Adelina Sotnikova's Figure Skating Gold an Unexpected Olympic Gem for Russia

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Adelina Sotnikova's Figure Skating Gold an Unexpected Olympic Gem for Russia
Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press

Spirits soared in Russia when little Yulia Lipnitskaya, 15 years old and delicate as a doll, skated with hockey fierceness to help the host nation win the inaugural team figure skating gold medal in Sochi last week.

Then spirits crashed in Russia when its beloved men's hockey team was pushed aside, away, out of the Olympics by Finland before the medal round. Not even a bronze medal. How could that be for the country's signature team?

But Russian spirits rose higher than high Thursday.

Adelina Sotnikova, only 17, soared with her triple jump combinations, flew across the ice as if propelled by all of Russia and became the first woman from her country to win a ladies figure skating gold medal.

Sotnikova upset defending champion Yuna Kim of Korea, who led after the short program and who arrived in Sochi with the nickname "Queen Kim."

"It's the Olympics. And it was a long way for me," Sotnikova told The Associated Press, via ESPN.com. "To compete at the Olympic Games, I dreamed of any medal, but frankly speaking, I wanted a gold one."

Queen Kim had been perfect in the short program and it was all but given that Kim would become only the third woman in history to win back-to-back Olympic skating gold medals, following in the paths of Sonja Henie and Katarina Witt.

But sports can be funny on the way to history.

When you least expect it, the unexpected happens.

Bernat Armangue/Associated Press

The final score wasn't even close. Sotnikova finished with 224.59 points, more than five ahead of silver medalist Kim (219.11). Carolina Kostner of Italy won the bronze medal with 216.73 points. Gracie Gold was the top American finisher in fourth, making it the first time since 1936 that no American man or woman won a singles medal.

But enough about the losers.

Sotnikova had once seemed to be Russia's grand hope for these Olympics when she won the world junior title in 2011.

But when she wasn't chosen to skate in the team competition and Lipnitskaya brought down the house with an energetic performance that got the best scores that night, Sotnikova suddenly became the forgotten Russian.

This day at Adler Arena belonged to Sotnikova and to Russia. And not for any home ice favoritism among the judges. Sotnikova rightly earned it. She won this going away.

It was Sotnikova who skated with freedom and abandon, who was faster across the ice, more confident with her jumps.

This was reminiscent of the Nagano Olympics when heavily favored Michelle Kwan skated without falling but with too much care and not enough fun. Even though Kwan didn't fall, she had to watch as 15-year-old Tara Lipinski practically ran across the ice, performing triple-triples, doing spins that blurred to steal the gold.

Lipinski, now doing television commentary for NBC, said, "Everyone will remember Adelina's program from this Olympics. The person who skates with heart wins and she skated with the most heart." 

Her announcing partner, Johnny Weir, agreed. "This was a moment. This is why we watch figure skating."

Sotnikova began her program with a triple lutz-triple toe combination. Each of the jumps was as high as possible and each landing was confident. There was hardly a bobble during the entire program.

By the end, Sotnikova was subtly wiggling her fingers, urging the crowd to cheer and by the time she did her final jump, everyone in Adler Arena was standing and cheering.

It seems unfair sometimes that a sports performance by a teenager should mean so much.

When Lipnitskaya fell early in her program on Thursday, even two continents away and watching on television, you could feel the energy leave the arena. And so did many Russian fans, as if they were conceding the gold medal to Kim.

But as Weir said, "Adelina had the moment, made the moment and she won the moment."

At nearly the same time that the figure skating crown hung in the balance, the U.S. women's hockey team gave up a two-goal advantage to Canada in less than four minutes and lost the gold-medal match in overtime. That happened because the U.S. tried to play it safe instead of continuing to do what had gotten it the lead.

Kim seemed to skate the same way, as if she assumed that standing up and hanging on would be enough.

It wasn't and it shouldn't be. 

Sotnikova never slowed down, not for a second in her program, even at the end when the jumps were finished. She knew. You have to keep playing until the end—if you want to win.

By now in Russia, some of the sting that came from losing the men's hockey team is probably gone.

That's because Sotnikova, one tiny but fearless teenager, saved the Olympics for the hosts. The cheers that accompanied her to the presentation of flowers to the winners were both loud and sweet.

"This is the happiest day in my life," said Sotnikova, according to ESPN.com. "I simply stepped on the ice today and realized how much I like what I'm doing and skated really good."

There are probably many Russian sports fans saying the same thing. One young underdog made this day one of the happiest of the Olympics for the hosts a day after one of the saddest.

And one suspects that if Russia holds another Games, it will be Sotnikova lighting the torch. Her name will never be forgotten. 

It shouldn't be. She earned a gold medal by doing what the best athletes do. Competing until the end.

  

Diane Pucin is the Olympics lead writer for Bleacher Report. She covered eight Games for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Los Angeles Times. You can follow her on Twitter @mepucin.

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