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.”

17-year-old runs 3:52 mile at Pre Classic

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Jakob Ingebrigtsen, a 17-year-old Norwegian, clocked 3:52.28 at the Prefontaine Classic on Saturday, faster than Alan Webb‘s U.S. high school record set at Pre in 2001.

“My goal was to take Alan Webb’s record,” Ingebrigtsen told media in Eugene, Ore.

It’s the second-fastest mile in history recorded by somebody younger than 18, according to the IAAF. Qatar’s Hamza Driouch ran 3:50.90 in 2012, clocked two months before two years of his results would be annulled by a doping ban.

Webb famously ran 3:53.43 as an 18-year-old at Pre in 2001, which led to him appearing on “Late Show with David Letterman.”

Ingebrigtsen, who ran 3:58 at Pre last year to become the youngest sub-4-minute miler in history, finished fourth in a field of the world’s best middle-distance runners. His two older brothers, Filip and Henrik, are also middle-distance runners (but weren’t in Saturday’s race).

Ingebrigtsen beat Olympic 1500m champion Matthew Centrowitz (fifth) and Olympic 800m bronze medalist Clayton Murphy (sixth) in the Bowerman Mile. The race’s second-place finisher is 18 years old — Ethiopian Samuel Tefera ran 3:51.26

Webb was at Saturday’s meet, in part to award the 400th man to run a sub-4-minute mile in Pre Classic history.

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VIDEO: Kenyan star nearly falls, comes back to win Pre Classic 800m

Christian Coleman beaten, Tori Bowie injured at Pre Classic

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American Ronnie Baker stunned world silver medalist Christian Coleman to win the Prefontaine Classic 100m in a wind-aided 9.78 seconds on Saturday, while world champion Tori Bowie suffered a leg injury in the women’s 100m.

Coleman, in his first individual race of the outdoor season, was passed by Baker midway through and finished second in 9.84 in Eugene, Ore. Coleman was last year’s breakout sprinter, taking silver between Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt in the last individual race of Bolt’s career and posting the fastest wind-legal time of the year (9.82).

Coleman said after Saturday’s race he was recovering from “tweaking something in my leg.” He withdrew from his scheduled season opener two weeks ago and, earlier this week, was scratched from running the 200m in addition to the 100m at Pre.

Baker also won the Pre 100m last year but was eliminated in the semifinals at the 2017 USATF Outdoor Championships, failing to make the world championships team. Baker also exited in the semifinals of the 2016 Olympic Trials.

Born in Louisville, Baker’s family moved to Alaska when he was 5. He ran cross-country in elementary school in Anchorage, avoiding the moose, before coming back to Kentucky in middle school. He was recruited to TCU in the 400m but went down to the 100m and 200m as a sophomore when the team was loaded with one-lap talent.

Gatlin was scheduled to race the Pre 100m but withdrew earlier this week with a reported right hamstring injury. Baker, Coleman and Gatlin could race each other at nationals in Des Moines next month.

With no Olympics or world outdoor championships this year, the Pre Classic is one of the premier meets, if not the greatest collection of talent. It’s also the last Pre before Hayward Field is demolished and rebuilt for 2020.

Bowie, who earned a medal of every color in Rio, was helped off the track by two officials after pulling up in the final meters of the women’s 100m. She said an upper leg muscle “grabbed pretty bad,” according to Lewis Johnson on NBC.

Ivorians Marie-Josee Ta Lou and Murielle Ahoure went one-two in 10.88 and 10.90, while Olympic champ Elaine Thompson was third in 10.98. Thompson, shockingly fifth at last year’s worlds, has now been beaten in both Diamond League 100m races this season.

PRE CLASSIC: Full Results

In other events, South African Caster Semenya extended her 800m winning streak to 23 meets dating to September 2015 by winning in her typical easy fashion in 1:55.92. Semenya, who led for the last 300 meters, clocked the fastest time ever on U.S. soil. She’s expected to be impacted by an IAAF rule limiting testosterone levels for female middle-distance runners scheduled to go into effect after this season.

Noah Lyles, a 20-year-old American on the rise, matched the fastest 200m in the world this year of 19.69, a personal best.

“I’m a little scared,” Lyles said on NBC. “I didn’t think I was going to run this fast this season. … I’m here to dominate.”

Olympic gold medalist Shaunae Miller-Uibo won an Allyson Felix-less 400m in 49.52, the fastest time in the world this year. Felix, who withdrew from Pre for undisclosed reasons on Friday, is the only other woman to run that fast in the last three years.

Olympic and world triple jump champion Christian Taylor needed a final jump of 17.73 meters to overtake rival Will Claye.

Matthew Centrowitz, the first U.S. Olympic 1500m champ in 108 years, finished sixth in the Bowerman Mile won by Kenyan Timothy Cheruiyot in 3:49.87.

The 2012 Olympic pole vault gold medalist Jenn Suhr won her first Diamond League event in five years, clearing 4.85 meters. Rio gold and silver medalists Katerina Stefanidi and Sandi Morris were seventh and third.

Rio champ Ryan Crouser prevailed in a shot put competition that included every reigning Olympic and world medalist. Crouser broke the meet record with his fifth throw of 22.53 meters.

Olympic gold and silver medalists Consenslus Kipruto and Evan Jager were upset by Kenyan Benjamin Kigen in the 3000m steeplechase. Kigen, who has no Olympic or worlds experience, clocked 8:09.07, the fastest time in the world this year. Kipruto and Jager crossed together, 2.64 seconds later.

Jamaica’s Omar McLeod pulled away in the 110m hurdles, clocking a wind-aided 13.01 seconds. McLeod, the reigning Olympic and world champion, has only lost one 110m hurdles race since the start of 2017 (when he suffered a leg injury mid-race).

Olympic 400m hurdles champion Dalilah Muhammad was passed by Jamaican Janieve Russell in the final strides, getting edged by .03. Russell’s winning time of 54.06 is 1.31 seconds shy of the fastest time in the world held by Sydney McLaughlin, who is still in her NCAA season for Kentucky.

Shelby Houlihan, an Olympian in the 5000m, stunned Olympic and world medalist Jenny Simpson in the 1500m, surging in the home stretch and clocking 3:59.06, a personal best by 4.33 seconds. The race lacked Olympic and world champion Faith Kipyegon, who is sitting out this season due to pregnancy.

Elsewhere Saturday, the longest winning streak in the sport ended. Polish hammer thrower Anita Wlodarczyk lost for the first time in nearly four years at a small meet in Germany in her first competition since Aug. 15, according to Tilastopaja.org.

The Diamond League moves to Rome for a meet Thursday with live coverage on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold.

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VIDEO: Kenyan star nearly falls, comes back to win Pre Classic 800m