After weeks of hype surrounding 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya's gold medal Sochi prospects, the Russian rising star crumbled under the pressure Wednesday, eating the ice on an uncharacteristic fall during her short program–and opening the door wide for a slew of competitors to challenge reigning Olympic champion Yuna Kim for a place at the top of the medal stand.
Queen Yuna reigns atop the leaderboard, but barely. Russia's 17-year-old Adelina Sotnikova–Russia's new favorite teenager, as NBC commentator Terry Gannon put it–is at her heels, trailing Kim by a little over a quarter of a point. And Italy's Carolina Kostner, the 27-year-old former world champion, is in third within a point of them both.
It's not exactly the standings most spectators were anticipating. After a gap below the top three, American Gracie Gold is leading Lipnitskaya. Ashley Wagner, who once again botched her triple-triple combination, landed just .02 points behind Lipnitskaya, followed by newcomer Polina Edmunds in seventh. Japan's Mao Asada, long considered a gold medal contender and Kim's longtime rival, is in a shocking 16th place after a slew of errors: She fell on and under-rotated her triple axel, she under-rotated her triple flip, and she failed to execute a combination jump of any kind.
Kim, who had an early start time Wednesday night due to her low seed placement (low only because she hasn't competed a lot in the last four years), set the standard for the competition. Answering the skeptics, who wondered if so much time away from the rink might have left her a little bit rusty–Kim skated a clean, elegant performance, and nailed all four jumps, including a helicoptering triple lutz-triple toe combination. At 74.92, her score was high, but not as high as it could have been. She missed her own world record, set in 2010, by 3.58 points. And, per the judges' assessment, Kim left room formore: She only earned levels 3 out of 4 on both her layback spin and her footwork sequence.
The door was cracked open for Lipnitskaya, and for a minute there she looked ready to catapult her way through it. She landed a solid triple lutz-triple flip combination (though it must be said, Kim ultimately earned a higher score for hers), followed by a double axel. And then, to the shock of the home crowd, which has come to expect perfection from her, Lipnitskaya went down–hard—on her triple flip. She finished the program with a stunned look on her face, and ended up trailing Gracie Gold–who salvaged a few shaky jumps for a solid finish–by more than three points.
Italy's Carolina Kostner had her opening.
Kostner, who has a strong international record but struggled with a back injury this year and has had some consistency problems, began her program by swapping a more difficult jump into her opening triple-triple combination (she'd planned a triple toe-triple toe and executed a triple flip-triple toe, which is worth more), strategically upping her potential score by several points. The skater, beloved by fans for her speed and lyrical grace, then proceeded to nail a clean and characteristically expressive performance, which brought her right into second place.
Sotnikova skated second-to-last, and the crowd was ready for her. She performed a huge triple toe-triple toe, and then stormed through a clean triple flip, double axel, level four step sequence, and three level-four spins. Kim had a more difficult combination jump (so did Kostner, for that matter), but Sotnikova, whose jumps got tons of air and whose attitude reflected the enthusiasm of the fans (who, naturally, were going wild), still outscored her in the technical marks by .06 points.
There was some immediately grumbling about possible score inflation–one USA commentator suggested "home cooking"–but Sotnikova, a powerful and inconsistent skater, has never been out of contention entirely. As recently as six months ago, she was considered Russia's primary hope for a medal, and she beat Lipnitskaya for gold at Russian nationals in December. But Lipnitskaya had the reputation for consistency, the stellar team performance, and the momentum. Her fall Wednesday gave Sotnikova the perfect opportunity to steal back the thunder–and she didn't waste it.
Regardless, none of these ladies are a lock for a medal. Sotnikova and Kostner must deliver equally outstanding performances tomorrow, when Lipnitskaya will be out for blood. Neither Lipnitskaya nor Gold–who suggested after her performance that she's more comfortable with the free skate–are too far back to be out of contention. Even Wagner could theoretically rally for a bronze. Kim, meanwhile, has all the more reason to enter tomorrow's event with confidence: As usual, she's going in on top.
Lucy Madison is a NYC-based writer and reporter. Her work has appeared at the Awl, the Hairpin, Interview, CBS News, and more. You can follow her on Twitter here.