SOCHI, Russia – Nerves almost got the best of Yuna Kim.
Then she showed she has just enough to remain the favorite to win another Olympic figure skating title.
The defending champion from South Korea won the short program Wednesday night at the Sochi Games in something resembling a photo finish. But it wasn't Russian youngster Julia Lipnitskaia on her heels.
On a day Lipnitskaia's hockey countrymen flopped out of the games, the 15-year-old couldn't revive Russian hearts. After winning both programs in the team event to help the hosts take the gold, Lipnitskaia fell on a triple flip and then broke down in tears.
"This does not define her career or who she is as an athlete," coach Eteri Tutberidze said through a translator. "She simply made a mistake. That's all. It happens."
When it happened, the crowd was stunned. And Kim had the lead — surprisingly over the other Russian woman in the field, Adelina Sotnikova — by only .28 points.
Italy's Carolina Kostner, second at worlds last year to Kim, was third, just .80 behind.
U.S. champion Gracie Gold of Chicago, second to Lipnitskaia in the team free skate, had a clean short program that earned her 68.63 points for fourth place.
"To be able to come up here and feel stiff and white as a ghost but stare fear in the face is what I'm all about now," the 18-year-old Gold said.
Ashley Wagner of Alexandria, Va., and Polina Edmunds of San Jose, Calif., were sixth and seventh — a very strong showing for the United States.
Japan's Mao Asada had four major mistakes and plummeted to 16th.
Kim's program to "Send In The Clowns" was exquisite. She even cracked a smile, perhaps for the first time since arriving in Sochi, after landing her double axel, the final jump of the routine. Every move was timed perfectly the music in a flowing performance.
"I was so nervous before my competition. When I finished, I was relaxed," Kim said. "I was nervous in warm-ups. My legs were shaking. I wasn't able to do my jumps. In my head, there were a lot of thoughts."
She admitted to making a slight mistake on footwork, and the judges gave her only level 3 (out of 4) on it, and on her layback spin. Again, she said, it was anxiety.
"I tried to believe in myself and remember my practices," the 23-year-old Kim said. "I thought if I do well in practice, I can do well in the main event."
She could, Lipnitskaia couldn't.
Greeted by cheers of "Ro-ssi-ya" as soon as she emerged from the tunnel before warming up, Lipnitskaia had her shoulders rubbed by her coaches as she waited to take the ice. She looked all business as she smoothly landed her practice jumps.
The crowd switched to chants of "Ju-li-a" when it was her turn to perform. They breathlessly watched her perfectly land her triple lutz-triple toe loop combination. But toward the end of the 2-minute, 50-second routine, she crashed on the triple flip that she pretty much never misses.
Four skaters later, Sotnikova, 17, lifted Russian spirits with an energetic program that had her jumping up and down when she finished. Considered a long shot for a medal, she now is in contention for gold.
Her huge triple toe combination got her off to a flying start and she never let up. Her final flying camel spin, with a unique twist in it, was not completed before the crowd was up on its feet cheering wildly — as they had done for Lipnitskaia in previous events.
Kostner's elegant performance to "Ave Maria" put her in prime position for the top spot heading into Thursday's free skate. No Italian woman has won an Olympic medal in singles.
The maturity and outright beauty of Kostner's program was in stark contrast to the snappy Sotnikova.
AP Sports Writer Rachel Cohen and freelance Marie Millikan contributed to this story.