Skip to content

Watching Yulia Lipnitskaya through the eyes of another prodigy … Nadia Comaneci

Feb 20, 2014, 8:32 AM EST

yulia20AP AP

SOCHI, Russia – There is plain silence, and then there is the sort of silence that smothers the Iceberg Skating Palace when a little girl named Yulia Lipnitskaya kneels near the center of the ice and waits for the music to begin. She is 15 years old but she looks 12 and a country holds its breath for her.

More than 6,000 miles away, in the American heartland, a woman holds her breath for her, too.

“I’m so excited to see her,” Nadia Comaneci said a couple of hours before the music starts. “She is so wonderful she makes you forget that she wasn’t born with these moves.”

Not so long ago – wait, can it really be 38 years? – that was what people were saying about Nadia. You could forget that she wasn’t born with these moves. She was 14 years old, she looked 12, and in a few days in Montreal at the Summer Olympics she changed the world. She took to the uneven bars as part of the Romanian gymnastics team and put on a performance so perfect, so blindingly perfect, that judges for the first time in international competition simply could not find a flaw.

The scoreboard flashed 1.00 because there was no capacity to display a perfect 10.

From that moment on, perfection in sports meant something different and little girls across the world wanted to be Nadia Comaneci, winner of three gold medals – including the all-around – in 1976. She would go on to win two more gold medals in 1980.

“People talk about nerves of someone so young,” Nadia says. “But when you are that young, you do not think about the same things as you do when you are older. I can understand how (Yulia) feels. When I think of being 14, nobody knew me. There was no buildup. There was no pressure. I was free.”

The music begins at the Iceberg Skating Palace – the song is “You Don’t Give Up on Love” by the Russian composer Mark Minkov – and Lipnitskaya begins tracing a heart on the ice. She performed this short program once already at these Games, in the team competition, and that performance made her a worldwide sensation.

“Lipnitskaya Is A Goddess” a Russian headline read.

“Russian teenager soars to gold, stardom, with more to come,” was the headline for U.S. News and World Report.

“Fifteen-Year-Old is Sensation of Sochi,” read a German newspaper.

VIDEO: Watch Lipnitskaya’s short program routine

It is striking to see someone so young perform so brilliantly under the world’s glare. I ask Nadia why it moves us so much. She suggests that maybe it makes us remember being young and feeling invincible ourselves.

“Yes, I love to see young athletes, 14 or 15 or 16 years old, do so wonderfully,” Nadia said. “I don’t know if I think about myself, but I love to see that young confidence. You can see it in her. You can see she just goes there, and she’s just doing what she loves and has trained to do. She knows she’s good.”

Lipnitskaya stops tracing, gets up, acts like she is getting out of the race. And she begins. She is so light and small, you wonder if her skates even make a sound on the ice. She builds up speed. Her first jump is a combination triple Lutz-triple toe loop. Someone says this will tell us everything about her nerves. The silence of the mostly Russian crowd has never broken. When she lands the first jump, there are halted cheers. When she lands the second, the noise seems loud enough to lift her off the ice.

“I remember what I told myself before I went out in Montreal,” Nadia had said. “I thought of my best routine in practice. And I told myself, ‘OK, just do that.’ It seemed so easy for me because of that. Just do what you did in practice. …  She knows she only has to do what she does in practice. She does not have to do any more or less. It’s when you try to do more that you can lose focus.”

The first two jumps cleared, Lipnitskaya skates beautifully. The experts all around are nodding to each other as she lands her double Axel and then runs through various artistic moves in time with the music. The crowd can begin to sense something wonderful is happening and their cheers begin to crescendo. Lipnitskaya seems to sense their confidence, and she skates a little faster.

For Nadia, once she got that first 10 in Montreal, what followed was a wonderful blur – she scored six more 10s, won three gold medals, success fed success.

“Oh, I remember when I was finished,” she says, “people were saying, ‘Who is this girl? And where is Romania by the way?’ … That was my introduction. And that was what (Yulia) looked like when she was skating at first. Like she was introducing herself. She doesn’t say anything. She’s a mystery. Except for her beautiful skating.”

Nadia Comaneci has never met Yulia Lipnitskaya nor does she live a life where she likely ever will. She and her husband, Bart Conner, live in Oklahoma. She’s just a distant fan, a mother, an inspirational speaker. But maybe she knows things about Lipnitskaya. Maybe there is a connection between athletic prodigies.

VIDEO: Nancy Kerrigan’s take on the short program

“There is one thing that is different for her,” Nadia said. “She is performing in her home country. For me, I was in Montreal, nowhere near where I was from. That was different. There was no pressure on me there. But for her to be at home, in Russia, with everyone wanting her to win, she will have to deal with a different pressure than I had to deal with.”

As Lipnitskaya makes her way around for her third and final jump of the short program, there is a lot of noise and joy and everyone senses her conviction, her self-assurance. This is the little girl they had all fallen in love with less than two weeks ago in the team competition. This is their Russian darling. Just a short while before the competition began, the Russian hockey team had lost to Finland in the quarterfinals, a bitter disappointment, and now the gaze is firmly on Lipnitskaya.

And then, on the third jump, Lipnitskaya falls.

The gasps throughout the arena are, in their own way, louder than any cheers.

She finishes her routine in an airless arena and then is met with thunderous applause. Bouquets and teddy bears rain on the ice. It is as if no one in Russia can bear to see her cry, and she does not cry. The response cannot help but make her smile a little. Her score of 65.23 places her fifth – more than nine points behind the top three. She has lost more or less any chance for gold, and at this point winning any medal would take a monumental shift during Thursday’s free skate. It almost certainly will not happen. Not this time.

In an odd twist, the Russian who is in gold medal contention is 17-year-old Adelina Sotnikova, who was once the country’s skating phenom. She won the national championship when she was just 12. She was viewed as the great hope for Sochi, but inconsistencies seemed to wreck her. Sometimes she was brilliant, other times hopeless. Wednesday, she was brilliant. Nobody knows quite what to expect on Thursday. Such is the fluctuation of youthful brilliance.

VIDEO: Sotnikova surprisingly sits in second

“That is something about the Olympics,” Nadia said before Lipnitskaya skated. “You only get one chance. That’s it. You get one time down the mountain, one time to skate, one time on the floor exercise, one time to swim. There is no second chance. Well, there is another chance at the next Olympics, but that is four years away. And four years is a long time.”

Then she laughed a little bit.

“Well,” she said, “fortunately, four years is not so long a time when you are young.”

Latest Posts
  1. Lindsey Vonn OK after fall in Val d’Isere super-G

    Dec 21, 2014, 6:30 AM EST

    Lindsey Vonn

    Austrian becomes oldest woman to win a World Cup race.

  2. Kaillie Humphries, Elana Meyers Taylor break gender barrier in bobsled World Cup

    Dec 20, 2014, 7:37 PM EST

    AP AP

    Humphries, Meyers Taylor finished 15th, 16th out of 17 sleds.

  3. Animation of what Rio Olympic Park will look like (video)

    Dec 20, 2014, 5:27 PM EST

    Rio Olympic Park

    Rio’s main Olympic Park will be half the size of London’s Olympic Park.

  4. Lindsey Vonn wins cow in Val d’Isere, one victory from record

    Dec 20, 2014, 8:40 AM EST

    Lindsey Vonn

    Background on the woman whose record Vonn is close to breaking.

  5. Pope jokes: I won’t be around for 2024 Olympics (video)

    Dec 19, 2014, 2:27 PM EST

    Getty Images Getty Images

    Rome 2024 bid could include events in Vatican City.

  6. Michael Phelps gets probation after guilty plea in DUI case

    Dec 19, 2014, 12:41 PM EST

    Michael Phelps AP

    Phelps was supported by retired Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.

  7. Steven Nyman records Val Gardena hat trick (video)

    Dec 19, 2014, 9:11 AM EST

    Steven Nyman Steven Nyman

    Nyman has won three World Cup races, all in Italy.

  8. Bradley Wiggins on Lance Armstrong, bluffing in Tour de France

    Dec 18, 2014, 4:39 PM EST

    Bradley Wiggins, Lance Armstrong Getty Images

    “He was incredible at that, almost befriending you, and then he’d slip the knife in your back.”

  9. Stephen Colbert and the Olympics

    Dec 18, 2014, 3:33 PM EST

    Stephen Colbert Getty Images

    Colbert had a memorable time at the 2010 Olympic speed skating oval and in an interview with Bob Costas in Vancouver.

  10. Adelina Sotnikova to miss Russia Figure Skating Championships

    Dec 18, 2014, 12:00 PM EST

    Adelina Sotnikova Getty Images

    Olympic champion tore an ankle ligament in November.

  11. Lindsey Vonn: I don’t know if I’ll ski slalom again

    Dec 18, 2014, 11:14 AM EST

    AP AP

    Vonn entered five races in Vancouver 2010. She may never do that again at a global championship.

  12. Jon Drummond banned 8 years after assisting Tyson Gay’s doping

    Dec 17, 2014, 5:38 PM EST

    Jon Drummond Getty Images

    Decision details Gay’s acquisition and use of performance-enhancing drugs.

  13. Fukushima wants to host 2020 Olympic events

    Dec 17, 2014, 5:31 PM EST

    AP AP

    Fukushima’s previous governor pitched the area to be part of Tokyo 2020, too.

  14. Brazil names its Olympic sports athletes of the year

    Dec 17, 2014, 3:29 PM EST

    Getty Images Getty Images

    A look at host nation medal contenders for Rio 2016.

  15. Wilson Kipsang angry that missed drug test made public

    Dec 17, 2014, 2:37 PM EST

    AP AP

    “It is breach of privacy with malicious target to soil my name.”

  16. Spotlight on Ayumu Hirano until I-Pod, White return

    Dec 17, 2014, 1:51 PM EST

    Getty Images Getty Images

    Japanese teen says he wasn’t satisfied winning silver in Sochi.

  17. South Korea eyes top four in 2018 Olympic medal standings

    Dec 17, 2014, 9:55 AM EST

    Getty Images Getty Images

    History shows that’s quite an ambitious goal.

  18. U.S. will bid for 2024 Olympics, no city chosen yet

    Dec 16, 2014, 7:12 PM EST

    Team USA Getty Images

    USOC could wait until February to announce its city.

  19. Mad Dash: Drug-resistant super bacteria found in Rio bay (video)

    Dec 16, 2014, 11:36 AM EST

    AP AP

    Bacteria found next to the starting point for Rio Olympic sailing events.