Julia Lipnitskaia sent the whole world swooning, delivering seven minutes of figure skating so stunning, it helped lift Team Russia to their first gold medal of the Sochi Games. The medal came in the new “team figure skating event,” in which each country’s full squad of skaters compete in a variety of mini-events, to see which nation has brought the strongest overall team to Sochi. Lipnitskaia’s olympics aren’t over yet, as the ladies singles competition still remains. Here’s what you need to know about this petite Russian wunderkind:
1. She Barely Made it Into The Olympics
Lipnitskaia’s on-ice efforts were more than sufficient to secure her Sochi bid: She took gold at the world junior championships in 2012, silver in the Russian senior championships of that year, and in a breakthrough performance in Budapest last month, she took gold in the ladies’ singles program, ahead of her favored teammate Adelina Sotnikova.
However, USA Today reports that The International Skating Union requires that all skaters be 15 by July 1st of the year before the games. Lipnitskaia just barely made the cut, turning 15 last June.
2. She Almost Quit Figure Skating Five Years Ago
A profile from Yahoo Sports, describes an early moment of crisis for Lipnitskaia, when, at age 10, it was already clear that the standard of coaching and competition in her hometown of Yekatrinburg wasn’t high enough to challenge her. She was so scared of leaving her home and family for Moscow that she almost decided to give up skating, telling Russian reporters:
“For the first year I cried every day. When the time came to make the decision, we did not know what to do – to put everything into skating or just to stop.”
Of course Lipnitskaia ultimately chose to go to Moscow, where she teamed up with renowned coach Eteri Tutberidze, and continued down the road that brought her to the Iceberg Arena Sunday night, where her ice-capades melted hearts, including that of everyone’s favorite shirtless, bear-wrestling, homophobic autocrat:
— T∇G (@TiffanyVanGoey) February 10, 2014
3. She Climbed Mount Olympus
The one in Cyprus, not Greece.
That Yahoo profile describes Lipnitskaia as a workaholic, obsessed with her sport even by olympian standards. Former head of the Russian Figure Skating Federation, Valentin Piseev, has encouraged her mother to reduce her workload, to stave off injuries, telling the Russian newspaper Kommersant of Lipnitskaia in December 2012:
“She is a workaholic. She needs to be stopped so that she doesn’t overwork herself.”
When Lipnitskaia is relaxing, her hobbies are themselves quite active, painting, horseback-riding, and mountain climbing being three of her favorite pastimes.
4. Her ‘Schindler’s List’ Routine Has Sparked Some Criticism
Lipnitskaia performs her signature piece, dressed as the girl in the red coat from Schindler’s List, skating to that film’s John Williams-penned soundtrack.
That soundtrack has actually been quite popular in the figure skating world, first used by Katarina Witt in the 1994 games. According to The Wrap, Speilberg praised that performance, which had a special poignancy for the fact that Witt was skating for Team Germany.
Nonetheless, some question the tastefulness of evoking genocide while competitively twirling, skating blog Morozombie writing that they felt “wary of attempts to portray the evils of the Holocaust and the suffering of the Jewish people on ice.”
However, Slate posits that the marriage between Speilberg’s film and figure skating makes a perverse kind of sense, as both are characterized by a sentimentality and “hyper-emotionalism.”
5. The Russian Figure Skating Team is Experiencing a Revival
Before taking gold in Team Skating Sunday night, The New York Times reports Russia had been mired in a near-decade without any top-level women’s figure skaters.
This year, they had more than they could use. A handful of prodigies, all between 15 and 20 first attracted notice in the 2010-11 season, when the podiums of international junior competitions started looking conspicuously Russian. Since that year, a Russian has won, or come in second at every major international junior final.
When Lipnitskaia took gold in Budapest at the European final, it was Russia’s first gold in that competition since 2006.
The Times explains that in the wake of the USSR’s fall, Russia’s olympic training system fell apart as state financing fell through:
That left rinks to rot and prompted many of the most experienced coaches to seek work abroad. At the same time, the pool of amateur skaters shrank as parents, struggling to stay afloat financially amid economic chaos, stopped sending their children to train.
But in recent years, a more stable economy has allowed the parents of the country’s nimblest youths to reinvest in their on-ice education. While Putin’s government has kicked some money into figure skating in the last year or so, for the most part the crop of new talent has grown up organically through the efforts of coaches, families, and the skaters themselves.
Lipnitskaia took a rock from the top of Mount Olympus as a memento of her climb. She hopes to have two gold medals with which to remember her ascent to the summit of competitive figure skating.