After an extended absence from international competition, defending Olympic figure skating gold medalist Yuna Kim of South Korea picked up where she left off in Vancouver four years ago, performing a short-program routine in Sochi Wednesday that made it look as if she’d never been away.
Kim, 23, performed an airy, technically impeccable short-program routine that positioned her to become the first woman since East Germany’s Katarina Witt (1984-88) to repeat as Olympic champion.
The three American skaters competing Wednesday — Gracie Gold, Ashley Wagner and Polina Edmunds — turned in strong performances and are in medal contention heading into Thursday's free skate. But Kim solidified her status as the favorite for gold.
Kim, who set records at the 2010 Vancouver Games that still stand, scored a 74.92, her best in an abbreviated 2013-2014 season. That performance, early in Wednesday’s program, set the tone for the handful of top contenders who would follow.
She told them, in effect, that they’d have to be perfect to beat her.
A kid and a veteran came closest.
The kid, 17-year-old Adelina Sotnikova of Russia, skated after a shocking fall by her highly touted younger teammate, Yulia Lipnitskaya, that took the wind out of the home crowd on a day in which the Russian national hockey team was knocked out of medal contention.
Sotnikova stepped into the void and delivered a high-energy routine that announced herself as a force of her own. She bunny-hopped in triumph when she finished, as the Russians in the stands went wild.
Her 74.64 put her in second place, tantalizing close to winning Russia's first gold in ladies' figure skating.
The veteran, 27-year-old Carolina Kostner of Italy, appeared poised for her first podium finish in three Olympics. She scored a third-place 74.12.
She and Sotnikova loom less than a point behind Kim.
America’s top contender, 18-year-old Gold, seemed nervous, and was hesitant in some of her jumps. But she finished with a score of 68.63, putting her in fourth place, in striking distance of a medal.
Gold knew she could have done much better. After the number flashed on the overhead screen, she appeared disappointed. Afterwards, she admitted to allowing her nerves to get to her.
"I had butterflies. My legs felt like jelly," Gold said afterward, according to NBC Olympics.
Behind Gold was Lipnitskaya, just 15 years old, who found herself shouldering an inordinate share of the burden of her host country’s hopes. She’d dominated the short and long programs in the team figure staking event, propelling the Russians to gold. On Wednesday, she performed just a couple hours after the Russian hockey team lost in the quarterfinals, raising the stakes.
For the first half of her short program, Lipnitskaya was focused and perfect. Then, her age seemed to show itself, and she suffered an uncharacteristic tumble, a hard fall to the ice. She hung her head, unsmiling, while waiting for her score: 65.23.
American Wagner, a two-time U.S. national champion who barely made the Olympic team, scored 65.21, placing her in sixth.
Her teammate, 15-year-old Edmunds, made her senior international competition debut with a spunky routine that earned a 61.04, enough to qualify for Thursday’s long program in seventh place.
Kim, a huge celebrity in South Korea, moved home from her training base in Canada after winning gold there, and scaled back her competition schedule for two years. Then she resumed where she’d left off, winning the 2013 world championships. Her 2013-14 season was hobbled by a foot injury; she returned to international competition only two months ago. She has announced that she will retire after Sochi.
But first, she wants to make history.
Judging from Wednesday's finish, it will be a battle.