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Sotnikova stuns Kim to win Olympic gold in Sochi

by Jack Gallagher

Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova pulled off an upset of epic proportions by defeating Yuna Kim for the gold medal at the Sochi Games on Thursday night at the Iceberg Skating Palace.

The 17-year-old Sotnikova, who was second after the short program, overtook the defending Olympic and world champion with a clutch performance.

Sotnikova faced down the pressure of the huge shadow that Kim casts over the sport in an inspiring effort to “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.” She skated cleanly with the exception of two-footing a landing at the end of a triple-combo jump.

The Moscow native became the first Russian woman to ever win the gold in singles with a score of 224.59 points. She prevailed based on the strength of her technical scores in the free skate, which were nearly six points higher than Kim’s.

Just to put Sotnikova’s achievement in perspective, in three seasons of competing as a senior, she had never even won a Grand Prix event. She hit seven triple jumps in the victory.

Kim held a lead of less than one point over Sotnikova after the short program and took the ice in the most difficult situation imaginable – skating in front of a partisan crowd waiting to see if one of their own could hold on and take the title. Sotnikova went three skaters before Kim.

The South Korean star skated last in dramatic fashion to “Adios Nonino.” She began with a triple lutz/triple toe loop combo, then landed a triple flip and a nice triple salchow/double toe loop combo and appeared on her way.

Kim skated cleanly, hitting six triple jumps, and ended with a total of 219.11. It would have been no surprise if she had taken the gold again.

But the 23-year-old came up short in her bid to equal Norway’s Sonja Henie (1924, 1928, 1932) and Germany’s Katarina Witt (1984, 1988) as the only women to defend the Olympic title.

Sotnikova was understandably overwhelmed by her accomplishment.

“I smashed my season’s best. In fact, I smashed my highest score for my whole career and I did it at the Olympics,” Sotnikova exclaimed. “I didn’t think I could skate like I did today.”

Sotnikova said she discovered something in herself she didn’t know she had.

“I found something totally different in myself today,” she said. “I had a bit of nerves before I skated but just before I started I was completely calm. I just felt how much I love to skate. I think I found a new me.”

Sotnikova drew motivation from the raucous support of the home audience.

“The atmosphere was wonderful. I felt something amazing coming from the crowd,” she acknowledged. “I could hear shouts and screams the whole time of ‘keep going Adelina’, and ‘you can do it’. I just couldn’t skate badly.”

Kim sounded relieved to be at the end of a long road.

“Now I’m only thinking it’s over, finally,” she said. “I didn’t watch the skaters before me because I was preparing my program. I just thought I did everything I could. I didn’t feel any pressure, but it has been four years since Vancouver so I was exhausted.”

Kim cited the practice grind as a reason for her sentiments.

“I’m so glad it’s over. Training is so hard for any athlete,” she stated. “I’m so happy to be here because it’s my last competition as a skater. When I finished I was so tired.”

On the surface at least, Kim seemed indifferent to what could have been considered a controversial result.

“I didn’t watch the skaters so I didn’t know about the other scores or how they skated,” she said. “I can’t do anything about this. I did all I could.”

When asked about the significant gap in the technical marks, Kim didn’t take the bait.

“The score is given by the judges,” she said. “I’m not in the right position to comment on it. And my words can change nothing.”

In her third trip to the Olympics Carolina Kostner gave an outstanding performance to “Bolero” to claim the bronze with 216.73. Kostner executed her program in a clinical fashion to earn the first medal ever for her country in the discipline

“I have nothing left. I am exhausted,” she relayed. “On the ice it was just amazing. Amazing to be here and honored to be here. It was a dream to skate a dream competition and it happened to be at the Olympic Games.”

American Gracie Gold (205.53) was fourth with a solid outing to “Sleeping Beauty.”

Julia Lipnitskaia went with the music to “Schindler’s List” and opened with a pair of nice combo jumps, but started to lose steam midway through. She two-footed the landing on a triple loop, then fell on a triple salchow as the audience groaned.

Lipnitskaia placed fifth with 200.57 after having overshadowed Sotnikova entering the singles.

Mao Asada skated to “Piano Concerto No. 2″and rebounded from Wednesday’s disastrous short program in impressive fashion to finish sixth. She landed her opening triple axel – the first time she has hit the jump cleanly in over a year – then powered through her program in impressive fashion, hitting eight triple jumps in all.

She did underrotate a triple loop and a triple toe loop, but still emerged with a fine score. Her free program count of 142.71 was a personal best.

Mao had the crowd behind her and was clearly moved at the conclusion of her skate when she wept openly and left the ice wiping tears from her face. She received a score worthy of the performance and ended with a total of 198.22.

The sad part is that her effort will be just a footnote in the competition after she came in 16th in the short program. Mao was gallant and graceful, giving her legion of fans a beautiful example of why she is one of the greatest skaters ever.

Because of her result in the short program, Mao skated much earlier than usual in the second group. The show she put on illustrated her amazing ability, but also brought with it a touch of sadness as it reminded all that she had a legitimate chance to win it all here but could not get the job done.

“I was determined to carry out what I’ve been working on all along,” she commented. “I wasn’t that sharp in practice this morning and yesterday was a massive disappointment.”

Mao said she owed a debt of gratitude to all who had backed her.

“I owed a lot to those who supported me over the years and I wanted to pay them back with a great long program,” she said. “I wasn’t worried about the score. I had to fight the inner fear in me.”

Mao tried to look at the bright side when reflecting on her result.

“I may not be able to bring back an Olympic medal to Japan, but I feel like I had the best performance I possibly could,” she said. “I’m obviously disappointed with myself from yesterday but everything I’ve been practicing for the past four years bore fruit today. I like to think I’ve matured since Vancouver in my own distinct way.”

Mao also paid tribute to her biggest rival throughout her long career.

“Yuna Kim is a fantastic skater,” she said. “I’ve been competing with her since our junior days as a fellow Asian and our time together is a fond memory.”

Akiko Suzuki skated to “Phantom of the Opera” and failed to put herself in medal contention with a spotty showing. She hit a triple flip/double toe loop/double loop combo at the outset, but it went downhill quickly as she fell on a triple flip and had a pair of shaky landings on a triple lutz and triple flip.

Suzuki earned a tally of 186.32 and ended up in eighth, just as she had in Vancouver four years earlier.

“I felt good out there from start to finish,” she said. “I really enjoyed it from the bottom of my heart. I feel liberated now. There are some things I wasn’t able to do during my time here, but I’m relieved now.”

The 28-year-old Suzuki said looking at her journey in its entirety made the going easier this night.

“I thought about the time in my career when I wasn’t able to skate because of an illness (an eating disorder),” she recalled. “That made things a lot easier to deal with.”

Suzuki sent a message to other skaters about not letting age be a barrier.

“I never thought I would be skating at my age, so I like to think I’ve been able to give hope for all the late-bloomers out there,” she said. “My coach told me to think of the rink as a stage and that’s how I approached it.”

Kanako Murakami competed to “Papa Can You Hear Me” and finished 12th with 170.98. She started nicely with a triple toe loop/triple toe loop combo, but was deducted for landing on the wrong edge on her triple lutz. She hit six triple jumps in all.

Murakami admitted she didn’t live up to her ability in either program here.

“I’ve got a few regrets,” she said. “I was concerned about a few things, and those concerns did end up impacting the performance.

“I was really disappointed yesterday, and when I got up in the morning I was still disappointed. In the end, I just went for broke, but things still didn’t turn out the way I wanted them to be. ”

Murakami acknowledged that the stress in the Winter Games is off the charts.

“There’s pressure at the Olympics that you don’t feel at any of the other competitions,” she noted.

The 19-year-old indicated she wants to display her fighting spirit in the next big event on the calendar.

“I definitely want to make up for this at the world championships (in Saitama next month),” she said. “I want revenge. I want to be a skater who can wow the crowd.”

The performance of the Japanese trio next month will be very important following their disappointing showing here. Japan’s top two placements must be equal to or less than 13 at the worlds to retain its three spots for the 2015 event.