SOCHI, RUSSIA —
Kim Yuna has chosen to avoid the hustle and bustle of the Olympic city. Present or not, the South Korean's showdown with Julia Lipnitskaya is the talk of Sochi and come Feb. 19, the women's short program will be the hottest ticket in town.
Lipnitskaya has already shown the world what her pint-sized, 15-year-old frame is capable of by leading the host country to glory in the team competition.
“Amazing, unbelievable,” gushed Robin Cousins, the 1980 Olympic men's champion, in an interview with Reuters.
“It's her first year as a senior, first time out, home country, a lot of pressure - how does somebody cope?
“It [Sunday's gold-winning display] was a practice session. To have that maturity on shoulders that are so young was unbelievable. Potentially she could be in three Olympics.”
Lipnitskaya is fearless on the ice and lifts off into soaring triple-triple jumps without much build-up or warning.
The Russian is so fast around the rink that she probably covers twice as much ground during her programs as her rivals. As for her spins, she disappears into a blur that does not seem to make her dizzy but leaves everyone else in a whirl.
“She's an incredible talent. That type of talent does not come along anywhere, in any country, that often,” Cousins, who is commentating for the BBC in Sochi, said at the Iceberg Skating Palace.
“It's thrilling to have been able to watch it. The scary thing is that there is still a lot she has to learn and there's still a lot more she can offer. It ain't there yet but, my goodness, she has a solid base to work from.”
Lipnitskaya is fortunate to have made it to the Olympics. If she had been born 25 days later she would have been ineligible for the Games because rules state that only skaters who turned 15 before July 1, 2013, can compete.
Her date of birth enabled the Russian to become the youngest figure skater in 78 years to win Olympic gold and she could join American Tara Lipinski in a select club of 15-year olds who have captured individual Olympic gold.
Lipnitskaya leads the season's standings in the free program, with her stirring portrayal of the doomed little girl in the red coat from Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List earning her 141.51 in the team event.
Kim, in contrast, is somewhat of an unknown quantity this season. She has not competed against her main rivals at any top-level events, having opted to skip the grand prix series.
However, four years after two breathtaking programs earned her world-record scores - 78.50 in the short and 150.06 in the long - she will be back at an Olympics as the world champion.
Some think the 23-year-old may have the upper hand because she is more rested - South Korea did not participate in the team competition - and she may also catch her rivals by surprise as she has yet to perform in Sochi.
Cousins dismisses the notion. “The beauty of YouTube is that you can see everybody skate. There is no hiding anywhere now,” he said.
“It's not going to change that much at the Olympics than it would have been at the national championships or any other event.
“Yuna will do what she always does when she steps on the ice. I'm hoping she will perform the way she did at her national championships as it was glorious.”