SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Julia Lipnitskaia is back in Sochi.
Must be time for figure skating’s main event.
The Russian teen practiced at the Olympic arena Tuesday morning after training in Moscow between the team event and the individual competition. Her performances Feb. 8-9 rocketed her to instant international stardom, and for the week-and-a-half since, fans around the globe have eagerly awaited the chance to see her again.
That opportunity finally arrives Wednesday with the women’s short program. And this time, Yuna Kim will be skating too.
As brilliant as Lipnitskaia’s performances were, they didn’t come against the reigning Olympic gold medalist. South Korea didn’t qualify for the team event, and Kim hadn’t even arrived in Sochi when the 15-year-old Lipnitskaia departed for Moscow.
Kim was the sensation of the Vancouver Games, when she came in with massive expectations from her country and the world and somehow managed to outdo herself with a dominant victory.
“That was my time,” she said Tuesday through an Olympic translator.
Kim insisted she was better four years ago, but if the world championships were any indication, she is still much more than good enough. After taking more than a year off, she won handily in March in her return to major competitions.
Yuna sat out the recent Grand Prix season because of a foot injury, though she has looked as effortless as ever in her practices in Sochi. That missed time did add one twist to the short program: Because she wasn’t able to rack up many points in international competitions, she is skating early Wednesday, in the third group out of five.
Lipnitskaia doesn’t skate until the final group, which also includes Italy’s Carolina Kostner and Japan’s Mao Asada, the silver and bronze medalists at the world championships.
Yuna predicted the early start time, away from her biggest rivals, would be relaxing.
“I want to be perfect on that day,” she said. “I really want the event to start.”
For the women who took part in the team competition, the week-and-a-half between programs allowed them to recover mentally and physically. The men had a much shorter turnaround, and that may help to explain their sloppy free skates.
No such problems for the women. Lipnitskaia headed to Moscow in the interim. The Japanese skaters went to Armenia, the Americans to Austria.
Two-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner said the long break and the relocation made the team and individual competitions feel as though they’re part of completely different events, so she’s confident there won’t be any lingering effects.
The Americans aren’t favored to make the podium, and if none of them do after Thursday’s free skate, it would be the first time since 1936 that no U.S. man or woman won a medal in singles.
Reigning national champion Gracie Gold listed all the pressures weighing on the top contenders. The American women don’t want to be shut out for the second straight Olympics. Kim is seeking to become only the third woman to win back-to-back figure skating golds, joining Katarina Witt and Sonja Henie.
Asada is looking for her first gold after settling for a distant second in 2010. And Lipnitskaia has the host country’s hopes riding on her slim shoulders.
“Everyone has a different bag of expectations they carry,” Gold said.
The whirlwind of an Olympics wears down any skater, Gold said. The champion is usually the one who grits it out the best.