SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Anxiety and energy. Conviction and courage.
They all combined Wednesday — along with one stunning fall — to set up an unpredictable race for the Olympic gold medal in women’s figure skating.
Nerves almost got the best of Yuna Kim in the short program Wednesday night. Then she showed she is still the favorite to win another title.
Her lead is almost as slim as it could get, .28 points over a woman from the host country — no, not Julia Lipnitskaia. Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova, with a snappy routine that had the crowd on its feet before she finished her final spin, was second, while Lipnitskaia plummeted to fifth after her fall on a triple flip.
Italy’s Carolina Kostner, whose “Ave Maria” program is almost a religious experience for her, was .80 back. Chicago’s Gracie Gold was fourth, within striking distance after overcoming a sense of stage fright.
Kim, 23, would become the third woman to win consecutive Olympics, following Sonja Henie and Katarina Witt. But she’ll probably need to calm down to step up to the top of the podium.
“I am a human being,” she said. “I get nervous all the time. It just doesn’t show on my face.”
Plenty showed on Lipnitskaia’s face: sadness, disappointment, even disbelief — as if the 15-year-old’s dog had just run away.
On a day Lipnitskaia’s hockey countrymen flopped out of the games, she couldn’t revive Russian hearts. After winning both programs in the team event to help the hosts take the gold, Lipnitskaia fell on a triple flip and then broke down in tears.
“This does not define her career or who she is as an athlete,” coach Eteri Tutberidze said through a translator. “She simply made a mistake. That’s all. It happens.”
When it happened, the crowd was stunned. And Kim had the lead, but barely over Sotnikova.
“Most important is to see your goals, to try and try,” said Sotnikova, 17. “If you want it, you achieve it.”
Kostner has been trying to achieve something special in the Olympics since the Turin Games, when she was ninth. She was far worse at Vancouver, a dismal 16th, and she began questioning her career goals.
But she kept going.
“I wanted to skate because I love it,” she said. “Hard times make you understand what you really want.”
In “Ave Maria,” she found just the tonic, an elegant program she seems to float through.
“It’s just a prayer to everything I’ve lived and learned through skating,” Kostner said.
U.S. champion Gracie Gold, second to Lipnitskaia in the team free skate, had a clean short program to sneak in ahead of Lipnitskaia by 3.4 points.
“To be able to come up here and feel stiff and white as a ghost but stare fear in the face is what I’m all about now,” the 18-year-old Gold said.
Ashley Wagner of Alexandria, Va., and Polina Edmunds of San Jose, Calif., were sixth and seventh — a very strong showing for the United States.
Vancouver silver medalist Mao Asada of Japan had several major mistakes, two on the triple axel that has been her trademark — and also her curse. She plummeted to 16th.
Kim’s program to “Send In The Clowns” was exquisite. She even cracked a smile, perhaps for the first time since arriving in Sochi, after landing her double axel, the final jump of the routine. Every move was timed perfectly to the music in a flowing performance.
She admitted to making a slight mistake on footwork, and the judges gave her only level 3 (out of 4) on it, and on her layback spin. Again, she said, it was anxiety.
“I tried to believe in myself and remember my practices,” Kim said. “I thought if I do well in practice, I can do well in the main event.”
She could, Lipnitskaia couldn’t.
Greeted by cheers of “Ro-ssi-ya” as soon as she emerged from the tunnel before warming up, Lipnitskaia had her shoulders rubbed by her coaches as she waited to take the ice. She looked all business as she smoothly landed her practice jumps.
The crowd switched to chants of “Ju-li-a” when it was her turn to perform. They breathlessly watched her perfectly land her triple lutz-triple toe loop combination. But toward the end of the 2-minute, 50-second routine, she crashed on the triple flip that she pretty much never misses.
Four skaters later, Sotnikova lifted Russian spirits with an energetic program that had her jumping up and down when she finished. Considered a long shot for a medal, she now is in contention for gold.
Lipnitskaia will skate first in the final group Thursday, followed by Kostner, Sotnikova, Gold, Wagner and Kim.
“You just need to live in the moment,” Kostner said. “Be courageous, to lean into the discomfort and say, OK, I stand in the beginning position and I’m scared out of my mind. But I just go for it. I just let myself go and it’s just amazing.”