SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Julia Lipnitskaya’s whirlwind grace stole hearts and earned the Russian team gold, but when the teen dynamo left the ice in Sochi all she could think of was what she had done wrong.
“I don’t think it’s my best,” she said, listing lapses mostly invisible to the figure skating audience and, apparently, the judges.
After Yuzuru Hanyu’s own gold-medal performance, the Japanese skater told his coach “No, I‘m not happy,” consumed with chagrin over the jumps he had flunked in an error-strewn men’s competition.
That degree of focus on achieving a flawless skate is part of what has made Olympic champions of them. It is the kind of passion that coaches know will help sustain them through years of grueling training - at least four hours a day on the ice.
Faced with the sacrifices of uprooting one’s life to seek out the best trainers, the savings-sapping expense and the stinging strains on the body, even the likes of American Kristi Yamaguchi have come within a hair’s breadth of quitting.
“Four-time world champion Kurt Browning is the one who sat me down and said, ‘Why are you so miserable?,” Yamaguchi said of a pivotal moment not long before she won at the 1992 Albertville Games.
Then 19, she had abandoned her skating partner of seven years, Rudy Galindo, and left her family in San Francisco to follow her coach to Edmonton, Canada. After slipping up in some competitions, she was assailed by self-doubt.
“I had one of those moments when I had to look and ask myself, ‘Is this what I really wanted’,” she told Reuters.
“I think I would never have won the Olympics without that soul searching,” Yamaguchi said. “A lot of it is really a mind game when you are at the Olympics. It is maybe 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical. It is continually telling yourself, ‘You can do it, You can do it, You can do it.'”
The fragile elegance of dainty skaters like the 15-year-old Lipnitskaya - whose families often pay through the roof to turn their daughters into ice princesses - can obscure the sweat and tears they have put in since taking up the sport as children.
“People still see figure skaters as porcelain dolls, like these untouchable pretty things that you put up on a shelf,” U.S. Olympian Ashley Wagner, the down-to-earth daughter of an army officer, told Reuters.
“We work just as hard as the Alpine skiers and the cross-country skiers but we just do it all in spandex and sparkles.”
The audience at the Sochi Games got a first-hand taste of the toll the sport takes when American Jeremy Abbott suffered a brutal fall and skating veteran Yevgeny Plushenko explained he was in too much pain to perform.
“It really shows people how taxing these events are for the skaters,” Yamaguchi said.
Since Plushenko won his first Olympic medal 12 years ago, the 31-year-old Russian has had 12 operations to patch up knees twisted to breaking point and a spine pummeled by the impact of landing quadruple jumps.
Abbott took a rough tumble on a hip unprotected by the pads skaters sometimes wear in practice and slammed into the boards. He lay grimacing on the ice as his music played on before struggling back into the program.
”It is much harder the older you get to keep everything together, said Abbott, 28, who finished twelfth.
“It takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of money, which is hard to come by ... I had to dig into to retirement fund.”
Ultimately, how does it feel to be the one standing at the top of that Olympic podium?
“There is a lot of relief. That kind of just surprised me the most. You take a deep breath and you just realize that so many people and so much has gone into those four minutes on the ice,” Yamaguchi said.
“You are just so relieved and grateful that it ended up the way it did and you were able to come through and perform.”
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Editing by Keith Weir