Defending Olympic figure skating champion Kim Yu-na will likely have to endure fierce challenges from her long-time rivals as well as rising teenage stars as she bids to keep her crown in Sochi, Russia next month.
A group of up-and-coming teenage skaters from Russia and North America have each earned over 200 points in recent competitions. They will still need to give the performance of their lives at the Olympics to unseat Kim, but the battle for podium finishes in the sport is likely to be much more intense this winter than four years ago in Vancouver.
Russia's Julia Lipnitskaia became the youngest champion ever at the 2014 International Skating Union European Championships in Budapest, Hungary, on Friday by earning 209.72 points. At the age of 15 years and seven months, she shortened the previous record set by Austria's Hanna Eigel in 1955 by one month.
She received 69.97 points in the short program on Thursday and 139.75 points from the free skate, thus smashing her previous personal best of 198.23 points at Skate Canada this season by over 10 points.
Her result also stands as the fourth-highest score ever recorded in a ladies' singles event recognized by the ISU. Kim holds the top three scores, including the highest of 228.56 set at the 2010 Olympics.
Lipnitskaia also collected Russia's first gold medal in eight years in the ladies' singles after her compatriot Irina Slutskaya won the same event in Lyon, France in 2006.
Another hot prospect from the country, 18-year-old Adelina Sotnikova, won silver with 202.36 points over the weekend. It was the first time Sotnikova has broken the 200-point mark.
Before the 2010 Vancouver Games, only Kim and Japan's Mao Asada had achieved scores of 200 points or higher. Kim won the gold medal in Canada with 228.56, Asada swept silver with 205.50 and Canada's Joannie Rochette Canada clinched the bronze with 202.64.
But scores over 200 points will not guarantee a podium finish this time around. In addition to Kim, Asada and the two rising Russian stars, several other skaters from Japan and North America have managed similar scores, although the events were not ISU-sanctioned.
Japan's Akiko Suzuki and Kanako Murakami did so at the Japanese nationals last month, while Gracie Gold won the U.S. nationals with 211.69 points last week. Canada's Kaetlyn Osmond also triumphed at the Canadian nationals with 207.24 points recently. Scores from national competitions like these are not recognized by the sport's world governing body.
Another potential setback for Kim will be the huge home advantage that the Russian skaters will enjoy as Russian fans pray and cheer for their first Olympic gold medal in the ladies' singles event.