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Kim tiptoes ahead of Sotnikova, Kostner in short

Olympic champ nips field by 0.28; Team USA lands fourth, sixth, seventh
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Reigning Olympic champion Yu-Na Kim of Korea was nearly perfect, receiving Level 3's on only a spin and step sequence while landing her jumps cleanly and gliding across the ice to her "Send in the Clowns" short. The heavy favorite reeled in 74.92 points, placing her a mere 0.28 points above the field. -Getty Images

On this night, very little made sense in the world of ladies figure skating.

Russian fans entered the Iceberg Skating Palace believing they would be celebrating the performance of one teenaged skater, only to walk out cheering for another.

Carolina Kostner, who in two previous trips to the Olympics had never finished higher than seventh in the short program, finds herself in third.

And Japan, which has been very strong in ladies skating, having won a silver medal four years ago in Vancouver (Mao Asada) and the gold medal in Torino (Shizuka Arakawa), finds itself with its top skater in eighth and its other two in 15th and 16th.

The only skater who showed that all was right in the world was South Korea's Yu-Na Kim.

Steady on the ice even when she admitted she was battling crazy nerves, Kim shined in her short program and is now one free skate away from becoming the first woman to win back-to-back Olympic titles since 1988. The woman who last achieved that feat, Katarina Witt, was in the arena providing broadcast TV coverage for her native Germany.

The top three skaters after the short program are separated by just 0.8 of points. Kim leads with 74.92; Adelina Sotnikova has 74.64 and Kostner earned 74.12. The free skate is set for Thursday night.  

Even with a narrow lead and even with some flaws in her program (she received Level 3's for her layback spin and step sequence), Kim remained the class of the field.

Dressed in a sparkling yellow dress and skating to "Send in the Clowns," Kim performed with utter elegance. Her jumps looked as if they came out of a figure skating textbook, and throughout her brief time practicing in Sochi, she rarely missed a beat.

But the reigning Olympic champion admitted she was battling a bad case of nerves during the warm-up.

"I couldn't jump at all," Kim, 23, said. "But I tried to believe in myself and believed in what I've done before. I always get nervous before competition. I don't feel pressure; I was just nervous."

Once the music began, however, Kim said her mind traveled to another place.     

"I felt like I was dreaming," Kim said. "I had a lot of thoughts when I was giving my performance."

Sotnikova, 17, came into this event as "the second Russian skater" since so much attention was centered around 15-year-old sensation Julia Lipnitskaia. Although Lipnitskaia started her program strong, landing a solid triple Lutz-triple toe and a double Axel, she fell on a triple flip.

The fall stunned her and the crowd, which had been hoping she would have the same magic she had during the team event, in which she lifted Russia to the gold. 

"I don't know what happened," Lipnitskaia said. "My preparation was all fine. I wasn't nervous. I didn't feel too much pressure. The crowd helped me."

"The marks weren't as low as I expected," she continued. "I can still fight for a medal tomorrow. I feel sad. I wasn't good enough on the jumps. Tomorrow, I will go out there and fight."

Now it is Sotnikova who has Russia's best chance for a medal, although the free skate has been her nemesis in the past. Sotnikova actually beat Lipnitskaia in the short program last month at the European championships only to settle for second.

"I have to give huge thanks for the support; it was just amazing," said Sotnikova of the Russian fans, who cheered loudly and waved plenty of Russian flags throughout the arena. "Now, I realize Russian support really is the best. I've never skated in front of that kind of audience before, so I got a little nervous before I got on the ice, but I pulled myself together."

Skating after Sotnikova, and the final competitor of the night, was Japan's Mao Asada. The silver medalist in Vancouver, who was thought to be one of Kim's chief rivals, finds herself in 16th after falling on a triple Axel, doubling her triple loop and failing to include a combination jump. Her score of 55.51 was nearly 17 points off her season's best. 

"My timing was off," Asada said. "I couldn't move the way I wanted to out there. The moment after the Axel, I knew something wasn't right. I couldn't do what I visualised."

Kostner's performance to "Ave Maria" was one of the most emotional routines of the evening. A five-time world medalist and the world champion in 2012, Kostner has not been able to produce a strong performance in two previous trips to the Olympics, finishing ninth in Torino and 16th in Vancouver.

Her 2010 showing was so disappointing that she believed it would be her last on the competitive stage.

"At that time, I believed that I had reached my limit," she said. "Something told me this was not about results but about personal experiences, and I felt that I would like to share much more … and be able to share a good version of myself."

Dressed in all white, the typically bold and brash Kostner was this time calm and light. The music, she said, is "kind of a prayer to say 'thank you' to everybody."

Kostner did make one "spontaneously" last-minute alteration to her program, changing her planned triple toe-triple toe combination into a more difficult triple flip-triple toe. She had practiced it the day before and in the morning skate.

Gracie Gold is the top American in the event in fourth. She was skating her short program for just the second time in competition this season, having dumped her previous music in favor of a piano concerto by Edvard Grieg.

Although it was not performed nearly as well as she had done at the U.S. championships, Gold followed the dogma instilled in her the past few months by her coach, Frank Carroll. He has been trying to convince the star skater that she does not have to be perfect to be the best. She could make mistakes but not let them ruin the entire program.

And that is how she performed in Sochi.

She had her struggles but came away with a very respectable score of 68.63 points.

"When I was in the air on some of those jumps, I was like, 'Oh my God. What is this? This is not a good feeling,'" Gold said. "I knew I had to fight because it's about throwing it down. It's all about points.

"I think we saw in the men's event, the points game was maybe what saved Yuzuru [Hanyu] in winning the gold, that lead in the short," she continued. "There's a big difference between doing a triple Lutz-triple toe and a triple Lutz-double toe."

She fought through shaky landings on both ends of her opening combination, a triple Lutz-triple toe.

"When I came down, I thought, 'Is this my Olympic moment? I'm going to be on my butt?'" Gold said. "I said, 'No. This is what the Olympics are about. It's not about playing it safe with a double toe or a plain triple Lutz. It's about doing it.'"

Toward the end of her routine, she also gritted out a double Axel but kept focused on the other elements of her program.

"When I was doing the double Axel, I thought, 'I have come too far not to land this stupid double Axel.'" Gold said. "I did not train that hard to go down or mess up this one jump. I am landing it with a smile on my face."

Ashley Wagner, a two-time U.S. champion making her Olympic debut, heads into the free skate in sixth place (65.21). The lone major mistake in her program came on the second part of her triple flip-triple toe combination, which was downgraded.

"Wow," Wagner said. "I can't believe that that scored higher than my team event. I thought that it was going to be a little lower than that. But at the same time, I felt I really performed that program, and I felt I got the spin levels that I was really looking for, so that helped boost the technical mark.

"Overall, honestly, I'm really happy with that program," Wagner added. "I think that for an Olympic event, how I'm feeling, what I'm up against -- to go out there and skate a solid performance, really right now, that's what I'm looking to do. I just need to work on building my confidence back up from a rocky nationals."

The first American to perform her short program was Polina Edmunds. Skating in her first senior-level international event, otherwise known as the Olympics, the 15-year-old had a more-than-solid seventh-place showing.

Edmunds was called for underrotating her triple Lutz-triple toe and bobbled slightly during her step sequence, but her Latin-themed program was otherwise strong.

After she landed the double Axel, the final jump in her program, Edmunds knew the real hard work was complete.

"It was a great feeling to land all three of my jumping passes," said Edmunds, who earned 61.04 points for her routine. "But, I knew I had a final spin to do."

Edmunds, a high school sophomore, admitted she had some nerves entering the competition, but once she stepped out onto the ice, you'd never have known it. Perhaps she got the good-luck vibe from her two charms, a toy lion and elephant, which she toted in a small bag to the rink.

"It was really cool to see the Olympic rings," Edmunds said. "But, I tried to stay in the moment."

It was quite a day for Edmunds, who not only made her Olympic skating debut but also got to meet Joe Pavelski, a forward for the NHL's San Jose Sharks who is representing Team USA in the hockey tournament.

"It was definitely exciting," said Edmunds, who got a photo with the hockey star. "I met him a couple of hours before I competed in the dining hall. He said, 'Nice to meet you, and good luck.'"