Queen Yu-Na on track for second Olympic gold
South Korea's Kim Yu-Na performs in the Women's Figure Skating Short Program at the Iceberg Skating Palace during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 19, 2014 - by Damien Meyer
The 23-year-old Kim, known as "Queen Yu-Na" in her native South Korea, scored 74.92 points for her flawless short programme to "Send In The Clowns".
But 17-year-old Sotnikova is just 0.28 behind and Kostner, 27, a further 0.52 adrift in what is effectively a tie for first place going into Thursday's free skating final.
Russian teen Julia Lipnitskaia, who had been expected to challenge after her dazzling skates helped Russia to the team gold is struggling in fifth after a fall on a triple flip.
Japanese star Mao Asada's Olympic challenge is over as the Vancouver silver medallist slumped to 16th after falling on her opening triple axel jump and struggling through her programme.
Wearing electric lime Kim once again proved she could captivate the crowd with a seamless skate which included a triple lutz-triple toeloop combination, a triple flip and a double axel.
"I was really nervous, my legs started trembling and shaking," said Kim, the reigning world champion, who had missed the Grand Prix season because of a right foot injury.
"The jumps didn't go well in the warm-up. I tried to remember the good practices I had. I just told myself: 'believe in yourself'.
- 'I get nervous all the time' -
"I smiled at the end because all my nerves evaporated. I'm a human being and get nervous all the time but it doesn't show on my face."
Kim was well below the world record 78.50 she achieved on her way to gold in Vancouver four years ago but it was enough to stake her claim to a second gold.
She is bidding to become just the third woman to win back-to-back titles after Norway's Sonja Henie and Germany's Katarina Witt.
Witt won her titles in 1984 and 1988.
Lipnitskaia scored 7.67 fewer than she had in the team event for her skate to Mark Minkov's "You Don't Give Up on Love".
"I feel sad. I don't know what happened," said Lipnitskaia. "I wasn't good enough on the jumps. Tomorrow, I will go out there and fight."
Kostner took to the ice after the Russian and had to dodge the flowers which rained down for the tiny teenager.
The 2012 world champion, who has failed to rise to the occasion in her two previous Olympics, achieved a personal best 74.12 for her ethereal skate to Schubert's "Ave Maria".
"It's a big pleasure to be here and to share a good version of myself," said Kostner, who finished ninth in Turin 2006 and 16th in Vancouver 2010.
- Tears in her eyes -
The five-time European champion, landed a triple-triple toeloop combination, a triple loop and a double axel, finishing her routine with tears in her eyes.
But it was national champion Sotnikova, 17, who had been left out of the team event, who lifted home spirits with a rousing skate to "Carmen" which brought the 17,000-capacity crowd at Iceberg Skating Palace to their feet.
Suitably clad in red, she landed a triple-triple toeloop combination, a triple flip and a double axel, and could not contain her glee as she jumped up and down on the ice in delight after her skate.
"If you really want to achieve something you will achieve it," said Sotnikova, who finished runner-up to Lipnitskaia at the Europeans.
"Now I realise Russian support really is the best. I've never skated in front of that kind of audience before, so I got a little nervous before I got on the ice but I pulled myself together."
US champion Gracie Gold scored 68.63 and is fourth, ahead of Lipnitskaia, 65.23.
Asada once again fell victim to the difficult triple axel -- a three and a half rotation jump -- which she is the only woman to attempt.
She also under-rotated her triple flip and downgraded her final jump to a double loop to score just 55.51 for her skate to Chopin's "Nocturne in E Flat".
"I didn't skate anywhere near as well as I could," said Asada, a two-time world champion.
"I don't know what to make of this now. All I can do is give it everything I have tomorrow.
"Once I started the programme, I couldn't control my emotions and my body."