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.”

Salt Lake City forms committee to weigh Olympic bid

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Salt Lake City has formed an exploratory committee to decide if the city will bid to host the Winter Olympics in either 2026 or 2030 — taking a key step toward trying to become a rare two-time host city.

The group made up of elected officials, business leaders and one key member of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City said Monday that it plans to make a recommendation to state leaders by Feb. 1.

The announcement comes after the U.S. Olympic Committee board said Friday that it was moving forward with discussions about bringing the Winter Games to America for either 2026 or 2030.

Because Los Angeles was recently awarded the 2028 Summer Games, a bid for 2030 would make more sense, chairman Larry Probst said Friday.

The USOC has until next March to pick a city; those expressing interest include Salt Lake City, Denver and Reno, Nevada.

Innsbruck, Austria, said Sunday it wouldn’t bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics, taking one more city out of the running. The hosting rights are set to be awarded in July 2019.

The same country hasn’t hosted back-to-back Olympics since before World War II, though when the International Olympic Committee scrapped its traditional rules and awarded 2024 (Paris) and 2028 (LA) at the same time, it indicated it was certainly open to new ideas.

Since 2012, Salt Lake City has been letting Olympic officials know the city was ready and willing to host again with a plan based on renovating and upgrading venues that have been in use since the Games ended.

The city had previously estimated it could put on a Winter Olympics for about $2 billion, but the committee will come up with a new cost estimate, said Jeff Robbins, the president and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission.

Robbins is one of three co-chairs on the committee along with Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and Fraser Bullock, a key player in Salt Lake City’s 2002 Olympics.

Robbins said he thinks the city has a great shot at winning a bid based on the relatively low cost and because it has demonstrated it knows how to maintain venues and keep them in use, putting the city in line with Agenda 2020, the blueprint that IOC President Thomas Bach created for future Olympics calling for less spending on new venues and infrastructure.

There’s an eight-lane interstate running from the Salt Lake airport, which was upgraded for the Olympics, to Park City, which is the home of U.S. Ski and Snowboard. Park City is the host for key U.S. training centers for freestyle skiing, speedskating and cross country skiing.

Overall, the area has hosted about 75 World Cup and world-championship events in winter sports since the Olympic cauldron was extinguished more than 15 years ago.

He said an expanded light rail train line grid around Salt Lake City and a $3 billion airport renovation already underway are two examples of how Salt Lake City is even better prepared now to host than in 2002.

But he and other organizers will also have to answer questions about a bidding scandal that marred the 2002 Games and resulted in several International Olympic Committee members losing their positions for taking bribes.

“You can’t control the past,” Robbins said. “The results of what happened I think would certainly speak volumes. While there was some challenges, we hosted arguably one of the best Olympics ever hosted.”

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Simone Biles announces new coach

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When Simone Biles begins her comeback in earnest next month, she’ll be training under a new coach — Laurent Landi — who coached one of her Olympic teammates, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Landi, a 39-year-old former French gymnast, guided Rio uneven bars silver medalist Madison Kocian at the Dallas-area gym WOGA, along with wife Cecile.

“[Landi] was in Dallas, which is not far away, and had recently left WOGA, and I had worked with alongside him and know how he is with athletes,” Biles said, according to the newspaper. “He does a good job not letting pressure get to the athletes. You can see some coaches get stressed but he doesn’t.”

Biles’ previous coach since she was 7, Aimee Boorman, left their Houston-area gym for a gymnastics job in Florida after the Rio Games.

Biles said last week she plans to return to full-time training Nov. 1 and return to competition next summer.

Kocian is now at UCLA and uncertain to return to elite gymnastics.

Two other Final Five members — Aly Raisman and Laurie Hernandez — have said they plan to return to training for a Tokyo 2020 run. But neither has announced a return to the gym like Biles.

The last member — 2012 Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas — has not said whether she will come back.

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