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Watching Yulia Lipnitskaya through the eyes of another prodigy … Nadia Comaneci

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SOCHI, Russia – There is plain silence, and then there is the sort of silence that smothers the Iceberg Skating Palace when a little girl named Yulia Lipnitskaya kneels near the center of the ice and waits for the music to begin. She is 15 years old but she looks 12 and a country holds its breath for her.

More than 6,000 miles away, in the American heartland, a woman holds her breath for her, too.

“I’m so excited to see her,” Nadia Comaneci said a couple of hours before the music starts. “She is so wonderful she makes you forget that she wasn’t born with these moves.”

Not so long ago – wait, can it really be 38 years? – that was what people were saying about Nadia. You could forget that she wasn’t born with these moves. She was 14 years old, she looked 12, and in a few days in Montreal at the Summer Olympics she changed the world. She took to the uneven bars as part of the Romanian gymnastics team and put on a performance so perfect, so blindingly perfect, that judges for the first time in international competition simply could not find a flaw.

The scoreboard flashed 1.00 because there was no capacity to display a perfect 10.

From that moment on, perfection in sports meant something different and little girls across the world wanted to be Nadia Comaneci, winner of three gold medals – including the all-around – in 1976. She would go on to win two more gold medals in 1980.

“People talk about nerves of someone so young,” Nadia says. “But when you are that young, you do not think about the same things as you do when you are older. I can understand how (Yulia) feels. When I think of being 14, nobody knew me. There was no buildup. There was no pressure. I was free.”

The music begins at the Iceberg Skating Palace – the song is “You Don’t Give Up on Love” by the Russian composer Mark Minkov – and Lipnitskaya begins tracing a heart on the ice. She performed this short program once already at these Games, in the team competition, and that performance made her a worldwide sensation.

“Lipnitskaya Is A Goddess” a Russian headline read.

“Russian teenager soars to gold, stardom, with more to come,” was the headline for U.S. News and World Report.

“Fifteen-Year-Old is Sensation of Sochi,” read a German newspaper.

VIDEO: Watch Lipnitskaya’s short program routine

It is striking to see someone so young perform so brilliantly under the world’s glare. I ask Nadia why it moves us so much. She suggests that maybe it makes us remember being young and feeling invincible ourselves.

“Yes, I love to see young athletes, 14 or 15 or 16 years old, do so wonderfully,” Nadia said. “I don’t know if I think about myself, but I love to see that young confidence. You can see it in her. You can see she just goes there, and she’s just doing what she loves and has trained to do. She knows she’s good.”

Lipnitskaya stops tracing, gets up, acts like she is getting out of the race. And she begins. She is so light and small, you wonder if her skates even make a sound on the ice. She builds up speed. Her first jump is a combination triple Lutz-triple toe loop. Someone says this will tell us everything about her nerves. The silence of the mostly Russian crowd has never broken. When she lands the first jump, there are halted cheers. When she lands the second, the noise seems loud enough to lift her off the ice.

“I remember what I told myself before I went out in Montreal,” Nadia had said. “I thought of my best routine in practice. And I told myself, ‘OK, just do that.’ It seemed so easy for me because of that. Just do what you did in practice. …  She knows she only has to do what she does in practice. She does not have to do any more or less. It’s when you try to do more that you can lose focus.”

The first two jumps cleared, Lipnitskaya skates beautifully. The experts all around are nodding to each other as she lands her double Axel and then runs through various artistic moves in time with the music. The crowd can begin to sense something wonderful is happening and their cheers begin to crescendo. Lipnitskaya seems to sense their confidence, and she skates a little faster.

For Nadia, once she got that first 10 in Montreal, what followed was a wonderful blur – she scored six more 10s, won three gold medals, success fed success.

“Oh, I remember when I was finished,” she says, “people were saying, ‘Who is this girl? And where is Romania by the way?’ … That was my introduction. And that was what (Yulia) looked like when she was skating at first. Like she was introducing herself. She doesn’t say anything. She’s a mystery. Except for her beautiful skating.”

Nadia Comaneci has never met Yulia Lipnitskaya nor does she live a life where she likely ever will. She and her husband, Bart Conner, live in Oklahoma. She’s just a distant fan, a mother, an inspirational speaker. But maybe she knows things about Lipnitskaya. Maybe there is a connection between athletic prodigies.

VIDEO: Nancy Kerrigan’s take on the short program

“There is one thing that is different for her,” Nadia said. “She is performing in her home country. For me, I was in Montreal, nowhere near where I was from. That was different. There was no pressure on me there. But for her to be at home, in Russia, with everyone wanting her to win, she will have to deal with a different pressure than I had to deal with.”

As Lipnitskaya makes her way around for her third and final jump of the short program, there is a lot of noise and joy and everyone senses her conviction, her self-assurance. This is the little girl they had all fallen in love with less than two weeks ago in the team competition. This is their Russian darling. Just a short while before the competition began, the Russian hockey team had lost to Finland in the quarterfinals, a bitter disappointment, and now the gaze is firmly on Lipnitskaya.

And then, on the third jump, Lipnitskaya falls.

The gasps throughout the arena are, in their own way, louder than any cheers.

She finishes her routine in an airless arena and then is met with thunderous applause. Bouquets and teddy bears rain on the ice. It is as if no one in Russia can bear to see her cry, and she does not cry. The response cannot help but make her smile a little. Her score of 65.23 places her fifth – more than nine points behind the top three. She has lost more or less any chance for gold, and at this point winning any medal would take a monumental shift during Thursday’s free skate. It almost certainly will not happen. Not this time.

In an odd twist, the Russian who is in gold medal contention is 17-year-old Adelina Sotnikova, who was once the country’s skating phenom. She won the national championship when she was just 12. She was viewed as the great hope for Sochi, but inconsistencies seemed to wreck her. Sometimes she was brilliant, other times hopeless. Wednesday, she was brilliant. Nobody knows quite what to expect on Thursday. Such is the fluctuation of youthful brilliance.

VIDEO: Sotnikova surprisingly sits in second

“That is something about the Olympics,” Nadia said before Lipnitskaya skated. “You only get one chance. That’s it. You get one time down the mountain, one time to skate, one time on the floor exercise, one time to swim. There is no second chance. Well, there is another chance at the next Olympics, but that is four years away. And four years is a long time.”

Then she laughed a little bit.

“Well,” she said, “fortunately, four years is not so long a time when you are young.”

Lindsey Vonn wins No. 76 in biggest rout of comeback

Lindsey Vonn
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Lindsey Vonn gapped the field like never before during her comeback, and never before away from her favorite course in Canada, running away with a World Cup downhill by 1.51 seconds in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, on Saturday.

Vonn notched her 76th World Cup victory, moving 10 behind the record held by retired Swede Ingemar Stenmark.

“Every win for me is more special than the last,” Vonn said.

She’s won by larger margins three times in her World Cup career — by 1.95, 1.73 and 1.68 seconds, all at her favorite downhill course in Lake Louise, Alberta, and all before her February 2013 World Championships crash and two major right knee surgeries that kept her from defending her Olympic downhill title in Sochi.

Swiss Fabienne Suter was second Saturday, followed by German Viktoria Rebensburg. Full results are here.

Swiss Lara Gut placed 14th, which meant Vonn increased her lead from 45 points to 127 points in the standings for the World Cup overall title, the biggest prize in the sport this season with no World Championships or Olympics.

That race will likely not be decided until the World Cup Finals in a little more than one month.

Vonn won her ninth World Cup race this season, matching her total from 2008-09, the campaign that set her up to be the Alpine skiing star of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic season. Her best total was 12 from the 2011-12 season.

Vonn has won 11 of her last 12 World Cup starts in speed races (downhill and super-G) and can clinch her eighth World Cup downhill season title in the next downhill in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, next Saturday.

That would break her tie with Austrian legend Annemarie Moser-Pröll for most titles in one discipline by a female skier. It would match the record for all skiers with Stenmark, who took eight giant slalom and eight slalom titles.

But first Vonn will try to inch closer to Stenmark’s wins record in a Garmisch-Partenkirchen super-G on Sunday (4:45 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Live Extra).

MORE: U.S. Olympian podiums in first race on 2018 Olympic course

Amanda Kessel ‘dream come true’ in University of Minnesota return

Amanda Kessel
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Olympic silver medalist Amanda Kessel recorded two assists in her first game in nearly two years, coming back from a concussion for the University of Minnesota on Friday night.

“I think I’d regret it if I didn’t get back to this point,” Kessel said after a 3-0 win over North Dakota, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “It’s pretty much a dream come true.”

Kessel, 24, last played in the Sochi Olympic gold-medal game and then sat out nearly two years with symptoms from a concussion reportedly suffered before the Winter Games. Coach Brad Frost said in July that Kessel wouldn’t play this season, ending her college career.

But in August, new doctors gave Kessel hope she would play again.

On Friday, she skated on the Golden Gophers’ top line after the school’s medical staff got second and third opinions before clearing her to play, according to the newspaper.

“If I was going to get back to playing, I was going to be 100 percent healthy and be able to get in there,” Kessel said, according to the Pioneer Press. “I felt great being able to get in corners and get hit and stuff like that.”

Kessel, the 2012-13 NCAA Player of the Year for the undefeated national champion, said she wasn’t 100 percent in “game shape” and that she felt like a rookie, but that she’s ready to challenge herself in the final month and a half of her senior season.

“I don’t think I’ve heard it that loud since we won the national championship here [on March 22],” Minnesota coach Brad Frost said. “So many people were just so excited to see her work her way back to where she is now.”

MORE: How Amanda Kessel became a star for U.S. hockey team