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Fifteen-year-old Russian figure skater shakes up Sochi

| Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014, 4:54 p.m.
AFP/Getty Images
Russia's Julia Lipnitskaia performs in the Women's Figure Skating Team Free Program at the Iceberg Skating Palace during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 9, 2014.
AFP/Getty Images
Russia's Julia Lipnitskaia performs in the Women's Figure Skating Team Short Program in the Iceberg Skating Palace during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014.
AFP/Getty Images
Russia's Julia Lipnitskaia performs in the Women's Figure Skating Team Free Program in the Iceberg Skating Palace during the Sochi Winter Olympics on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014.

SOCHI, Russia — It would appear Sochi, and maybe the world, has found its darling of these Olympics.

The first big buzz of the Games came from a small source, 15-year-old Russian figure skater Julia Lipnitskaia, whose virtuoso performance — some experts were grasping for even stronger descriptions — helped her nation collectively claim the team gold. Canada took silver, the United States bronze.

Individually, she's the youngest in Winter Olympic history to win a gold.

Lipnitskaia's individual score of 141.51 was well ahead of a solid second-place showing from the United States' Gracie Gold at 129.38, but no numbers could quantify the totality of the performance. Not even the hits on the Internet, where video of the program had gone viral globally.

“She is a genius,” teammate Evgeni Plushenko, a four-medal veteran, said.

Taking the ice before a home crowd of 10,000 impassioned supporters, one of whom was Russian President Vladimir Putin in a private box, the 5-foot-1, babyfaced girl from Yekaterinburg was flawless in technique, fantastic in execution. Most impressive were her spins, which involved astounding flexibility to hold one skate high over her head, as well as her “traveling,” as it's known in the sport. The latter tracks the time a spin is sustained.

“I was really happy when I heard the audience,” Lipnitskaia replied when asked about nerves. “It helped me skate.”

Once she finished with a dizzying spin, the crowd at Iceberg Skating Palace rose to their seats in unison. Putin, too. On the Russian broadcast, the announcer beamed, “If Putin can stand, the whole nation should stand!” As the ovation contined, Lipnitskaia playfully donned a Russia baseball cap and skated to the kiss-and-cry. Famously even-keeled, she projected far more calm than those around her.

She can add an individual gold in the women's free program Feb. 20. In the interim, especially given the absence of prominently known U.S. Olympians, expect to see much more of her. It isn't unprecedented for a foreign athlete to become the main attraction among the American viewing audience. Back in 1976, when ABC held the TV rights, they embraced another 15-year-old in Montreal named Nadia Comaneci.

Her score was a little better, though.

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