group warm-up was so chaotic: "It's the mall in Paramus at Christmas time." But neither the shock from the crowd nor the fall managed to derail the teenager from putting down an otherwise stellar performance. She is in fifth after the short program, a bit back from medal contention and needing a lot of help.
Lipnitskaya is also behind American Gracie Gold, who was very solid in her own right during the short program on Wednesday.
Gold's technical elements were actually on par with the leaders, but she looked stiff—dare I say nervous—during her jumps, which had to hurt the overall judging, putting her in an incredibly respectable fourth place heading into the free skate. Her 68.63 has her less than five-and-a-half points behind Kostner, needing some help in the free skate, but she's an absolute medal contender for America.
Gold gave a nod of her head when her score hit the board, as she knew it wasn't her best performance.
She knew it wouldn't be good enough to dethrone The Queen.
Two other American contenders are right behind Gold and Lipnitskaya, as Ashley Wagner and Polina Edmunds sit in sixth and seventh place, respectively, after the short program.
Both will have to skate the programs of their lives and hope for a lot of things to go their way—which is the polite way to say they hope at least three or four other skaters fall, a lot—for either to medal. Still, the Americans having three of the top seven skaters heading into the free skate is something for which to be very proud.
As it turns out, the free skate will give all these other skaters an opportunity to do what Kim did to them on Wednesday: post a big number early.
Lipnitskaya will skate sixth to last, with Kostner following her. Sotnikova will go next, with Americans Gold and Wagner following her.
Then, The Queen skates last, giving her the opportunity to make a final bow in what could be another Olympic coronation.