Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Figure skating takes center stage

Lipnitskaia helps seal gold for Russia in team event

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    American Gracie Gold competes in the women's team free skate figure skating competition Sunday in Sochi, Russia.


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    Russia’s Julia Lipnitskaia helped electrify the home crowd in the first-ever Olympic team skating event on Sunday.


SOCHI, Russia — Gracie Gold was about a year old when five girls became America’s sweethearts because of their shared heroics in an individual sport that gets mainstream attention once every four years.

But the “Magnificent Seven,” the 1996 U.S. women’s gymnastics team that took gold on a strong mind and one good leg of Kerri Strug, had built a brand that would last, regardless of whether or not you had seen it happen. And this year, as Gold had to explain what the new team figure skating event would be like at the Sochi Winter Olympics, she had her reference ready.

“That’s what I told people, just on the street: ‘Oh yeah, there’s a team event, just like gymnastics!’ ” Gold, 18, said. “And they go, ‘Oh my God, that’s so cool!’ I think 99 percent of the population kind of drew back on that. When you think about people in a team event, in an isolated sport, everyone thinks of gymnastics.”

Figure skating is a proud sport, with a rich history, and it has traditionally been one of the most popular TV draws in the Winter Games. But nobody could deny what wonders the team competition had done for gymnastics — just ask Team USA’s “Fierce Five” how much their lives have changed since winning the gold in the 2012 London Games — and the feeling was that adding a team element to the uber-competitive world of figure skating could only be a net positive.

On Sunday night, to say that there was great drama would be a gross exaggeration of what occurred at the Iceberg Skating Palace. Russia, Canada and the United States were first through third, respectively, entering the final round of competition, and that is exactly how they would finish, with Team USA taking the bronze medal mostly thanks to two first-place finishes by ice dancers Charlie White and Meryl Davis in the short and long program and a second-place finish by Gold in ladies free skate.

The women’s gymnastics team event is played out over just a couple of hours, and nearly always the most gripping moments of the Summer Games can be experienced through the faces and emotions of those girls.

And maybe team figure skating, which began Thursday and resumed Saturday and Sunday, will have the same effect a few decades from now, once team rivalries become more established. Certainly, in winning-obsessed America, it will take a gold medal from Team USA to register on the national radar.

That said, in a sport still burdened by the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan scandal 20 years later, it can’t hurt to have the cameras focused on a smiling, high-fiving, hugging United States figure skating team.

Like in gymnastics, these skaters have been competing against each other their entire careers for national and international glory. But the gymnasts have had an easy way of convincing their fans that they truly are friends, that the Olympic experience will bond them for life. And who doesn’t like that?

Time will tell how this will be received. On Sunday, Gold and Jason Brown, who finished fourth in the men’s free skate, seemed to have enjoyed the new sensation of performing in the name of a team goal.

“Jason and I were definitely a little nervous,” Gold said. “Our parents told us that neither of us did team sports because we didn’t like having other people rely on us, but also having that extra pressure.”

Said Brown: “Being on the ice, it was definitely something where at first I feel that pressure, because I do want to perform and contribute to the team event, to help them get a medal. When I heard them screaming from the booth, it was that support, that feeling of home. It’s truly something that I’ll never forget, so special.”

The team event served as an appetizer to the individual events to come in the next two weeks. Russia, performing Sunday in front of President Vladimir Putin, announced itself as a favorite to win more medals on home ice, led by dynamic Yulia Lipnitskaya, 15, who won the ladies short and free skates.

Lipnitskaya beat Gold, 141.51-129.38, Sunday and certainly has Gold’s attention.

“Let’s be real,” Gold said. “She’s 15 and she’s completely unfazed. She’s got like iron in her bones.”

Afterward, the focus quickly shifted to the individual events, the team event feeling already like a neat little exhibition. Gold and fellow American Ashley Wagner will leave Russia for a few days to recuperate and continue their training at undisclosed locations before returning to Sochi for the events that truly matter.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. J. Brady McCollough is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.

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