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Russia holds lead in team event, Lipnitskaia soars

SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Like old times, Russia is dominating Olympic figure skating.

The host nation's disappointment over not winning a gold medal in Vancouver will fade quickly if its skaters' performances in the new event of team figure skating carry on throughout the Sochi Games. Fifteen-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia had the look of an Olympic champion on Saturday night, dazzling the home crowd with a near-perfect routine in the women's short program. Then it was Russia's backup pair, Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, earning cheers as they routed the field in the free skate.

With only the men's and women's free skate and the free dance left to contest in Sunday's finale, Russia has 47 points to Canada's 41 and the United States' 34. Italy has 31 and Japan has 30. With her countrymen chanting her first name, Lipnitskaia put on a mature presentation that had fans stomping their feet and showering the ice with flowers and dolls. Her flexibility and rapid rotation on her spins and jumps were reminiscent of Tara Lipinski when she won the 1998 Olympic gold.

And Lipinski, who was the same age at those games in Nagano, was on hand to see it. "I have been saying the whole year that she is a dark horse," Lipinski said of Lipnitskaia — yes, the names are nearly the same. "I loved the energy and the fight in her."

Lipnitskaia easily outskated far more experienced competitors Carolina Kostner of Italy, who is in her third Olympics, and Japan's Mao Asada, in her second. The moment wasn't too big for her in any way.

"My trainers told me people would cry," she said. "They told me they would be clapping to the music. But I didn't think the spectators would be so loud. But it helped me to perform really well." Just like her comrades.

In the new event, Russia has finished no lower than third in any of its four disciplines. The nation that for decades held a stronghold on figure skating medals as the Soviet Union and then as Russia — 51 in all — appears ready to hog the podium again after winning just two in Vancouver.

There was nothing ghastly about the performance of Stolbova and Klimov to music from "The Addams Family." Stepping in for world champs Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, who won the short program, Stolbova and Klimov had the audience in the Iceberg at Sochi's Olympic Park on its feet well before they finished their routine.

"We feel a great amount of responsibility for our country and, of course, (had) the fans on our side," Klimov said through a translator. "We did believe we have to be ready for that and do our best." It was a good night for the Americans, too. The team was seventh heading into Saturday, but thanks in great part to world champion ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White, it got back into contention for a medal. The 2010 ice dancing silver medalists quickstepped to the rescue by winning the short dance.

"We don't feel like we're trying to carry any sort of burden or load," White said. "We're counting on the whole team to pull through together and I think that's what makes us such a strong team." But not nearly as strong as the Russians, led by a teenager who doesn't look her age.

Lipnitskaia's flexibility on every move, combined with her speed, not only enraptured the audience, but impressed the judges to the tune of 72.90 points. "We are different," Lipinski said. "Even though I was young, I remember I wanted to show I could skate with the big guns."

One of this year's big-timers, Italy's Kostner, was graceful and elegant when skating to "Ave Maria" on her 27th birthday. She was second. Japan's Asada, a two-time world champion, fell on her trademark triple axel and dropped to third, just ahead of Ashley Wagner of Alexandria, Va.

"I was very nervous today, more than I expected, and that is the reason for my mistakes on the ice," Asada said. Wagner struggled at the U.S. championships and was placed on the Olympic team despite finishing fourth. This short program was more representative of her talent, although she two-footed a landing that cost her points.

"That performance for me was incredible," Wagner said. "I needed that, for myself, for my confidence. I needed to put out that performance." Defending ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada were second even though she bobbled during their early set of twizzles.

"I think I might have lost a little bit of speed after the first (twizzle)," Virtue said. "It wasn't a mental lapse." Davis and White, both from Michigan, unquestionably deserved the top spot. Their twizzles — traveling one-foot spins — were so precise it seemed as if they were one skater. Their concluding rotational lift to music from "My Fair Lady" was spot-on.

"Everything hasn't been 100 percent perfect," Davis said of the U.S. performances. "But that's part of what a team is, is being there for each other. We have a really great standard."

AP Sports Writers Rachel Cohen and Jon Krawczynski and freelancer Marie Millikan contributed to this story.

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