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In “Ave Maria,” she found just the tonic, an elegant program she seems to float through.

“It’s just a prayer to everything I’ve lived and learned through skating,” Kostner said.

U.S. champion Gracie Gold, second to Lipnitskaia in the team free skate, had a clean short program to sneak in ahead of Lipnitskaia by 3.4 points.

“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.

Vancouver silver medalist Mao Asada of Japan had several major mistakes, two on the triple axel that has been her trademark — and also her curse. She 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 to the music in a flowing performance.

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,” 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 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.

Lipnitskaia will skate first in the final group Thursday, followed by Kostner, Sotnikova, Gold, Wagner and Kim.

“You just need to live in the moment,” Kostner said. “Be courageous, to lean into the discomfort and say, OK, I stand in the beginning position and I’m scared out of my mind. But I just go for it. I just let myself go and it’s just amazing.”