There was no drama left in the team skating competition by the time Julia Lipnitskaya (also spelled Yulia Lipnitskaia), a bendy and graceful 15-year-old Russian skater took the ice. Russia had already clinched gold. Yet, she still crushed her competition in the ladies field. Lipnitskaya torched the ladies free skate by scoring a 141.51— about 12 points more than second place finisher Gracie Gold. If she had turned this free skate performance in the 2010 Olympics, she would have walked away with a silver medal behind a monster record (150.06) set by South Korea's Kim Yu-na. Here's how she did it:
The Scoring System
If you haven't been tuning into figure skating since The Cutting Edge, you may be at a bit confused with the new, complex scoring system. It's still very subjective, but the basic takeaway is easy though: skate beautiful and you'll get rewarded in Grade of Execution (GOE) scores (the scores on the right in the chart below). Beautiful means lots of speed, grace, fluidity and flexibility. The easiest thing to do is think of those GOE scores as bonus points or extra credit in a way:
The new system has rewarded skaters like Kim Yu-na and Mao Asada, who have signature moves — a huge triple lutz-triple toe combination for Kim, and a triple axel for Asada — and do them better than any women in the competition. And it makes it more difficult for skaters like Ashley Wagner who are well rounded, but don't have that specialty. It's also why many analysts are picking Gracie Gold, who has strong jumps, to finish ahead of Wagner.
So if the bottom line is that skaters need to have a specialty or a go-to weapon, then what are Lipnitskaya's?
The most valuable gift that Lipnitskaya's has is her flexibility. She's built not unlike Russia's most vaunted gymnasts. She's almost as flexible too. Her flexibility allows her to excel in her spin sequences. What judges are looking for in spins are the number of revolutions, changing positions, and challenging positions (that demand strength or flexibility). This is her Biellmann spin which is considered a difficult spin because it requires that someone be really flexible and strong enough to maintain balance. Notice how Lipnitskaya can get her leg fully straight:
As a comparison, here's 2010 silver medalist Mao Asada's Biellmann:
That spin in layback position has a base value of 2.70 points. Judges felt that Lipnitskaya executed it so well that she garnered 1.50 bonus points for her performance, and boosted that spin's value to 4.20. Gracie Gold, who placed second in the free skate, had a layback spin that only received 3.26 points.
These point advantages, which might seem tiny, begin to add up. That wasn't Lipnitskaya's only spin that got more points. Her final spin of her free skate also received an extra point (+1) in its GOE:
One knock against defending Olympic champion Kim Yu-Na is that her legs aren't as flexible or as graceful as her top half. You can see this weakness in what are called spiral sequences where the skater glides across the ice. Lipnitskaya has no such problem:
And one more example:
These spirals help her choreography scores and the scores she receives for executing a program that's pleasing to the eye.
Julia Has a Solid Triple-Triple
The most important thing for female figure skaters is having a solid triple-triple combination. These combinations garner the most points. Her opening combination, a triple lutz-triple toe, has a base value of 10.10 points:
Judges thought she performed the sequence so well that she was awarded 1.40 in execution score. Gold, who is considered a strong jumper, was only awarded a 0.4 extra on the same combination.
Lipnitskaya's program featured three jump combinations. In a quirky twist, Julia actually didn't complete a planned double axel-double toe combination. Instead she added that double-toe to a triple lutz later in the program:
That bobble (she's a bit off-balance on the landing) on the Lutz was her only deduction on the night, as she got positive Grades of Execution on 11 of the 12 scored elements in her program. While it may be seen as a weakness or a sign that there may be questions about Lipnitskaya's endurance, it also shows that Julia is capable of an impressive score without a squeaky clean skate.
Lipnitskaya will have a little over a week to work out the kinks, as the women's competition begins on February 19.