Nobody saw this coming.
No, not the surprise early exit of Russia’s men’s hockey team after a quarterfinal loss to Finland, crushing their hopes for a medal-round rematch with the U.S. Rather, what has Sochi abuzz are the jaw-dropping twists in Wednesday’s ladies’ figure skating short program, throwing Thursday’s final of the Winter Olympics’ marquee event into wildly unpredictable disarray.
Russia’s Yulia Lipnitskaya, 15, an overnight sensation and sudden gold-medal contender after her confident skate in the first-ever team event last week helped Russia win gold, flopped on a triple flip and fell to fifth place.
Her overlooked teammate, Adelina Sotnikova, 17 – skating an aggressive, athletic program with a chip on her shoulder after being dropped from the team event, despite her place as Russia’s four-time national champion – soared to second.
Italian Carolina Kostner, 27, the 2012 world champion who hadn’t finished better than ninth in two prior Olympics, landed in third.
The biggest stunner of all: Mao Asada of Japan, a gold-medal threat and silver medalist in 2010, fell on her trademark triple axel and never recovered her technical program, tumbling to a startling 16th place.
“We are in shock,” former Olympic champion and NBC commentator Tara Lipinski said on-air moments after watching Asada’s collapse.
Sasha Cohen, the 2006 silver medalist, tells PEOPLE: “It would be one thing if she had fallen to fifth or sixth, but 16th is another world.”
“There was a huge gasp when Mao Asada fell,” U.S. Olympic skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender, who was at the figure skating short program, tells PEOPLE. “She got so much air and everyone really thought she nailed it at first. But the biggest gasp came when Yulia Lipnitskaya went down. You could feel the air getting sucked out of the arena.”
The ladies’ skate has storylines aplenty going into Thursday’s crowning final. One narrative asks whether 2010 gold medalist Yuna Kim, 23, of South Korea, can return from four years of near-invisibility on the international circuit to win the first back-to-back gold since Katarina Witt.
Confirming expectations, Kim grabbed the lead with an elegant skate to “Send in the Clowns” that NBC commentator and two-time Olympian Johnny Weir described as “flawless and mesmerizing and pretty and everything it should be from the queen.”
Even so, with the top three finishers separated by just 0.8 points, the long program promises an exhilarating free-for-all that still is anyone’s to win. Or lose.
“The top three in the ladies short program were incredible and also showed a variety of talents. The fight in the free skate will be outrageous and a true cat fight,” Weir tells PEOPLE. “Mistakes were made by two main favorites, Mao Asada and Yulia Lipnitskaya, and that opened the door to challenges from the Americans. Ice is slippery and there is always a chance for the skaters [within] striking distance to the podium. The free skate will be all about staying focused, creating a moment and not making mistakes.” “The final event will be super-charged, for sure,” says Cohen. “Kostner has really proven herself at these Games, and has jumps and artistry that rival Kim. I’m hoping Gracie does her best, which will give her a shot at a medal, though it will definitely be a fight between Yulia, Gracie, Carolina and Adelina for silver and bronze.”
And no matter her sixth-place standing for now, a determined Wagner herself says not to count her out. She carried her own controversy into the Games when she was named to the U.S. Olympic team despite finishing fourth at the U.S. nationals, and then went viral with an unhappy scowl that greeted her score in the team event.
But the crazy competition has put all that in the past as she eyes the skaters ahead of her. “I feel like I actually have a chance at getting onto this podium,” she tells NBC.
• With additional reporting by JOHNNY DODD
Join PEOPLE and Sasha Cohen for a viewing party on Twitter during the ladies long program Thursday. Follow @peoplemag and @sashacohenNYC during NBC’s prime-time telecast, starting 8 p.m. ET. Tweet your questions, comments, and reactions to skating’s big night!