* Sotnikova stops Kim from winning back-to-back titles
* Kostner finally gets an Olympic medal
* U.S. suffer medal shutout in men’s and women’s competition
By Pritha Sarkar
SOCHI, Russia, Feb 20 (Reuters) - She was not even considered number one in her country but Adelina Sotnikova stormed out of the shadows of Julia Lipnitskaya to become the first Russian to win the Olympic women’s figure skating title at the Sochi Games on Thursday.
Sotnikova had been hovering so far in the background that when it came to potential Olympic champions, her name was not even in the mix with Lipnitskaya, 2010 champion Kim Yuna, 2012 world champion Carolina Kostner or Japanese heroine Mao Asada.
But she soared above her more illustrious rivals to leave the home crowd leaping and roaring with joy as she finally bulldozed the last figure skating barrier that had remained for Russia.
Since Ludmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov gave the Soviet Union their first Olympic title in 1964, the 2014 Winter Games hosts, as USSR, the Unified Team or Russia, had won 26 golds in the sport before Thursday.
Surprisingly none of them had been in the individual women’s event and they had barely featured on the podium until Sotnikova captivated the hollering home crowd, if not the world, with a winning score of 224.59 that raised more than a few eyebrows.
“I smashed my season’s best. In fact, I smashed my highest score for my whole career and I did it at the Olympics. I didn’t think I could skate like I did today,” said Sotnikova, who had been pacing nervously backstage until her victory was confirmed since Kim was the last competitor to skate.
The South Korean had been favourite to join Norway’s Sonja Henie and Germany’s Katarina Witt as the only women to have won back-to-back Olympic titles and despite delivering a flawless display full of grace and beauty, she was left sobbing backstage after losing her title by 5.48 points to Sotnikova.
“I am stunned by this result, I don’t understand the scoring,” Witt was heard commentating on German TV from her booth at the Iceberg Skating Palace.
While the nine-person judging panel would no doubt point out that Kim attempted only six triple jumps compared to Sotnikova’s seven, that did not explain why Italian bronze medallist Kostner had been given 7.34 points fewer than the Russian.
Kostner, decked in an eye-catching sheer black, backless dress, appeared to be almost floating on water as she executed every one of her 11 jumps, including seven triples, to the haunting melodies of Ravel’s Bolero that has long been a favourite with skaters.
But within minutes, neutral fans were left scratching their heads wondering what exactly the judges saw, or rather did not see, as the Russian ended up with the top score despite a snatched landing following a double loop.
Sotnikova was the only one of the leading trio to make such an obvious mistake but that did not stop her from obliterating her own season’s best for the free skate by more than 18 points.
“Any questions (about the scores) are for the judges, not for me. I did my job. I gave a gift to Russia,” Sotnikova said, determined not to let anything ruin her moment in the spotlight.
For her, the win was vindication of her own self belief as remarkably she had not been given a look-in for the team competition that Russia had so gloriously won 11 days ago thanks to two electrifying performances by the 15-year-old Lipnitskaya.
As Lipnitskaya-mania gripped the nation, there seemed to be only one name on the lips of Russia’s 143 million inhabitants, but Sotnikova was determined to show that there was more than one teenaged superstar in the country.
While Lipnitskaya stumbled and staggered her way out of contention on Thursday, finishing fifth, Sotnikova made history.
Wearing a sparkling smokey ash dress, she landed 11 jumps, including seven triples, to the stirring backdrop of ‘Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso’.
Even before she had finished her final pose, the crowd erupted and were on their feet to show their appreciation to a woman who had finally ended Russia’s long search for an Olympic women’s champion.
“Today I realised that I really love what I do and I can skate very well,” Sotnikova said.
“I am really happy because this is the Olympics and I worked toward this for a very long time. I might be 17 but I dreamed of making it to the Olympics and getting a gold.”
It was a sentiment shared by Kostner as she finally scooped an Olympic medal on her third attempt.
She has long been the standout female skater in Europe, winning five continental titles, but she is equally known for her spectacular meltdowns.
None was more painful than the one she suffered on home ice at the 2006 Turin Olympics when she became the butt of jokes in her country after falling on her bottom on practically every jump she attempted.
Four years later when she suffered the same fate in Vancouver, she left the ice a broken woman and in floods of tears.
On Thursday, though, her perseverance finally paid off.
“For me this medal is absolutely worth gold, I will cherish it,” said the 27-year-old Italian.
The United States’ hopes that Gracie Gold would live up to her name proved to be wide off the mark as she finished fourth after tripping up on Thursday and that result meant the Americans suffered a shutout in men’s and women’s singles skating for the first time since 1936.
“When I went down on it, I thought, ‘Dang it!” said Gold.
It was a sentiment Asada would have shared on Wednesday when her Olympic dreams were left in tatters and she languished in 16th place.
Twenty four hours later, a tearful Asada was left wondering what might have been after a fall-free long programme earned her 142.71 - the third best score on the night - and lifted her to sixth with a total of 198.22. (Editing by Peter Rutherford and Larry Fine)