SOCHI — Four years ago at this exact moment of the Olympic Games,South Korea's Yuna Kim held a nearly five-point lead over her closest rival on her way to a whopping 23-point victory in the women's figure skating competition in Vancouver.
This time around, Kim's lead is 0.28, with another skater just 0.80 behind and a third little more than six points behind.
In other words, game on.
Four women are in serious contention for the three Olympic medals in the marquee event of the Sochi Games, including U.S. national champion Gracie Gold, who courageously salvaged not one but two off-kilter jumps to finish fourth with 68.63 points. She's behind Kim with 74.92 points, Russia's Adelina Sotnikova with 74.64 and Italy's Carolina Kostner with 74.12.
That's a virtual tie for first, just a hiccup separating the top three women. And Gold's margin of 5½ points from third place is equal to the value of one jump. She's most definitely in the mix for a medal, especially if the top contenders continue to crumble under the pressure as several did in the men's event last week, and two medal hopefuls — Japan's Mao Asada and Russia's Julia Lipnitskaia — did Wednesday night.
If Gold wins a medal, she will look back to the way she fought for the landings on those two crucial jumps in the short program to keep herself within striking distance. You can't win a medal in the short program, but you certainly can lose one. Gold proved herself to be quite a gamer by willing herself to stay in the mix.
"I thought, 'I've come too far not to land this stupid double axel,' " she said later. " 'I did not train that hard to go down and mess up this one jump. I am landing it with a smile on my face.' "
The judges are not letting the 23-year-old Kim run away with this Olympic competition. After a typically poised, confident and smooth short program, Kim received the highest women's short program score of the season. But her program component scores were not the love letters from the judges they were four years ago. The judges left an opening, and they almost never do that when Kim is on the ice.
In fact, it was Kostner, the 27-year-old former world champion, not Kim, who received the evening's highest component scores, the points that skaters are given for their skating skills, transitions, choreography and the like. Lyrical, mature and elegant on the ice, Kostner was most deserving.
Now, on to the Russians. The double-whammy of Lipnitskaia's fall and the Russian men's hockey team's loss to Finland at a nearby Olympic Park arena was almost too much for the nation to bear — until 17-year-old Sotnikova bubbled to the surface to save the day. How she was placed ahead of Kostner by half a point was a head-scratcher, but there she was, Russia's new teenager of the hour.
There's no way to know how she'll handle the pressure of skating in the final group, but she's definitely hungry, having been shut out of the team event when Lipnitskaia skated both the women's short and long program, thus not joining in on the fun of winning Olympic gold.
Speaking of handling pressure, all three U.S. women exceeded expectations by a mile. Two-time national champion Ashley Wagner held on tight to the landing of a scratchy triple-triple combination in a strong performance for sixth place, while 15-year-old Polina Edmunds was rock solid in her debut in senior level (Olympic) international competition to place seventh. Those placements were a triumph for American depth and the individual skaters' determination.
So where does this leave us?
In the three previous figure skating disciplines contested at these Olympics, every short program has perfectly telegraphed the long: The short program leader went on to win the gold the next evening.
But none of the three was as close as this one. Kim is in for the fight of her life.