Women's figure skating is the marquee event of the Winter Games. In previous years, it has provided some all-time thrills and gifted unforgettable performances and drama. Katarina Witt won back-to-back gold medals in 1984 and 1988. The Lillehammer Games featured the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding saga that brought unprecedented attention to the sport. Four years later, 15-year-old Tara Lipinski beat fellow American Michelle Kwan after a toe-to-toe free skate.
Sadly for NBC, there are no American favourites for gold this year (sorry Gracie). Instead, the title promised to be a hotly contested battle between defending champion, Yuna Kim, and 15-year-old Russian phenom, Yulia Lipnitskaya. Kim skated a pristine program to capture the lead after the short program. Meanwhile, Lipnitskaya fell during her performance and sits in 5th place heading into the free skate tomorrow.
How Yulia scored so highly in spite of a fall is beyond me. Fellow Russian, Adelina Sotnikova, landed all her jumps to finish 2nd, marginally behind Yuna. For me, Carolina Kostner (3rd) skated a better program, but this event is being contested in Russia after all - nothing like a little home country boost from the judges. In a sport typically dominated by young girls, Kostner, 27, gets better with age. The 2011 World Champion and 5-time European gold medallist, Kostner now has a chance to cap her career with an Olympic medal tomorrow.
The real shocker of the short program was Mao Asada. The reigning Olympic silver medallist and two-time World Champion, fell on her opening triple axel and later doubled a planned triple jump. She pushed the envelope in going for the triple axel when a double would have served her just fine, and paid the price. Still, 16th place was a shocking result considering how immaculate the rest of her skating was. An early medal favourite, Mao needs the skate of her life and some help from the leaders, to make up the staggering ground she ceded today.
Yuna Kim is exactly where most expected her to be after the short program. Still, the favourite will have to bring her unquestioned best tomorrow to overcome a home crowd and judging panel that will be itching to crown one of the Russian contenders. In Vancouver four years ago, Kim summoned two world record performances to capture gold. Her pedigree is a cut above, regardless of what the judges have to say. A very special place in history - alongside Katarina Witt and Sonja Henie - awaits her tomorrow as the only women to win back-to-back Olympic titles.
BELOW: Rankings after the short program.