SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Italy's Carolina Kostner captivated the audience with a poised and poignant performance to win bronze in the women's figure skating at the Sochi Games on Thursday and instantly knew her decision to stick with the sport had been worth it.
Four year earlier she had left the ice in Vancouver doubled over with her head buried in her hands, as if she could not bear to face anyone, after a miserable, tumble-ridden skate.
With the Olympic spotlight on her, the Italian had seemed to unravel during a performance that was heartbreaking to watch. After that, she very nearly quit figure skating.
She certainly did not think she would try it all over again at her third Winter Games but an older, worldly-wise Kostner did just that in Sochi as she nailed every one of her triple jumps to the haunting backdrop of Ravel's Bolero.
"I was scared out of my mind," she admitted. "You go along as a little girl dreaming of the Olympics. I was feeling, 'Yeah, this is it.' I just kept telling myself, 'Just have the courage to go for it. Believe in it."
The long-limbed, balletic skater was radiant, so visibly wrapped up in her own emotive performance that the judges and the audience seemed but an afterthought.
Skating in a backless black dress worthy of a catwalk, the 27-year-old was a different woman from the girl who fell to pieces in Vancouver, seducing the audience with a wiggle of her hips to the opening notes of Bolero and building to a crescendo with dramatic fast-paced spins.
"I kept telling myself there are a few more steps left and then you reach your summit..." she whispered, hoarse with emotion and exhaustion after her skate.
Every shrug of the shoulder and turn of the heel was exquisitely executed, with the Italian finishing behind Russian teenage darling Adelina Sotnikova and South Korea's experienced Kim Yuna, who had been favourite to win gold.
Kostner viewed the results humbly, saying: "For me, this medal is absolutely worth gold. I will cherish it. I feel so grateful that the patience, sacrifice and hard work paid off in the end."
Kostner, whose second cousin Isolde Kostner is a three-time Olympic medallist in alpine skiing, inherited her passion for the sport from her mother, who was a figure skating coach, and her father, who played ice hockey in the 1984 Olympics.
But after the disappointment of coming 16th in Vancouver, following a promising ninth-place four years earlier at her first Games on home ice in Turin, she had to learn to fall in love with figure skating all over again.
"After Vancouver, I thought it was over. I thought I would stop skating and it was the end," she told reporters.
"I went back on the ice. I had to skate for the passion and the pleasure, not to take it so seriously."
The soul-searching paid off in the artistic depth of her performances, from a magical but softer-styled short programme to "Ave Maria", in which she wore shimmering angelic white, to a fiery, black-tie outfit for Bolero.
"Yesterday, it felt almost like a prayer saying, 'Thank you for all the health and all the experiences I have lived,' and today it was just like, 'Have the courage to fight. To be yourself'," she said.