Hard to handicap women's Olympic field
SOCHI, Russia -- Like rock stars or Brazilian soccer players, the top women figure skaters often are referred to by just their first names - Yuna, Mao, Carolina, Gracie - and Olympic success will only swell the ranks of their devoted followers.
Add Julia to the list.
Russia's 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia has already experienced that spike in popularity after her two brilliant performances helped the host nation win the team event.
On Wednesday, she'll be back at the Iceberg to face off with the very best the sport has to offer in the short program. While her earlier showing sent the figure skating world into celebratory spasms, there's no guarantee Lipnitskaia will so easily handle the competition in one of the Winter Olympics' signature events.
''She doesn't have a priority pass to the podium,'' 1992 men's gold medalist Victor Petrenko said of Lipnitskaia. ''She's got a lot of pressure on her for a 15-year-old. It seems like she is strong and she handled it very good.''
Petrenko coaches Ukraine's Natalia Popova, who is not a medals contender. Lipnitskaia, of course, is among the favorites.
''She doesn't have a career past,'' he said of Lipnitskaia, who was a junior skater last season. ''She has not had all the competitions the others have had.''
Still, ''Julia'' has been on the lips of nearly everyone in Sochi, and she certainly has to be in the minds of her rivals.
What Lipnitskaia had not been until Tuesday was visible at the games since her triumphant performances; she returned one day before the short program after training in Moscow for a week. In her absence, defending champion Yuna Kim of South Korea, two-time world champ Mao Asada of Japan, current world silver medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy and American champion Gold, of Chicago, have had impressive practices.
To pick one standout would be difficult, though. Kim skipped the 2011-12 season, so it's uncertain how toughened she is to take on such a strong field. Asada depends so much on the triple axel - the only woman regularly attempting it - that a miss could ruin her chances.
Kostner has had an up-and-down career, and Gold only recently has emerged as an elite skater.
It makes for quite a mix, one into which might be thrown two-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner of Alexandria, Va., and Japan's Akiko Suzuki.
Lipnitskaia, of course, has the home-ice advantage.
''Every country when you compete there has support for their sportsmen, and it is the same in Russia as it is in my country or any other country,'' Kim said. ''As a competitor you expect that and it doesn't matter, you still have to perform at your very best. I try not to think about it.''
Thinking about another medal is on the mind of the Americans - Gold and Wagner own a bronze from the team competition, in which Wagner performed the short program and Gold did the free skate.
''To come away as an Olympic bronze medalist no matter what is something I am so proud of. And to do it with my teammates ...'' Wagner said. ''But that was that and it is over and now we're going into the individual. Now I need to focus on what I can do for myself.''