I am excited to announce that this blog post is part of a collaboration with Claudia from the amazing blog Frozen in Time. She’s looking back on some amazing performances in the skater’s home country, and she’s asked me to contribute a piece on two great home ice performances. I’ve chosen to tell two stories from the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi: the breathtaking rise of Julia Lipnitskaya and the dark horse victory of Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov.
And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind
Never knowing who to cling to
When the rain set in
And I would have liked to have known you
But I was just a kid
Your candle burned out long before
Your legend ever did
I was a bit of a reluctant figure skating fan. It’s always been my mom’s favorite Olympic sport, but growing up, I rarely had the attention span to watch it with her. When I begrudgingly sat down to watch the 2014 Olympics in Sochi with her, I honestly thought I would be bored. But then I saw Julia Lipnitskaya.
She was a petite, delicate girl, only a few years older than I was. She was fifteen, the commentators said, but she had the small face of ten and the quiet seriousness of forty. Her hair was woven into tiny braids, and she wore a deep blue dress with tiny sequins that sparkled like stars in a midnight sky. She stared through the screen with these beautiful hazel eyes that seemed to capture a deep longing, a secret ache. Watching this performance now, I can’t help thinking she looks like the young Cosette from Les Miserables – a beautiful angel child with a powerful, resilient heart. The music? A Russian song called “You Don’t Give Up on Love”.
She knelt on the ice and drew a heart with her tiny, graceful hands, then stood and began to skate. She floated across the arena like a fairy, swinging into a triple lutz-triple toe loop combo, then a double axel. Her flying camel spin was fast and nimble, and sitting there in my living room, I gasped out loud. She flitted through the step sequence and landed the triple flip, but the highlight of the program was yet to come. I had seen many skaters do spins before, but never like Julia. Rather than catching her blade for the Biellmann spin, as most skaters do, she grabbed her calf, bending herself so her head was touching her back. The flexibility required for such a position is insane, even in a sport where flexibility is essential. She then pulled herself into a combination spin, gaining speed as she rose with one leg parallel to her head, forming a perfect “I” with her body. Everyone in the audience gasped, twelve thousand pairs of eyes watching one girl spinning like the beaters of a mixer.
That was the moment I fell in love with figure skating. I know people talk more about her iconic free skate to “Schindler’s List”, but for me, that team event short program to “You Don’t Give Up on Love” was the performance that stayed closest to my heart. Even today, I remember nothing but indescribable awe as she left her soul on the ice.
The next night, I was actually excited to sit down and watch skating because they said Julia would be performing again. That was the night “the girl in the red coat” carved her place into the heart of the figure skating world forever. Twelve thousand pairs of eyes, with millions more watching on TV all over the world. Seven jumps, three spins, a step sequence, and a series of breathtaking spirals and Ina Bauers.
Every moment was perfect.
Schindler’s List is a story of hope and strength amidst the horrors of the Holocaust. The girl in the red coat is a symbol of innocence, a child thrown to the wolves of hatred and cruelty. Watching these performances today is bittersweet. The whole world saw a beautiful doll, a brave little hummingbird fluttering around the ice. They didn’t see the harsh conditions she suffered under from her strict coach. They didn’t see the endless lines of reporters and paparazzi that tried to steal every moment of her life after that night for their own tabloids. They didn’t see her battle with anorexia that eventually forced her to retire at the age of 19. They saw the rainbow, but not the brutal rainstorm that created it.
Julia never returned to the Olympics – like the stunning Titanic, her maiden voyage was to be her last. But she left a greater impact on the skating world in Sochi than most skaters can create in an entire career. Although she suffered at the hands of pressure and fame, she emerged from the darkness and now coaches a new generation alongside fellow 2014 Olympic medalist Elena Ilinykh. I am thankful not only to that little girl in the red coat, but to the strong, compassionate woman she became. She gifted me a lifelong love for figure skating. I would not have a figure skating blog or all the friends I made through the skating fandom if I hadn’t watched her performance that night. The Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi saw many brilliant stars during the Olympics, but Julia Lipnitskaya left behind a courageous heart and an unbreakable spirit.
I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing will drive them away,
We can beat them, just for one day
We can be heroes, just for one day
Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov came into the 2014 Olympics as underdogs for a medal of any color. When they stepped on the ice in Sochi, they had never even qualified for a World Championship or a Grand Prix Final, but a series of consistent performances throughout the 2013-14 season put them on the cusp of a breakthrough. Although they had performed brilliantly in the Olympic team event to help Russia earn the gold medal, all eyes were on the battle for gold in the individual event between two world-class pairs: Russia’s Tatiana Volosozhar/Maxim Trankov and Germany’s Aljona Savchenko/Robin Szolkowy.
In the short program, Stolbova/Klimov delivered a clean, strong performance to “Surrender” by Jesse Cook. Quick, sharp, and intense, they filled the home arena with fierce, fresh energy and stayed on their feet while other teams faltered. At the end of the night, they found themselves into third place, and hope for an individual Olympic medal was born.
Stolbova/Klimov’s free skate was set to the soundtrack of “The Addams Family”. This program almost didn’t make it to Olympic ice – at the beginning of the season, they had actually planned to get a new free skate, but eventually chose not to change it. It seamlessly combined the quirky, charmingly macabre tone of the film with the precision and athleticism of classic Russian pair skating. The performance starts with the ominous creak of a door opening, and suddenly Morticia and Gomez Addams come to life in the Iceberg Skating Palace. They cover the ice with swift, powerful crossovers, and Fedor launches Ksenia into an effortless triple twist, a new element they’ve finally perfected. They turn the corner into a silk-smooth throw triple flip with an incredible running edge on the exit, then sweep into a set of side-by-side triple toe loop-double toe loop-double toe loops. They move fearlessly through the first lift, death spiral, and expertly synchronized side-by-side spins, and the crowd starts to follow them. Fedor emphatically kisses Ksenia’s hands as she locks her legs around his waist and throws her body back until the top of her head is nearly parallel to the ice. He dramatically flings his arms wide, moving forward on his skates while she balances unsupported. Neither breaks character as they enter a catch-foot spiral, forming a spider with their exquisitely graceful limbs.
The audience bursts into cheers as the iconic Addams Family theme rings out across the arena. Ksenia and Fedor run across the ice in a cheeky, energetic dance, then spring into a pair of flawless side-by-side double axels. The crowd’s euphoria builds as Fedor swings Ksenia high above his head in a reverse lasso lift. The music eases into a slower breathing point, stretching a moment into a memory. Ksenia reclines over Fedor’s knee, and he bends down to gently kiss her and pull her into a pair spin, right in front of the Olympic rings on the boards behind them.
The music climbs again as they finish the spin, climbing to the crescendo on the wings of the cheering fans. Fedor flips Ksenia into the final lift, effortless and smooth. They’ve been skating for nearly four and a half minutes now, but they show no signs of slowing down. This is their night, and they refuse to give a single moment of this opportunity away.
But there’s still one element to go: the throw triple salchow, set in the last few seconds of this performance. One landing will make the difference between success and defeat, glory and setback. They turn as one, winding up for the final hurdle between them and the Olympic podium. Fedor throws Ksenia into the air. She snaps into a tight, quick rotation, making three turns before bringing her foot down on the ice. Her free leg swings back, her blade carves a wide arc as she rides backwards on a remarkable running edge, and her hands fly up in victory.
The landing is perfect.
The crowd roars with pride and leaps into a standing ovation as Ksenia and Fedor hit their closing poses. Ksenia is swinging her fist through the air, her mouth open in a cry of triumph. They turn to face each other and bring their hands together in a high-five before melting into an embrace. The camera finds Ludmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov, Russia’s Olympic pair skating champions of 1964 and 1968, clapping along with every other soul in the arena. The audience is a sea of tricolor Russian flags and chants of “Ros-si-ya, Ros-si-ya!” as Ksenia and Fedor make their way off the ice to the kiss-and-cry. Even as the scores come in – a personal best of 143.47 for a total of 218.68 – they don’t know they will be Olympic medalists. There are three excellent teams yet to skate, teams with impressive collections of Olympic and World medals. But in this moment, Ksenia and Fedor are celebrating, because they’ve done everything they are capable of.
Three performances later, Stolbova/Klimov are crowned Olympic silver medalists. They share the podium with their compatriots and training mates Volosozhar/Trankov, who claim the gold for Russia on home ice. Savchenko/Szolkowy, who attempted an extremely difficult routine but botched two elements, finish third behind the two Russians. To the rest of the world, Stolbova/Klimov’s sudden rise is an upset, even a fluke. But Ksenia and Fedor look perfectly at home on the Olympic podium. They believed in their ability to win before most of the skating world knew their names. Perhaps their silver medal was unprecedented, but it was certainly not undeserved.
At the time, it seemed to be only the beginning for this promising young pair. However, their career was hampered by injuries, and Sochi would be their first and final Olympics. Yet for me, this is one of the most memorable Olympic performances I have witnessed. Their charisma, enthusiasm, and power on the ice was second to none, and they gave the performance of their lives on the night they needed it most. In fact, Ksenia and Fedor were the first pair skaters I ever truly loved, and although I’ve discovered many other couples I enjoy, they are still my favorite pair to this day.
Happy skating, and may the odds be ever in your favor.