SOCHI, Russia – Adelina Sotnikova didn't win the hearts of her nation last week and she didn't become the darling of the Winter Olympics. She didn't wind up with a gold medal and she didn't even get a hug from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But on Wednesday she did something perhaps better than all that by lifting Russia partially out of the sporting gloom that engulfed the host nation on its bleakest day of these Games.
Sotnikova didn't see Russia's loss to Finland in the men's hockey quarterfinal because she was napping in preparation for her brilliant short program in the ladies' figure skating competition.
Yet pretty much everyone else in this country was wide awake and eagerly tuned in, only to be hit by the cold snap of emotions as the loss spread through Olympic Park and beyond.
That misery won't be fully lifted just yet. Russia might not top the medal table once the Games are done, but if it had taken gold in men's hockey, the country would have felt like it won the whole Winter Olympics, such was the level of expectation and yearning.
However, in the space of a few short minutes at the Iceberg Skating Palace, Sotnikova skated lights out, put herself in second place going into Thursday's long program and gave the locals something to feel good about.
The 17-year-old from Moscow was graceful and poised and absolutely clinical on her jumps, lighting up the crowd near the end of a long night in which she skated 29th out of 30 competitors. She trailed defending champion and leader Yuna Kim by just 0.32 at the end, meaning she has a legitimate shot at gold.
For Russia, given what had come before it on this day, it already felt like a win – and a much-needed one.
Sotnikova wasn't the Russian headliner going into the ladies individual. That title belonged to 15-year-old sensation Julia Lipnitskaia, the newly crowned European champion and national sweetheart after two scintillating performances in the team competition.
Perhaps the pressure was too much. Lipnitskaia's fall on a triple flip she usually makes look easy plummeted her from being a legitimate contender to a position where she is nearly nine points behind third-place Carolina Kostner of Italy.
For the hosts it was almost too much to take. From the expressions inside the arena, a few fans looked ready to douse the Olympic flame and wrap up this show four days ahead of time.
Then came Sotnikova, dressed in red and with a twinkle in her eye, ready to show that she shouldn't have been overlooked.
"Of course, I was worried, but I was happy with my performance because I did what I wanted," she said.
And now the spotlight transfers to her and the game changes. It is one thing to duck under the radar when everyone is watching someone else, quite another to shine when the glare is upon you.
Russia loves figure skating and while the team victory was nice and a pairs gold welcome, individual success is seen as the real barometer. With Evgeni Plushenko forced out through injury and Lipnitskaia's hopes wounded, Sotnikova now wears the hopes of her country.
Yet while her comments are somewhat bland and her demeanor often seems bored, somewhere inside Sotnikova a fire burns. It has to. You don't produce that kind of performance, on that kind of stage, with that kind of heartfelt integrity, unless you have fight and drive and the heart of a natural performer.
It's just that Sotnikova doesn't let you see it or hear about it, save for those moments when she is out on the ice. Which is probably how it should be.
"The most important thing is to see your goal, to work hard, to achieve it, and try and try," she said. "If you really want something, you will achieve it."
Sotnikova wants this. And now that she's in medal contention, she craves it even more – a desire shared by an entire country coming off its worst day of the Winter Olympics.
- Sports & Recreation
- Ice Skating
- Adelina Sotnikova
- SOCHI, Russia