SOCHI, Russia – Russia’s cupboard was so bare of world-class female figure skaters that the sport’s most dominant nation had to turn to the kids a few years ago.
Among those youngsters was Adelina Sotnikova, who won a national championship in 2009, when she was just 12.
She was too young to compete at the 2010 Olympics. When she finally got to the games this year, she was overshadowed by an even younger teammate. But on Thursday night, the 17-year-old Sotnikova looked comfortable and unburdened by the pressure of the host nation, becoming Russia’s first gold medalist in women’s Olympic figure skating.
In the signature moment of the games for Russians, Sotnikova defeated defending champion Yuna Kim of South Korea. Both women skated nearly flawless programs, but Sotnikova completed one more decisive triple jump.
“I first dreamed to be at the Olympics after the nationals in 2010,” Sotnikova said. “And when I watched the games in Vancouver, I really wanted to qualify for the next games. I knew it won’t be easy. There are so many new talented girls around.”
Well, not really in Russia. Not until Sotnikova and 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia developed into junior world champions.
And while much-heralded Lipnitskaia was stumbling in Sochi, Sotnikova soared. When she won the free skate, she further confirmed Russian command of the sport.
“This is the happiest day in my life,” Sotnikova said. “I simply stepped on the ice today and realized how much I like what I’m doing and skated really good.”
The Russians have won three figure skating gold medals at these Olympics -- women’s, pairs and team.
Sotnikova did not skate in the team event, and that provided incentive for her in the individual competition.
“When I found out that I was not in the team, it was hurtful. I felt ugly inside,” she said. “Maybe it is all for the best – an advantage for me to make me so mad.”
Sotnikova was considered a longshot against the likes of Kim, who announced her retirement after the free skate; Italy’s Carolina Kostner, who took bronze; Japan’s Mao Asada; and even Americans Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner.
But she won it all, giving Russia or the Soviet Union 27 Olympic gold medals in the sport. They own five men’s golds, 13 in pairs, seven in ice dance, and took the first team event this year.
Sotnikova was watching the scores on a monitor in the media area when she realized she won. She ran waving her arms in the air before finding her coach for a warm hug. When she got onto the podium for the flower ceremony, to raucous chants of “Ro-ssi-ya,” she jumped up and down like a teenager whose Olympic goal had come true.
“It’s the Olympics. And it was a long way for me,” she said. “To compete at the Olympic Games, I dreamed of any medal, but frankly speaking, I wanted a gold one.”
Lipnitskaia was fifth.
“I wanted to skate my best today but it didn’t work,” she said. “I’ve lost control over my jumps– tiredness and emotions.”
Asada was third in the free skate after finishing 16th in Wednesday’s short program and wound up sixth.
Sotnikova trailed Kim by just .28 going into Thursday, and she overcame that by winning the free skate 149.95 to Kim’s 144.19. The final totals were 224.59 for Sotnikova, 219.11 for Kim and 216.73 for Kostner.
Skating last, Kim needed a repeat of her Vancouver performance to hold onto the gold. She nailed six triple jumps, one less than Sotnikova, and Kim’s artistry couldn’t make up the difference.
“At that time I could die for gold in the Olympics,” she said of 2010. “But that desire, that strong wish, was not as present. The motivation was a problem, I think.”
Gold finished fourth, Wagner seventh and 15-year-old American Polina Edmunds ninth.
Wagner didn’t complain about her score, but criticized a scoring system that invites skepticism. Nine judges score each skater, and the individual judges’ scorecards are not released.
“People do not want to watch a sport where they see someone skate lights out and they can’t depend on that person to be the one who pulls through,” Wagner said. “We’ve all been on the receiving end of it, and we’ve all been on the side where you don’t really get the benefit of the doubt. People need to be held accountable.
“They need to get rid of the anonymous judging.”
Kostner, 27, skated to the sport’s iconic musical piece “Bolero.” From beginning to end, she owned the music – and by the finish, she owned much of the crowd, too.
She patted her heart when she was done, and her 142.61 was a season’s best.
“This medal is absolutely worth gold,” said the first Italian to win an Olympic figure skating singles medal. “I will cherish it in my heart. It feels so great that patience and sacrifice and hard work and faith are paid at the end.”
Sotnikova, whose interpretation marks surpassed Kostner’s but not Kim’s, skated a routine filled with action and pace, and she hit seven triple jumps. There wasn’t much interaction with the music, but the energy sold the program.
That left only Kim with a shot at gold. She couldn’t match the feat of Katarina Witt or Sonja Henie, who both won back-to-back Olympic titles.
To chants of “Jul-i-a, Jul-i-a,” Lipnitskaia took the ice first in the last group, knowing her chances to win were ruined with a fall in the short program. Again she struggled in the second half of her routine, stepping out of one jump and falling on another. She showed little emotion when she finished, in direct contrast to when she helped Russia win the team gold.
With a slight frown, she left the ice, waved weakly to the crowd from the kiss-and-cry area, and wound up fifth, far below expectations.
But Sotnikova made up for it for Russia.
Rachel Cohen and Leonid Chisov of the Associated Press and freelancer Marie Millikan contributed to this story.