|Korea's Yuna Kim competes during the Figure Skating Women's Short Program at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, February 19, 2014. Photo by Lucy Nicholson, Reuters.
SOCHI, Russia - Kim Yuna showed the world why she, and not a 15-year-old Russian upstart, is known as "Ice Queen" as the Olympic champion soared above her rivals and Julia Lipnitskaya crashed to earth at the Sochi Olympics on Wednesday.
A women's competition billed as a three-way race to the finish, featuring Kim, Lipnitskaya and Mao Asada as the main protagonists, ended with the South Korean the only one left standing following a dramatic short programme.
As Kim drew roars of approval with her elegant and mesmerizing performance to 'Send in the Clowns' - scoring 74.92 - Lipnitskaya and Japan's Asada were left with nothing but sore bottoms and bruised egos.
Lipnitskaya's gold medal hopes melted away with a fall on her triple flip and a score of 65.23 left her trailing Kim by almost 10 points in fifth place.
For Asada, it was the night when everything that could go wrong - went horribly wrong.
Once the 2010 silver medallist fell on her triple Axel, a 3-1/2 rotation jump she landed a record three times at the last Olympics but has often been her Achilles heel, her programme unravelled.
She botched her triple flip and her triple loop-double loop combination vanished into thin air as she replaced it with a sub-standard double-loop.
She sat stony-faced in the 'kiss and cry' area as a score of 55.51 left her in 16th place.
"I don't know what to make of this now. I can't comprehend any of this. I couldn't control my emotions and my body," a bewildered Asada said.
"My timing was off. I couldn't move the way I wanted to out there. I couldn't do what I visualised. I lost the fight within me. It was all mental."
While Lipnitskaya and Asada were left to digest their shattered dreams, the women's competition was heading for a thrilling finish on Thursday as only 0.8 of a point separated the top three.
Unlike four years ago when Kim carried a near five-point lead into the free skate, she will have to fight to the end to become only the third woman to win back-to-back Olympic titles as Russian Adelina Sotnikova (74.64) and 2012 world champion Carolina Kostner (74.12) are snapping at her skates.
Kim seemed to float through her performance with effortless ease as she completed a triple Lutz-triple toeloop combination, nailed a triple Salchow and even cracked a rare smile mid-routine when she landed a double Axel.
CLAPPING AND STOMPING
|Russia's Yulia Lipnitskaya falls as she competes during the Figure Skating Women's Short Program at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, February 19, 2014. Photo by David Gray, Reuters.
"In warm-up, I was very nervous, I couldn't jump at all. When I finished all the jumps, my nerves faded away, so I smiled," said Kim, who missed the entire grand prix series this season with a foot injury.
"No one knows what will happen tomorrow ... if I defend the title that will be good but I am not that ambitious about it."
Gracie Gold's ambitions of landing a medal were soaring after she finished fourth with 68.63.
"I'm a triple Lutz away from Kim Yuna," grinned the darling of American figure skating.
Asked if she was aware of what Kim had produced on the ice, she added: "I was in the locker-room and it got really loud. At first I thought it was rain but it turned out to be all the clapping and stomping. I'm sure she was flawless."
Russia's 143 million strong inhabitants had also thought Lipnitskaya would be flawless.
Expectations that Russia could finally end their long wait for a women's champion - the only Olympic figure skating event they have never won - had reached epic proportions after Lipnitskaya produced two spell-binding performances to help the hosts win the team title 10 days ago.
But on Wednesday, after being welcomed on to the ice with deafening chants of "Ju-li-a, Ju-li-a, Ju-li-a", her world fell apart when she stumbled to her hands and rolled on to her bottom following the final jump of her 'You Don't Give Up on Love' routine.
It sent a crowd of 12,000 into shocked silence, rendered the rest of the country speechless, and left Lipnitskaya blinking back tears.
As she finished her final pose on bended knees scribbling a shape on the ice with her finger, flowers rained down from all corners of the arena but Lipnitskaya could barely raise a smile as she skated off the ice pinching her nose.
"I don't know what happened. My preparation was all fine. I wasn't nervous. I didn't feel too much pressure," Lipnitskaya told reporters.
"I feel sad. I wasn't good enough on the jumps. Tomorrow, I will go out there and fight."
(Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel, Editing by Ed Osmond)