It was a tense moment at the Iceberg Skating Palace, but when the final scores flashed on the screen, the crowd went wild. Russia's Adelina Sotnikova had dethroned South Korea’s Yuna Kim. The 17-year-old gold medalist ran around the ice center sobbing and hugging her coaches and countrymen.
No one gave Sotnikova a chance before Wednesday. The spotlight was on Julia Lipnitskaia, who had stolen the country’s heart with flawless routines in the team event to bring home gold for Russia. But the 15-year-old Lipnitskaia wiped out on a triple flip Wednesday and then broke down in tears. She fell again Thursday, eliciting a sucking gasp from the crowd.
But Sotnikova gave the crowd new hope, prompting a standing ovation. Her free skate was far better than her previous personal best, and she burst into tears as she finished her final spin. NBC commentators Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski briefly wondered if the overjoyed Russian crowd helped to pad Sotnikova’s score of 149.95, giving her a 224.59 total. In the end, Sotnikova skated with the most heart, they said, and that’s what wins.
South Korea’s Yuna Kim still had a solid performance. Nerves almost got the best of her in the short program Wednesday night. But every move was timed perfectly to the music in a flowing performance, even though she has rarely competed on the international scene since running away with gold in 2010. Kim did not do as many jumps as Sotnikova on Thursday, though, meaning her potential score from the judges was lower.
Winning bronze was Carolina Kostner, who had considered quitting skating after poor finishes in 2006 and 2010. But she said she loved skating too much to quit, and with clean, expressive routines Wednesday and Thursday, she took home Italy’s first medal in women’s figure skating. “You just need to live in the moment,” Kostner said Wednesday. “Be courageous, to lean into the discomfort and say, ‘OK, I stand in the beginning position, and I'm scared out of my mind. But I just go for it. I just let myself go, and it's just amazing.’”
U.S. national champion Gracie Gold skated a clean but nervy short program Wednesday. Stage fright contributed to two poor jumps, she said, forcing her to recover balance in midair to avoid falls. “To be able to come up here and feel stiff and white as a ghost but stare fear in the face is what I’m all about now,” said the 18-year-old Gold. She did fall Thursday, perhaps costing her a medal, but she seemed satisfied with her first Olympics.
Gold’s fourth-place finish meant the U.S. got pushed off the podium in both men’s and women’s singles for the first time in nearly 80 years. It was still a strong showing for the Americans, though, with Ashley Wagner and Polina Edmunds coming in seventh and ninth, respectively. Edmunds, 15, fell Thursday, but she was still about eight points better than her previous personal best.
In the end, it was Sotnikova’s day, reinvigorating the Russian fans. She connected with the crowd like no other skater, and she brought home gold to boot.