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.”

Korea Olympic hockey coach takes high school job

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Sarah Murray, who coached the joint Korean Olympic women’s hockey team in PyeongChang, will coach the Owatonna High School girls team in her native Minnesota starting this fall.

Murray has not responded to a request for comment though the school on whether this means she is leaving the South Korean national team program.

Murray, 30, guided the joint Korean Olympic team to an 0-5 record. The tournament underdogs scored in three games and were within two goals of Switzerland.

Three weeks before the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee approved adding 12 North Koreans to the South Korean Olympic women’s hockey team, making it the first joint Korean team in any Olympic event.

Murray initially had mixed feelings.

“It’s exciting to be a part of something that’s so historic, to have two countries so divided come together through sports,” Murray said in January, according to Yonhap News Agency. “I think the story is great, and to be a part of it is important. But at the same time, it’s mixed feelings because it’s at the expense of, ‘We don’t get to play our full roster.’”

She expressed optimism after the Games.

“We have really enjoyed working with the North’s players and coaches, and we really do want to help them in the future,” Murray said, according to The Associated Press, adding that a possible “exchange game” was discussed to maintain the connection. “They want to get better, they want to keep learning from us and we want to help them. And there are things that we can learn from them, too.”

Murray won two NCAA titles as a player at Minnesota-Duluth. Her father, Andy Murray, spent 10 seasons coaching the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues in the 2000s.

She replaces an Otawonna coach who stepped down to focus on the girls lacrosse program and spend more time with his family.

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MORE: South Korea hockey team misses playing with North Koreans

Michael Phelps launches mental health campaign

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Michael Phelps was hanging at the pool on Tuesday.

No, he’s not planning another comeback.

He’s got a bigger goal to tackle.

Mental health.

After revealing the depths of his depression — and even thoughts of suicide after his second drunken-driving arrest — Phelps is hoping to make a difference for those who are dealing with similar issues.

The 23-time Olympic gold medalist announced a partnership with Talkspace, which provides online therapy, and said he considers it a higher calling than anything he ever did as a swimmer.

“Somebody told me yesterday about his daughter going through a very, very deep depression and not really wanting to be alive,” Phelps said in an interview with The Associated Press. “She read stories about me opening up. He told me how much that helped her. For me, that’s way bigger than ever winning gold medals. The chance to potentially save a life, to give that person an opportunity to grow and learn and help someone else, there’s nothing better in life.”

Despite his unprecedented success as an athlete, Phelps went through plenty of dark moments.

His first DUI arrest came when he was just 19, a few months after he won six gold medals at the 2004 Summer Olympics. He was briefly suspended after a picture emerged of him smoking from a marijuana pipe after his record eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games. He struggled to get motivated heading into the 2012 Olympics.

But his low point came in 2014, after he abandoned retirement to compete in a fifth Olympics only to be arrested again for driving under the influence. He checked into an Arizona rehab clinic and finally realized just how much he was hurting — so much so, he wasn’t sure he wanted to go on living.

“I thought it would make things easier,” Phelps recalled. “I almost felt like it would be better for everybody if I wasn’t there. But the more I thought about it, I wanted to find a different route. I wanted to see if I could find some help. I wanted to see if I could get better.”

Phelps said he’s in a much better place these days. He’s happily married and living in suburban Phoenix with two small children, 2-year-old Boomer and 3-month-old Beckett. He’s satisfied with his career, saying there’s nothing left to accomplish at the pool.

But there are times that he struggles with depression and anxiety.

He figures it will be that way for the rest of his life.

“I still go through times that are very challenging. I do break down and maybe have a bad day, where I’m not in a good mental state,” Phelps said. “I understand that. It’s who I am. I guess that will always be something that’s a part of me.”

He hopes that his deal with Talkspace, which helps connect those in need with therapists through a variety on online conduits, will help to remove some of the stigma associated with mental health — especially for those who are reluctant to seek out help in person or may not have the financial means.

Phelps said mental health is especially important when suicide rates are on the rise and a rash of school shootings have rocked the United States.

“I feel like with all the issues we have in this world, this is something where I can truly make significant impact,” he said.

The 32-year-old Phelps has kept himself in good condition since Rio. He rides a bike nearly every day and still works out at the pool at least twice a week. When he stepped on the scales Monday, he weighed 192 pounds — 3 pounds less than he was at his last Olympics.

“Could I come back? Yes,” he said. “I think it would be even easier than it was in 2014 (when he officially ended his first attempt at retirement). I’m in better shape now than I was then.”

But, with those tantalizing words, Phelps quickly struck down any thought of returning to competitive swimming.

He simply doesn’t have any motivation to add to his record haul.

“Would I like to break a world record? Yeah, obviously,” Phelps said. “But I also know what I did to prepare for Rio. I thought I did a pretty damn good job of getting myself ready to go. I didn’t want any what-ifs 20 years down the road. Twenty years down the road, I won’t have that. I’ll be able to say I was happy with how I finished my career. I was happy to be able to have my family there, to have my first-born there to watch. I’ll have those memories forever.

“All good things must come to an end eventually. That was the best way to go out.”

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