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Female Figure Skaters Compete For Gold — And The Sport's Future

Yuna Kim, of South Korea, won gold in Vancouver. She's leading the field after Wednesday's short program.
Adrian Dennis
AFP/Getty Images
Yuna Kim, of South Korea, won gold in Vancouver. She's leading the field after Wednesday's short program.

If there is such a thing as a home rink advantage, that makes the competition in the women's figure skating program fierce. Russian fans erupted with glee for Adelina Sotnikova on Wednesday. And then there's Yulia Lipnitskaya, a 15-year-old Russian phenom who has thrilled Russian fans and stunned the figure skating world.

Scott Hamilton, a 1984 figure skating gold medalist, has been watching Lipnitskaya closely.

"She's beyond her years. Like, you look at her and she qualified [to be age-eligible] for the Olympics by days," he says.

"I'm looking at her through very critical skating eyes, but the world's looking at her as something to behold, and something to be appreciated," Hamilton says. "And like a great work of art, everybody's going to look at it in their own way, but she's been universally appreciated."

Lipnitskaya is just one of the young upstarts. There's also the defending Olympic champion Yuna Kim from South Korea, who has performed flawlessly, coming first in the short program with a lead that will be difficult to catch. Then there's Italian Carolina Kostner, a contender who finished Wednesday in the top three.

Behind those formidable women are the Americans: One is two-time national champion Ashley Wagner, who stumbled and fell twice during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships last month. It was seen universally as a disaster, including by Wagner herself.

"It was a horrible, horrible, horrible event for me," she says. "I was really shaken after that, just because I want to be known as a skater who can perform well under pressure, and that skater did not show up at my national championship."

Despite that devastating and controversial performance, Wagner was picked to compete for the U.S.

"Having my federation pretty much tell me that they thought I deserve to be on this team, that definitely kind of boosted my confidence a bit, especially after such a disappointing nationals."

At 22, Wagner is the most senior of the women. She says she's more than able and ready to get on the podium, and after a safe program with no real problems — but no real thrills — she's in striking distance in sixth place. Gracie Gold, 18, is leading the Americans in fourth place.

Polina Edmunds is in seventh place after the women's short program Wednesday.
Bernat Armangue / AP
Polina Edmunds is in seventh place after the women's short program Wednesday.

The U.S. also has its own 15-year-old phenom. Polina Edmunds is in seventh, and she says she's not going down without a fight.

"In skating, it is about your performance, but competing with the others; and it is a competition," she says. "And so when you get out there, you know, you have to throw down the gauntlet and say, 'This is what I can do; beat it.'

"That's sometimes that part that is really easy — just to, you know, focus on yourself, do your job, get off the ice with that little fire in your belly," she says. "That competition with other people is something that I really enjoy."

Hamilton says it's not just a medal that's riding on the competition — it's the future of the sport.

"We need a skater that's compelling, magnificent and knows how to draw a crowd, to step up and say, 'I'm rebuilding the professional ranks,' " he says. "And you'd see hands go up and say, 'Hallelujah.' "

No pressure ladies, no pressure. The women complete their competition Thursday.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.