Ice Network

Sensational Lipnitskaia crowned queen of Europe

At 15, Russian becomes continent's youngest-ever ladies champion
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With a free skate that included seven triples and hands down the best spins in the competition, Russia's Julia Lipnitskaia overtook countrywoman Adelina Sotnikova to win the title by more than seven points. -Getty Images

Fifteen-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia of Russia caused a sensation in Budapest Friday night, when she delivered a superlative free program to win her first European title, in her first time skating in the event. She became the youngest European champion in the process, and the first European lady since Sonja Henie (1931) to win the title in her debut appearance.

Lipnitskaia's technical element score was nearly 10 points above that of her closest competitor, teammate Adelina Sotnikova, and nearly 20 points higher than that of bronze medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy (71.75 points for Lipnitskaia, 62.03 for Sotnikova, 52.40 for Kostner). Lipnitskaia almost hit the 210-point bar overall (209.72 points), above Sotnikova (202.36) and Kostner (191.39).

Take the body flexibility of a Sasha Cohen, the packed energy of 1998 Tara Lipinski on that special Nagano night, add the traditional incredible strength and reliability of the Russian school, skated to the powerful music of Schindler's List, and you get an idea of the program Lipnitskaia delivered in Budapest.

"I skated 100 percent," the new European gold medalist said when she came off the ice. "I had never skated my program in such a way. I had two difficult combinations in the second half of my program!"

Not only could Lipnistakaia spin like no one else, with her unique positions, and not only could she jump better than anyone else (she landed the most difficult combination of the whole evening, a triple Lutz-triple toe), but Julia Lipnitskaia could also count better than anyone else. She had to stop her planned double Axel-triple toe-double toe after the double Axel, managed to place her double Axel-triple toe in the second part of her program and added a double toe-double toe after her final triple Lutz.

"I was really nervous when I started my program," Lipnitskaia said. "My legs were really shaking, and that lasted through the first half of my program, as you could notice. Only in the second half could I pull myself together."

Lipnitskaia had "that" night a handful of others have had in such historic moments. She is even too young to idolize the last European gold medalist from Russia, Irina Slutskaya (in 1996).

Sotnikova skated with her usual poise, to Camille Saint-Saëns' violin masterpiece, "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" (slightly arranged to make it sound like Russian folklore, though!). She landed her opening triple Lutz but did not tack on the planned triple toe right after, something that cost her a lot, as she could only combine a double toe after her subsequent triple Salchow. Sotnikova's program was otherwise flawless, and she was relieved at the end.

"This silver medal is like gold to me," she said, "Because I did not think I could achieve [winning] the gold tonight."

Unofficially, she admitted that she was sad, though, and added: "But I'll do it in Sochi!"

Thirty years ago, at the Sarajevo Olympics, ice dance legends Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean proved that this "Bolero" over-repeated tempo could be interpreted as a love song. Friday night, Carolina Kostner proved to us that it could be a most emotional tribute to human life. Maurice Ravel, who composed the piece (Ravel passed away 80 years ago precisely), must have smiled from his heavenly residence when he saw the Italian's interpretation.

The audience was not far from seventh heaven either. As soon as the Italian entered the ice, the crowd started cheering and never stopped throughout her program. Kostner seemed to be carried on by the fans, who themselves were carried by her own steps as they were making that music alive. When music, audience and skater are in sync, you get a special moment of eternity.

"I felt that the audience was so good to me," Kostner marveled afterward. "It was just wonderful." (She, in turn, applauded toward the stands at the end of her program.)

Kostner, however, had opted for less difficult jumps, with a triple flip-double toe and triple Salchow-double toe as her only combinations. Most unfortunately, she fell on a planned triple toe in the middle of her program. Her step sequence got a Level 4, at least one level higher than her main competitors.

Alena Leonova, who ended fourth after the short program, has always been known as a joyful and cheering character when skating. Her rather literal rendition of Georges Bizet's Carmen, that all-too-human drama, came as a paradox. She, nonetheless, completed her team's success by securing the fourth-place position she had held after the short program. A glorious triple toe-triple combination started off her program, but she doubled her planned triple loop and took a double toe away from her planned three-jump combination. 

Maé-Bérénice Méité, from France, was skating in the last group, after her fifth-place finish in the short program Wednesday.

"There is just happiness," she said with a radiant smile entering the competition. "We'll have to enjoy!"

She did.

"The main thing is to forget that you are skating in the last group," she said laughingly after her program, "And that your predecessor on the ice delivered a 209-point performance. Then you go full speed ahead and you do your best."

She did. Her performance was a demonstration of feminine power. Méité also had to switch from a three-jump to a two-jump combination, but she skated an otherwise flawless program. Most noticeably, her component scores (and ranking) are now consistent with her technical elements. She amassed 56.53 technical points, 58.20 for components and 114.73 for the free, a new season's best.