Who is Julia Lipnitskaia, and can she dethrone Yuna Kim?

Figure skating duel between Russia's darling and queen Yuna will be Sochi's defining moment

LAST UPDATED AT 14:13 ON Wed 19 Feb 2014

THE defining moment of the Winter Olympics could arrive tonight as Russia's new darling, figure-skating prodigy Julia Lipnitskaia, prepares to do battle with reigning queen of the ice, Yuna Kim of South Korea, over two days in Sochi's Iceberg Palace.

The pair will slug it out for figure-skating gold with the winner crowned on Thursday night. The competition begins today with the short programme, and the climax comes on Thurday with the free skate.

Reigning Olympic champion and gold-medal favourite Kim remains the ice-queen - but there is no doubt that after her dazzling performance in the team event last week, 15-year-old Lipnitskaia is the princess.

The 2012 world junior and current European champion dazzled the audience and announced herself as a global star as she played the role of the girl in the red coat from Schindler's List. Even Vladimir Putin was impressed.

"She is the little girl who received a kiss from the president, who held a nation in the palm of her hands with her artistry on skates and who tonight may well seal her irresistible claim to be the true star of these 22nd Winter Olympics," writes Ian Chadband of the Daily Telegraph. "Like Olga Korbut on ice, the story of Julia Lipnitskaia is transfixing a nation."

The teenager has a "bewitching presence in the arena", says Chadband, but it is her background that makes her so popular. For Lipnitskaia is a "provincial kid from the industrial town of Yekaterinburg in the Urals, who did not seem to have anything particularly special going for her on ice except her bloody-minded determination".

She has overcome injuries and growth spurts to stake her claim to gold, and along the way she has "blossomed into a fantastic athlete and a strong personality", who has little time for the media circus that surrounds her.

Lipnitskaia may only be 15 but she knows her own mind. It was her choice to dance as the girl in the red coat from one of the most harrowing scenes in Schindler's List, reports the Washington Post. "It is a chilling premise for a long programme — one Lipnitskaia handles with almost reverent sobriety," says the paper.

Lipnitskaia became the youngest female figure skater to win Olympic gold for 78 years when Russia won the team event. If she wins the individual gold, awarded after Thursday’s free skate, she’ll be the first Russian woman to do so, notes the Post.

Standing in her way is Yuna Kim, "arguably the best figure skater in history... [who] delivered the most spellbinding free skate in Olympic annals, smashing world records" at the Vancouver Games of 2010, says Chadband.

The 23-year-old, who will retire after the Games, is hoping to become the first skater since Katarina Witt to defend her Olympic title. "That was considered all but a given after her commanding victory at last year's world championships, which came after a layoff of almost two years," notes USA Today. "But Kim has lost some of her lustre lately. No one knows quite what to expect after she missed the Grand Prix season with a foot injury, and Russian teenager Julia Lipnitskaia is the darling of Sochi after her impressive performances in the team competition." · 

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