SOCHI, Russia – Just four days into the Winter Olympics, Julia Lipnitskaia has already become the darling of the Games after clinching a gold medal and being congratulated by Russian president Vladimir Putin.
But the 15-year-old, who only made the cut-off date for Olympic eligibility by 26 days, came close to quitting figure skating five years ago when she had to choose whether to leave her remote hometown and move to Moscow.
Lipnitskaia hails from Yekaterinburg, a three-hour flight and two time zones removed from the capital, and she was initially reluctant to make the change despite the enhanced training and development opportunities Moscow offered.
[Related: Lipnitskaia emerges as new ice princess]
"For the first year I cried every day," Lipnitskaia told Russian reporters at a press event last year. "When the time came to make the decision, we did not know what to do – to put everything into skating or just to stop."
Lipnitskaia had trained at the Lokomotiv skating club in Yekaterinburg since she was 4, but the city no longer had a high enough standard of coaching and competition to meet her rapidly increasing ability. In Moscow, she linked up with renowned coach Eteri Tutberidze and was home-schooled to maximize her training time. The rest is history.
Yet as Lipnitskaia continues to shine, there have been concerns in Russia about the very work ethic that has propelled her to excellence. The poise and maturity she shows on the ice belies her youth and the topic of potential burnout is one that has concerned the Russian figure skating community.
Valentin Piseev, the former head of the Russian Figure Skating Federation, repeatedly encouraged the skater's mother Daniela to reduce her workload to prevent injuries.
[Photos: Julia Lipnitskaia shines in Sochi]
"She is a workaholic," Piseev told Russian newspaper Kommersant in December 2012. "She needs to be stopped so that she doesn't overwork herself."
Most of the American audience who tuned in to the ladies' short program in the team competition on Saturday had never heard of the teenager, but Lipnitskaia not only wowed the crowd at the Iceberg Skating Palace but won a fresh army of international fans with her electrifying performance, too. She came back for more in the free skate on Sunday, clinching the winning point for the Russian team to seal the host nation's first gold – much to Putin's delight.
However, the big prize for Lipnitskaia is the gold medal of the individual ladies competition, which she is now among the favorites. She will face off against reigning Olympic champion Kim Yuna of South Korea, Japan's Mao Asada and her personal idol, Carolina Kostner of Italy, as well as a trio of ambitious Americans in Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds and Ashley Wagner.
Lipnitskaia will enjoy the vocal support of a passionate home crowd and, despite the pedigree of the opposition, has every right to feel confident.
"It is possible to win in Sochi," she said after winning the recent European Championships. "Even Yuna showed that she doesn't always skate ideally."
If Lipnitskaia does clinch another gold, it would establish her as the star of the Sochi Games due to figure skating's overwhelming popularity, especially in Russia. It's likely she would take the sudden stardom in her stride.
Deeply focused despite her tender years, Lipnitskaia relaxes by painting and horse back riding and she indulges in her love of travel when she has the time. She has already scaled Mount Olympus – not the original one in Greece but a smaller version on the island of Cyprus with the same name – driving to the top with her parents on a vacation last year.
Lipnitskaia liked the name of the mountain and its obvious connotations to her future and she grabbed piece of rock as a souvenir. Now she is scaling heights once more while her new fan base watches intently.
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