The Edge
6:24 pm
Wed February 19, 2014

Female Figure Skaters Compete For Gold — And The Sport's Future

Originally published on Wed February 19, 2014 8:55 pm

If there is such a thing as a home rink advantage, that makes the competition in the women's figure skating program fierce. Russian fans erupted with glee for Adelina Sotnikova on Wednesday. And then there's Yulia Lipnitskaya, a 15-year-old Russian phenom who has thrilled Russian fans and stunned the figure skating world.

Scott Hamilton, a 1984 figure skating gold medalist, has been watching Lipnitskaya closely.

"She's beyond her years. Like, you look at her and she qualified [to be age-eligible] for the Olympics by days," he says.

"I'm looking at her through very critical skating eyes, but the world's looking at her as something to behold, and something to be appreciated," Hamilton says. "And like a great work of art, everybody's going to look at it in their own way, but she's been universally appreciated."

Lipnitskaya is just one of the young upstarts. There's also the defending Olympic champion Yuna Kim from South Korea, who has performed flawlessly, coming first in the short program with a lead that will be difficult to catch. Then there's Italian Carolina Kostner, a contender who finished Wednesday in the top three.

Behind those formidable women are the Americans: One is two-time national champion Ashley Wagner, who stumbled and fell twice during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships last month. It was seen universally as a disaster, including by Wagner herself.

"It was a horrible, horrible, horrible event for me," she says. "I was really shaken after that, just because I want to be known as a skater who can perform well under pressure, and that skater did not show up at my national championship."

Despite that devastating and controversial performance, Wagner was picked to compete for the U.S.

"Having my federation pretty much tell me that they thought I deserve to be on this team, that definitely kind of boosted my confidence a bit, especially after such a disappointing nationals."

At 22, Wagner is the most senior of the women. She says she's more than able and ready to get on the podium, and after a safe program with no real problems — but no real thrills — she's in striking distance in sixth place. Gracie Gold, 18, is leading the Americans in fourth place.

The U.S. also has its own 15-year-old phenom. Polina Edmunds is in seventh, and she says she's not going down without a fight.

"In skating, it is about your performance, but competing with the others; and it is a competition," she says. "And so when you get out there, you know, you have to throw down the gauntlet and say, 'This is what I can do; beat it.'

"That's sometimes that part that is really easy — just to, you know, focus on yourself, do your job, get off the ice with that little fire in your belly," she says. "That competition with other people is something that I really enjoy."

Hamilton says it's not just a medal that's riding on the competition — it's the future of the sport.

"We need a skater that's compelling, magnificent and knows how to draw a crowd, to step up and say, 'I'm rebuilding the professional ranks,' " he says. "And you'd see hands go up and say, 'Hallelujah.' "

No pressure ladies, no pressure. The women complete their competition Thursday.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're now entering the final stretch of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. That means a serious dose of technical prowess, athleticism and style. In other words, women's figure skating has begun.

Here's NPR's Sonari Glinton.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPETITION MUSIC)

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: If there is such a thing as home rink advantage, then that makes the competition in the women's figure skating program fierce - I mean fierce.

(AUDIENCE CHEERS)

GLINTON: Those are Russian fans erupting with glee for Adelina Sotnikova. And then there's Yulia Lipnitskaya, a 15-year-old Russian phenom who's thrilled Russian fans and stunned the figure skating world.

SCOTT HAMILTON: I think she's beyond her years. Like, you look at her and she qualified for the Olympics by days, to be age-eligible for the Olympics days.

GLINTON: That's 1984 men's figure skating gold medalist Scott Hamilton.

HAMILTON: I'm watching her, and I'm looking at her through very critical - kind of skating eyes. But the world's looking at her as something to behold, and something to be appreciated. And like a great work of art - you know, everybody is going to look at it in their own way. But she's been universally appreciated.

GLINTON: And that's just one of the young upstarts. There's the defending Olympic champion Kim Yuna, from South Korea. She performed flawlessly tonight, coming in first in the short program with a lead that will be difficult to catch. And then you've got, from Italy, Carolina Costner, who's also a contender finishing tonight in the top three. Behind those formidable women are the Americans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HAMILTON: First jump here...

GLINTON: Here's Ashley Wagner, skating during the national championships.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HAMILTON: ...says it all. It's the triple-triple combination that she's worked so hard on. Triple flip. Triple toe. And again, she was a little forward on the triple flip, and there was no way...

GLINTON: It was sort of seen universally as a disaster, including by Wagner herself.

ASHLEY WAGNER: It was a horrible, horrible, horrible event for me. And I was really shaken after that, just because I want to be known as a skater who can perform well under pressure. And that skater did not show up at my national championship.

GLINTON: Despite that devastating and controversial performance, Wagner was picked to compete for the U.S.

WAGNER: Having my federation pretty much tell me that they thought I deserved to be on this team, that definitely kind of boosted my confidence a bit, especially after such a disappointing nationals.

GLINTON: At 22, Wagner is the most senior of the women. Wagner says she's more than able and ready to get on the podium. And after a safe program with no real problems but no real thrills, she's in striking distance in sixth place

Gracie Gold, who's 18, is leading the Americans in fourth. But the U.S. has its own 15-year-old phenom: Polina Edmunds is in seventh. And she says she's not going down without a fight.

POLINA EDMUNDS: In skating, it is about your performance but competing with the others, and it is a competition. And so when you get out there, you know, you have to throw down the gauntlet and say, this is what I can do; beat it.

And that's - sometimes, that part that - it's really easy just to, you know, focus on yourself, do your job, get off the ice. But that little fire in your belly, that competition with other people, is something that I really enjoy.

GLINTON: Scott Hamilton says it's not just the medal that's riding on the competition. It's the future of the sport.

HAMILTON: We need a skater that's compelling, magnificent and knows how to draw a crowd, to step up and say: I'm rebuilding the professional ranks. And you'd see hands go up and say, hallelujah!

GLINTON: No pressure, ladies. No pressure. The women complete their competition tomorrow.

Sonari Glinton, NPR New, Sochi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.