Russia's first lady: Sotnikova ousts Kim for goldKostner bags bronze for Italy; USA's Gold lands fourth, Wagner seventh
Figure skating history was rewritten Thursday night -- just not in the way most people expected it to be.
Entering the free skate, it seemed as if South Korea's Yu-Na Kim was going to continue straight along her path and become the first woman since Katarina Witt to win two consecutive Olympic gold medals.
But a young Russian named Adelina Sotnikova, who had already been spurned when she was not selected to represent her country in the team event and who had been playing second fiddle to 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia throughout the build-up to these Olympics, dethroned the Queen to become Russia's first ladies skating gold medalist.
Italy's Carolina Kostner rebounded from a 16th-place showing four years ago to claim the bronze medal.
"I won," Sotnikova said. "It's my gold medal. I can't believe it."
"I gave a great gift to my country."
With Russian flags waving throughout the Iceberg Skating Palace, Sotnikova's victory punctuated an extremely strong competition for the homeland. Four years ago, Russia was shut out of the top spot on the podium, yet in Sochi, Russian skaters combined to win the team competition, the pairs event and now the ladies competition.
Irina Slutskaya won two Olympic medals for Russia: a bronze in 2006 and a silver in 2002. Kira Ivanova, representing the Soviet Union, won a bronze medal in 1984.
Even more fitting was the historical connection with Sotnikova's coach, Elena Buianova. Back in the day, Buianova skated under the name Elena Vodorezova, and as such, she won the first medal (bronze) for a Soviet lady at a world championships, in 1983. Thirty-one years later, in the first Winter Olympics held on Russian soil, she guided a Russian woman to the top of the Olympic podium.
"I can say the student did better than the coach," Buianova said with a laugh.
"This truly is so, so exciting," added Buianova, who carried the flowers given to Sotnikova during the post-event ceremony. "To do this at home in our country and to be the first one to do this with thousands of people watching … Every coach is trying to get their skater to win the gold medal. Obviously, what would be the reason for work beside that?"
Kim led by a scant 0.28-point margin after the short program, but it seemed as if Sotnikova entered the free skate on more of mission. Kim admitted that, following her show-stopping, James Bond-girl, gold-medal performance in Vancouver four years ago, that "there was no obvious goal."
Sotnikova, meanwhile, came into the free skate with the most to prove. She had been dubbed by members of the media as "the second Russian," especially after Lipnitskaia had the nation entranced by her seemingly unflinching competitiveness and mind-blowing, rubber-band-like flexibility.
But after Lipnitskaia fell in the short program, making her medal chances slim, Sotnikova became the new hope for Russia, and she capitalized.
Sotnikova's free skate was technically more demanding than Kim's, since it included seven triples compared to Kim's six. Her only mistake was when she stumbled out of the landing on a triple flip-double toe-double loop combination.
Kim has not been known to perform a triple loop, a relatively easier triple, but as it turned out, that jump might have cost her the gold medal. With such a tight competition, every element played a big role. The loop is worth 5.10 points. With a 1.60 grade of execution (GOE), Sotnikova earned 6.70 points for the jump and beat Kim by a margin of 5.85 points in the technical scoring.
In terms of components, Kim's marks edged those of Sotnikova, 74.50 to 74.41. Overall, Sotnikova won with 224.59 points, while Kim finished with 219.11.
What also might have hurt Kim in the marks were her relative lack of speed and a low level on her layback spin, the same element for which she received a Level 3 in the short program.
Kim was the final skater to perform the free skate, and when the scores were announced, the crowd roared with excitement for its newest hero.
For Sotnikova, the competition is a moment of redemption. She had wanted to be a part of the first Olympic skating team competition of these Winter Games, especially since she knew what a strong chance Russia had to medal. And when she was left out, she said, "I felt so offended."
"Maybe it was all for the best," Sotnikova said. "It became an advantage for me because it made me so mad and want to win a gold medal."
Tara Lipinski, who won the gold medal in the ladies competition on this same day 16 years ago, could sense that added motivation in Sotnikova. Wearing a gold top and gold headband in honor of her gold-medal anniversary in Nagano, Japan, Lipinski called the ladies competition with Johnny Weir for NBC.
"I think Julia definitely helped her win this gold medal," Lipinski said. "Julia was the top dog, and that made her mad."
Lipinski smiled when asked if she could relate. Leading up to the Olympics in 1998, Michelle Kwan entered Nagano as the top American favorite, yet Lipinski slipped ahead, using that as extra fuel to defeat her.
"I know what it's like," Lipinski said with a wink.
After seeing a dismal showing earlier in these Olympics in the men's event, many questioned whether scheduling the short program and free skate on back-to-back nights was to blame. Apparently in the ladies competition, few seemed to mind. The final flight of ladies, Lipinski said, "was probably the best final flight in Olympic ladies skating I've ever seen."
Lipnitskaia was the first of the final six to skate, and although she struggled, stumbling out on the landing of a triple loop and falling on a triple Salchow, Kostner followed her up with a beautiful performance.
Skating to "Bolero," music that has been associated solely with ice dancing greats Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, Kostner skated a composed and elegant rendition of her own. Her father, Erwin, had been in the arena 30 years ago when Torvill and Dean performed that program in Sarajevo, and Kostner made the program her own.
"When Lori [Nichol] (choreographer) first proposed this music, I said, 'No way, how can I live up to this standard?'" Kostner said.
She found a way in the free skate.
Kostner placed fourth in the segment, mostly because her program lacked a triple-triple combination rather than because she made any major mistakes. Among her difficult elements were a triple Lutz and a double Axel-triple toe.
Sotnikova skated after Kostner, dazzling with her program to Camille Saint-Saëns' "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso."
Sotnikova burst onto the skating scene in Russia, winning her first of four Russian titles when she was just 12. She won the world junior title in 2011 but then sputtered at the senior level. She has never won a Grand Prix event at the senior level and placed ninth in her only trip to the world championships. Yet in Sochi, at the age of 17, she showed incredible poise and passion to win the gold medal.
With the crowd going wild after Sotnikova's performance, American Gracie Gold was the next to skate.
"It was really hard," Gold said. "I knew all the leaders were going to bring it tonight. It was tough; no one wants to go when they announce your name and it's silent."
She skated well to her Sleeping Beauty program but fell on a triple flip to finish fourth in her Olympic debut.
"When I went down on it, I thought, 'Dang it! That's what Frank Carroll (her coach) told me not to do: Don't drop that right arm.' I went down on the triple flip, but, at the end of the day, skating these three programs (including the free skate in the team event) at the Olympics was wonderful."
Ashley Wagner, who also skated in the final group, ended up seventh. She resurrected her Samson and Delilah program from last season and, aside from underrotating the back end of a triple flip-triple toe, skated well.
"That was such a solid performance," Wagner said. "I think that was a mentally tough one for me because I had two so-so long programs that were backing me up. … A personal best, I can't complain, and it makes me look forward to the worlds."
Polina Edmunds rounded out the Americans' performance with a ninth-place finish in her senior international debut. The U.S. silver medalist, Edmunds had hoped to skate two clean programs in Sochi and came close to doing so until she fell on a triple flip in the free skate.
"The tap felt wrong," Edmunds said of the entry to the flip. "I didn't get enough height on it."
"But," she added, "I'm really happy with my skate."
As impressive as the final group of skaters was, perhaps one of the most impressive performances came from a skater early in the night. Japan's Mao Asada, the 2010 Olympic silver medalist who wallowed in 16th after the short and was criticized publicly by a prominent Japanese official for continually going after the triple Axel, rallied in a big way in the free skate.
She finished third in the segment and leaves Sochi as perhaps the happiest sixth-place finisher in the Olympics. Sochi will not be the final stop of her career, she said, as she does plan to compete next month when the world championships are held in Japan.
"I felt bad about my performance in the short program," Asada said through an interpreter. "I am happy that I could do [well] in the free skate. I wanted to thank so many people who had supported me."