SOCHI, Russia — Where to begin, given all the story lines?
With South Korea’s Yuna Kim, skating’s international woman of mystery, showing she still is the best female figure skater in the world — but only by a whisker after Wednesday’s Olympic short program ended in essentially a three-way tie among her, Adelina Sotnikova of Russia and Carolina Kostner of Italy?
With Russian sensation Yulia Lipnitskaya falling on a jump and leaving herself to struggle for any Olympic medal in Thursday’s free skate?
With Sotnikova, appreciative recipient of some home-cooked judging that provided her the highest technical score of the night?
With Kostner, who had fallen apart in finishing 16th at the 2010 Olympics, confidently changing one of her jumps “spontaneously” to add technical weight to a mesmerizing performance that thoroughly captured the mood of her music, Schubert’s “Ave Maria”?
With U.S. champion Gracie Gold, who fought to save jumps so her Olympic moment wouldn’t be a splat?
Or with Mao Asada of Japan, 2010 silver medalist and two-time world champion, imploding to finish in 16th place by falling and failing to do a required combination?
So the best way to start is a simple accounting.
Defending champion Kim (74.92 points), Sotnikova (74.64) and Kostner (74.12) separated themselves substantially from everyone but Gold (68.63). Lipnitskaya (65.23), in fifth, is an even thinner whisker ahead of Ashley Wagner (65.21), whose U.S. teammate, Polina Edmunds, is next at 61.04.
Kim admitted to being unusually nervous. Kostner said she was scared out of her mind. Sotnikova might have been if she had known the Russian men’s hockey team had lost, focusing her nation’s sports fans squarely on figure skating.
In the four years since winning the 2010 Olympic title with a performance for the ages, Kim took an entire season off and competed just four times internationally, including two world championships, prior to her second Olympics. She looked as dominant as ever in winning last year’s world title, but that edge was gone Wednesday.
“I did a lot of clean short programs in practice,” Kim said. “And I was sure I could do a clean short in the competition. [But] in the warmup, I was very nervous. I felt stiff. I couldn’t jump at all. I just tried to believe in myself.”
Skating to “Send in the Clowns,” Kim’s program was clean. But its lack of any transitional moves into jumps dragged down her score, as did a footwork sequence and layback spin that got reduced base values.
Lipnitskaya, 15, insisted she felt no pressure despite having been turned into the talk of her nation with two dazzling performances in helping Russia win the team event gold last week.
“I feel sad,” she said, buoyed only by a score not as low as she expected.
That the air went out of the building after Lipnitskaya fell proved a boon to Kostner, who skated next.
“I was a little afraid going after Yulia,” Kostner said. “I tried to think positive and light things. I am very relieved.”
Gold, in her first Olympics, did exactly what she hoped, refusing to give in to the doubts that have plagued her when jumps started going awry.
“I was thinking, ‘Is my Olympic moment going to be on my butt?’ I said no,” she said. “Going out there and shooting fear in the face is what I am about now.
“I wanted to skate like I belong on the podium. A 68 is not just a respectable score but a very good one.”
Kim drew the final starting position in Thursday’s free skate. She finds going last “burdensome.” But it also could be the perfect dramatic flourish if Kim were to finish her competitive career with a second title, joining Germany’s Katarina Witt and Norway’s Sonja Henie as the only multiple winners.
With that ending, there would be no problem knowing where to begin.