MOSCOW—She was Russia’s golden girl at the 2014 Winter Olympics, the 15-year-old skater with the “Schindler’s List” theme tune who won an Olympic title and a hug from President Vladimir Putin.
But now Yulia Lipnitskaya’s career is over, and she’s opening up about the cause—chronic anorexia.
Lipnitskaya says the eating disorder dogged her “not just for one year, or two, or three” and it eventually caused her to check into a clinic in Israel in January this year. She’s now retired, hasn’t skated in almost a year and says she doesn’t miss the ice.
“Anorexia is a 21st-century illness and it’s fairly common. Unfortunately, not everyone can cope with it,” Lipnitskaya said in an interview released on Tuesday by the Russian Figure Skating Federation. Lipnitskaya, the youngest Olympic skating gold medalist since 1936, wishes she’d spoken out about her illness earlier.
“My only regret is that I didn’t do this before,” the 19-year-old Lipnitskaya said. Her honesty is comparatively rare in Russia, where eating disorders usually aren’t discussed publicly.
Lipnitskaya’s last competition, a Grand Prix event last November, was a far cry from her Olympic triumph. Unable to tackle the big jumps in her free program, she stopped the skate with tears in her eyes. The judges allowed her to resume after a break, but she finished 12th, in last place.
Officials said Lipnitskaya was injured. She entered residential treatment for anorexia in Israel two months later.
“After the Cup of Russia I came home and put my skates in a closet and I haven’t seen them since,” she said. “I’m no longer drawn to the ice.”
Lipnitskaya said when she entered the clinic in January she assumed she would still continue her skating career. Two things happened to persuade her otherwise. First, sessions with psychologists helped her to realize she wanted to put her health first. Second, her stay in the clinic proved a little more isolated than she had planned.
“After the first week there, on a free day, my phone was stolen and obviously that broke my whole connection to the outside world,” she said.
“It’s only now that I understand why it happened to me. It was for me to really think about what’s happening in my life. It played a very important role,” Lipnitskaya said. “I had even more time to work on my health, and to think what I’d do after leaving the clinic.”
With a tendency toward curt, clipped speech and sometimes biting self-criticism, Lipnitskaya stood out in the relentlessly upbeat world of figure skating.
In Russia her young age and a very public hug at the Olympics from President Vladimir Putin made her a household name. She found it hard to cope with fame.
“Ever since childhood I’ve been a very strong introvert,” Lipnitskaya said. “Speaking with an unfamiliar person meant I had to make a real effort.”
Lipnitskaya said she has become “chattier” but doesn’t think she needs “to get into every newspaper or onto every TV show when they invite me. I don’t welcome that and I won’t do it”.
That approach marks Lipnitskaya as the temperamental opposite of Russia’s other skating star from the 2014 Olympics. Adelina Sotnikova, who won the individual gold medal, has embraced the celebrity lifestyle as a regular on TV, including the Russian edition of Dancing With The Stars.
The announcement of Lipnitskaya’s retirement sparked a frenzy in Russian media. Lipnitskaya said she has been forced to deny various unfounded theories about her decision, and that a man who claimed to be her father on Russian state TV was an impostor.
What comes next for Lipnitskaya isn’t clear. For now, she’s focusing on education and hopes to enter college next year, possibly as a prelude to a career in sports management.
She said she has found happiness regularly riding up to 40 kilometers on horseback in the countryside near Moscow.
Her horse, Dakota, is “tall, with a model appearance and a lovely personality”, the former Olympic skating champion said. “It’s just like a dream.”