SOCHI, Russia — Fifteen-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia had the look of an Olympic champion Saturday night, dazzling the home crowd with a near-perfect performance in the women's team short program.
With her countrymen chanting her first name, Lipnitskaia put on a mature routine that had the fans stomping their feet and showering the ice with flowers and dolls. Her flexibility and rapid rotation on her spins and jumps were reminiscent of Tara Lipinski when she won the 1998 Olympic gold.
And Lipinski, who was the same age at the Nagano Games, was on hand to see it.
"I have been saying the whole year that she is a dark horse," Lipinski said of Lipnitskaia — yes, the names are nearly the same. "I loved the energy and the fight in her."
Lipnitskaia helped Russia hold the overall lead heading into the pairs free skate portion of the new event, held later Saturday night.
Also advancing were Canada, the United States, Japan and Italy.
Lipnitskaia has burst onto the skating scene, and she easily outskated far more experienced competitors Carolina Kostner of Italy, who is in her third Olympics, and Japan's Mao Asada, in her second. The moment wasn't too big for her in any way.
"All the cheering was unusual," Lipnitskaia said. "It was a real pleasure for me. I'm glad I made it pleasurable for the spectators, and I'm glad I got my team into first place."
Her flexibility on every move, combined with her speed, not only enraptured the audience, but impressed the judges to the tune of 72.90 points.
"We are different," Lipinski said. "Even though I was young, I remember I wanted to show I could skate with the big guns."
One of this year's big-timers, Kostner was graceful and elegant skating to "Ave Maria" on her 27th birthday.
Asada, a two-time world champion, fell on her trademark triple axel, and that dropped her to third, just ahead of Ashley Wagner of Alexandria, Va.
"I was very nervous today, more than I expected, and that is the reason for my mistakes on the ice," Asada said.
Wagner struggled at the U.S. championships and was placed on the team despite finishing fourth. This short program was more representative of her talent, although she two-footed a landing that cost her points.
"To score that low was very disappointing for me," she said. "But honestly, this was more about me and my performance and proving to everyone that I belong here."
Earlier, the U.S. got a huge lift, along with some dazzling footwork and spins, from its world champion ice dancers. Meryl Davis and Charlie White got the U.S. back into medals contention in the new team event. The 2010 silver medalists quickstepped to the rescue by winning the short dance.
"We don't feel like we're trying to carry any sort of burden or load," White said. "We're counting on the whole team to pull through together and I think that's what makes us such a strong team."
Defending ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada were second even though she bobbled during their early set of twizzles, hurting the couple's synchronicity. They still received 72.98 points, exactly three points below Davis and White.
"I think I might have lost a little bit of speed after the first (twizzle)," Virtue said. "It wasn't a mental lapse."
Russia's Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev were third, responding to chants of "Ro-ssi-ya, Ro-ssi-ya" that echoed throughout the Iceberg with a solid skate.
But Davis and White, both from Michigan, unquestionably deserved the top spot.
Their twizzles — traveling one-foot spins — were so precise it seemed they were one skater. Their concluding rotational lift to music from "My Fair Lady" was spot-on.
"Everything hasn't been 100 percent perfect," Davis said of the U.S. performances. "But that's part of what a team is, is being there for each other. We have a really great standard."