By Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber
GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) - Floating gracefully on the ice to secure silver in the team event for the Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) in Pyeongchang on Monday, 15-year-old Alina Zagitova showed she is the one to beat.
Wearing a flashy red tutu, Zagitova cleanly executed all elements of her jump-packed free skate to take first place with a more than 20-point lead over second-place finisher Mirai Nagasu of the United States.
Zagitova seemed unfazed about stepping onto Olympic ice for the first time. She was eager to gain experience on the world's most prestigious stage.
"It's one more experience for me," the soft-spoken teenager told reporters. "Nothing has been proven yet. I still have to do well in the individual event."
The European champion, whose performances are reminiscent of ballet, added that she would try to approach the women's individual event like any other competition.
The free skate at the Olympic team event is not the first time the Russian has impressed.
Last month she handed training partner Evgenia Medvedeva her first defeat in more than two years at the European championships in Moscow, winning gold in front of a jubilant home crowd.
But the design of her program, in which jumps come late in a bid to receive a higher score, has drawn some criticism.
American figure skater Ashley Wagner, who is not competing in Pyeongchang, wrote on Twitter that Zagitova's program was "not a performance," although she respected its "competitive approach."
"She killed time in the beginning and then just jumped the second half," Wagner wrote. "It's not a performance. I understand that this is what the system allows but it's not all figure skating is about."
As Medvedeva sat out the Grand Prix Final in December with a fractured foot, Zagitova seized her opportunity to stand out in her first senior season and even threatened her 18-year-old compatriot's world records.
With her European title and stellar performance on Monday, devoid of the jitters sometimes seen among first-time Olympians, Zagitova has made Olympic gold a toss up between her and Medvedeva, a two-time world champion.
"To be 15 and go out on Olympic ice without trembling and just executing what she can do is a huge experience," pairs skater Evgenia Tarasova told a news conference of her team mate. "She might be 15, but she is quite a grown person."
Zagitova and the other OAR figure skaters are relocating to Japan this week, away from Olympic excitement to focus on preparing for the individual events that lay ahead.
Zagitova is set to perform her short program on Feb. 21 and her long program two days later.
"I can't imagine how a 15-year-old girl can compete at the Olympics," ice dancer Ekaterina Bobrova told a news conference.
"All I say is that I wish her luck. She perfectly understands that she has to do what she is able to do. And what happens, happens."
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)