Surprise winner Sotnikova rode the home crowd to gold

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If you had Adelina Sotnikova in your pre-Olympic ladies figure skating pool, congratulations. You won, and you probably didn’t have much company. The 17-year-old Russian pulled off a stunning upset Thursday night, skating a joyful and crowd-pleasing performance before the home crowd. That was enough to overthrow a queen.

Kim Yu-na, the reigning Olympic champion who had become the face of South Korea among fans of sports and pop culture, finished second despite a clean program that had no glaring weakness except that it was matched against the impossibly high standard she set at the Olympics four years ago. Italian veteran Carolina Kostner overcame past Olympic curses to finish third. U.S. skaters Gracie Gold, Ashley Wagner and Paulina Edmunds acquitted themselves well but missed the medal stand, taking fourth, seventh and ninth. Yulia Lipnitskaya, the more celebrated Soviet teen who won the European championships last month, stumbled again, as she did in Wednesday’s short program, and finished fifth.

“I won. It’s my gold medal. I can’t believe it,” Sotnikova said. “Two years ago, all of my competitions were very bad. I didn’t know if I had what it takes to be successful. Now that I do, I’m surprised, and my coach was surprised.” In the storied history of Russian and Soviet figure skating, there had never been an Olympic champion in the ladies division before Sotnikova.

The decision was wildly popular inside the Iceberg Skating Center, but it is sure to raise debate as to how Kim, admired by her peers as a skater without equal, could enter the night with a tiny lead (.28), skate clean and finish 5.48 points behind Sotnikova, a skater who had been struggling to move up for five years after winning her country’s national title at the ridiculous age of 12.

First there is a technical explanation. Kim was marked down on two key areas, the layback spin and her step sequence. She also had six triple jumps in her program compared to seven for Sotnikova. The Russian also performed a difficult double Axel-triple toe combination that Kim did not try. With a pair of combination jumps (triple Lutz – triple toe; triple flip – double toe loop – double loop) that got the crowd behind her, Sotnikova decisively outpointed Kim in technical elements. The scoring breakdown stunned even Sotnikova. “When I performed all of my elements, I realized I would be on the podium,” she said. “I didn’t know which one. When I saw the scores and I saw I had won the technical mark, I didn’t believe my eyes.”

Then there was the building crescendo of support from an audience that carried the Russian through her program. Beyond the idea that competing at home can influence officials, referees and skating judges, does that even matter to a skater? “It always makes it easier to find your rhythm when they’re clapping for you,” Sotnikova explained. “You cannot lose your music if they help you find it.”

Finally, there were the comparative mindsets of the two women. Kim has been a guest at state dinners who created her own marketing group and sold products from electronics to cosmetics to cars. She took up singing and sold a million records. She has sounded burdened at times by her celebrity and the expectation that came with being a cultural icon who had more to lose than to gain. When the scores appeared on the overhead scoreboard and Kim realized she was in the silver–medal position, she still smiled as she clung to a stuffed animal mascot.

“It wasn’t my best performance, but it was okay for me,” she said. “I’m so glad I finished my last competition as a skater and did a clean short program and a clean long program... It was different from Vancouver because there was no obvious goal. At that time, I could die for gold. That desire, that strong wish, was not as present [in Sochi].” Kim confirmed that this was her last competition and that she would not compete at the world championships next month. Asked what she would do next, she simply said, “I just want to rest.”

Compare her remarks to those of Sotnikova, who watched and listened as her younger countrywoman received all the advance hype and plaudits. Sotnikova said she was fine with that, but the slap from her own team officials was another matter. During the team competition the previous week, the Russians chose Lipnitskaya to skate in both the short and long programs, leaving Sotnikova on the sidelines as they made substitutions with pairs and dance, allowing multiple team member to win gold medals as the Russian squad finished first. Sotnikova didn’t get one and didn’t much like it.

“I really wanted to participate with my team because I knew we’d win a medal,” she said. “When I found out I wasn’t, I was sad. I was offended. I felt cheated in a way.” Sotnikova may even have felt cheated by her own age. At 13, she wasn’t old enough to be considered for the Vancouver Games even though she almost certainly would have made the Russian team.

Kim’s supporters may also point to the composition of the nine-member judging panel, which is chosen randomly from a pool of 13. Four judges were replaced between the short and long programs. Those added included Alla Shekhovtseva, the wife of the Russian Skating Federation chief, and Ukrainian Yuri Balkov, who was suspended for a year in 1998 for trying to fix the ice dancing results after a Canadian judge recorded his scheme in a phone call.

But that lends fuel to a fire that may be no more than smoke. As NBC commentator Scott Hamilton said afterwards in defending the decision, “She may not be as aesthetic by nature, but [Sotnikova’s] style checks off every box and does everything the judges are looking for. . . I respect [the decision].”

Kostner’s bronze put the capper on a career that included a world title, four world medals and five European championships, but lacked an Olympic medal. She had quit the sport after the Games in Vancouver four years ago when she finished 16th.

“After Vancouver, I thought I had reached my limit and I had to tell myself, this is my limit,” the 27-year old said. “I went back to school, and I started to miss figure skating. That helped me to come back and skate with passion. This medal is worth gold to me, and I will cherish it with all my heart that patience, sacrifice and faith is paid at the end.”

Gold was within striking range of the podium, but she lost her chance when she fell on a triple flip during a program that needed to be nearly perfect. “When I went down on it,” she said, “I thought, ‘Dang it, that’s what Frank [Carroll, her coach] told me not to do. Don’t drop that right arm.’”

Japan’s Mao Asada, the two-time world champ who stumbled into 16th place in the short program, rebounded with a stellar free skate on Thursday to move up to sixth place.

“The skate I had today was the skate I’ve been shooting for my whole career,” she said. “I really felt the fear of skating at the Olympics yesterday… It can be too much to imagine for some.”

For now, it will take some imagination even for Sotnikova to see herself as Olympic champion. “For a time,” she said, “I will be asking myself how this happened.”