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.”

Ted Ligety recovers for fifth place in return from torn ACL

SOELDEN, AUSTRIA - OCTOBER 23: Ted Ligety of USA in action during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Men's Giant Slalom on October 23, 2016 in Soelden, Austria (Photo by Alain Grosclaude/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
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SOELDEN, Austria (AP) — For once, Ted Ligety could live with finishing fifth in an event he had won four times in the previous five years.

At least he’s back racing again.

The Olympic and world giant slalom champion returned to the Alpine skiing World Cup on Sunday, nine months after tearing the ACL in his right knee in a training accident.

In 14th place and 1.49 seconds off the lead after the opening run, Ligety vastly improved in the second and climbed nine spots in the traditional first race of the season on a mountain glacier in the Austrian Alps.

“I am not here to get 10th place. Even though that wouldn’t be a horrible result for the first time back, I like to be challenging for a podium,” Ligety told The Associated Press between runs.

He came 1.65 behind the dominant winner, Alexis Pinturault of France, but the result made him smile.

“I’m definitely happy with fifth place to start it off with,” Ligety said. “In the second run I charged a little harder. I skied well, for sure. I definitely felt a little bit more confident than in the first run where I was on the conservative side.”

The knee injury occurred in Germany in January. By that time, “my season was already messed up from smaller injuries, anyway” as he dealt with back and hip ailments.

After his season got off to a strong start by winning in Soelden and coming runner-up in a super-G in Beaver Creek, Colorado, in early December, the physical troubles took their toll and he failed to finish most races.

The training crash then caused the first season-ending injury in his 13-year-old career.

“During the first couple of weeks, watching races on the couch was less than fun, and a couple of weeks later watching races on the spinning bike was even less fun,” Ligety said. “But it makes you hungry to race again, too.”

The American called himself “lucky that there was no more damage” because “an ACL is a pretty straight forward thing” which many skiers have to deal with in their careers.

“You’re more likely to win an Olympic gold medal in skiing if you have had an ACL so I am joining a better statistical group now,” he joked.

Physically fit again but with less training on snow than usual, Ligety returned to the mountain in Austria where he won a record five times in total, most recently a year ago for the last of his 25 World Cup victories.

“My knee doesn’t bother me at all skiing, it’s just about finding that next high speed gear. I am not there yet but I am happy to race.”

Usually an all-round competitor, Ligety will first try to regain his old strength in GS before getting other disciplines back onto his schedule.

He planned to do some super-G races but could well stay away from what used to be his strongest discipline when he entered the World Cup in 2003 — the slalom. This summer, he trained in that discipline only for one day.

“The last couple of years, slalom has not been such a good return on investment for me so I’m not really putting too much into that,” he said. “I’ll ski some slaloms if it works out schedule-wise and training-wise.”

Though his chances to win an overall World Cup title one day are decreasing, the 32-year-old double Olympic champion has enough ambitions left.

“Like every year, the giant slalom globe is the big goal,” said Ligety, who won the prize for the best skier in the discipline five times. “Obviously this year I don’t have the same awesome prep period and miles as I would normally. The world champs (in Switzerland in February) is coming up also and it would be nice to defend the GS title again.”


Gracie Gold details weight issues in figure skating after Skate America struggles

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Gracie Gold said she has struggled with weight issues this whole year and in recent seasons in reported comments after she finished fifth at Skate America on Saturday.

“You don’t often see — there aren’t that many — you just don’t see overweight figure skaters for a reason,” Gold said, according to USA Today. “It’s just something I’ve struggled with this whole year and in previous seasons. It’s just difficult when you’re trying to do the difficult triple jumps. It’s something that I am addressing, but it’s obviously not where it should be for this caliber of competition.

“It’s just not what’s required for this sport. It’s a lean body sport, and it’s just not what I have currently.”

Gold fell once in her Skate America short program and twice in her free skate en route to her lowest Grand Prix finish (excluding Grand Prix Finals) since her debut at 2012 Skate Canada.

Gold also finished sixth out of six skaters in her first competition this season, the free-skate-only Japan Open on Oct. 1.

Gold was fourth at the world championships in April, falling from first after the short program. The U.S. champion was still dealing with that “worlds depression” in the summer, even considering skipping the fall Grand Prix season.

Her next scheduled competition is in three weeks at Trophée de France in Paris, which she won last season.

“We just need to adjust my physical shape and mental shape and see if the program can be salvaged for the rest of the year,” Gold said, according to Icenetwork.com.

MORE: Full figure skating season broadcast schedule