By Pritha Sarkar
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - A 15-year-old debutante proved that Yevgeny Plushenko is not the only star attraction of the Russian team as Julia Lipnitskaya upset the world order of women's figure skating to put the hosts within striking distance of the Olympic team title.
Up against former world champions Mao Asada and Carolina Kostner, Lipnitskaya blew away her more illustrious rivals at the Sochi Games on Saturday with an electrifying short skate that rocked the Iceberg Skating Place.
Lipnitskaya, who is the youngest skater in the competition, proved that her surprise victory at last month's European Championship was no fluke as she left her screaming team mates leaping for joy as she finished her rip-roaring routine.
She nailed a soaring triple-Lutz triple-toeloop in combination and her spins were so fast, she disappeared into a blur that left the hollering fans dizzy with joy.
"I've never seen anything like the atmosphere out there today. There wasn't any silence for a single second," the petite Lipnitskaya, who looked her age once she had stepped off the ice, told reporters.
"It was so loud, I could barely hear my music. All I could hear were the shouts of 'Ju-li-a' and 'Ru-ss-ia'"
She eclipsed birthday girl Kostner with a score of 72.90. The Italian also produced a clean skate on her 27th birthday to earn 70.84, while Asada's had trouble with her triple Axel.
She fell on her hands and knees following the jump to finish a distant third with 64.07.
A defiant Ashley Wagner, who almost missed out on a trip to Sochi following a meltdown at the U.S. nationals, theatrically flipped her head after making it through her program without any major drama. She finished fourth.
"It was tough going out there after a disappointing nationals so it was important for me to redeem myself," Wagner said. "I got the triple-triple out there, so I'm pleased."
On a day when Russia also won the pairs free skate, the hosts opened up a six-point lead going into the final day of the team competition.
Russia lead the inaugural Olympic team event with 47 points. Canada (41), the United States (34) Italy (31) and Japan (30) complete the top five with three segments remaining.
France, China, Germany, Ukraine and Britain were all eliminated after failing to make the free-skate cut.
Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov showed the depth of talent in Russian pairs skating as they kept up the winning momentum for the hosts.
The couple were substitutes for Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, the world and European champions who are trying to preserve their energies for the individual pairs competition, and Stolbova and Klimov did not disappoint.
From the moment they nailed a sky-high throw triple flip, the crowd were delirious as the duo whizzed around the ice, showcasing their gravity-defying lifts and nifty footwork to the soundtrack of 'The Addams Family'.
Their score of 135.09 was more than five points ahead of nearest rivals Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch of Canada.
Russia have now won three of the five segments contested in the team battle and on Sunday 2006 Turin gold medalist Plushenko will be back to raise the decibels even higher as he targets a fourth medal at his fourth Olympics.
Marina Zoueva was another Russian who was ecstatic on Sunday - but not because of her homeland's success.
She could not sit still because as coach to North American rivals Meryl Davis and Charlie White and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, she had to dash around swapping in and out of team jackets.
As Virtue and Moir came off the ice, Zoueva was spotted hurriedly pulling on the Canadian jacket but she could not stick around long enough in the 'kiss and cry' area to see their score of 72.98 flash up.
Hurriedly discarding the red and white Maple Leaf uniform, she pulled on the American version to give Davis and White a pep talk.
It seemed to do the trick as Davis and White's beautiful foxtrot and quickstep interpretation to a medley of songs from 'My Fair Lady' earned them a top score of 75.98 and lifted the U.S. into medal contention.
Their expected toe-to-toe battle with 2010 Olympic champions Virtue and Moir failed to materialize as the Canadians paid the price for going out of sync in their side-by-side twizzles.
Virtue looked crushed after her slip up led to the mistake.
"I may have lost a bit of speed going into it," she said.
"It wasn't a mental lapse, it wasn't that I wasn't focusing or picking up the right cues. I recovered quite well because I managed to stay on the same foot."
(Editing by Larry Fine)