Irina Slutskaya's bid to become the first Russian to win the women's figure skating title at the Winter Olympics hung in the balance after she was left trailing in second place by Sasha Cohen on Tuesday.
The American performed a dazzling short program to score 66.73, just 0.03 more than the Russian favorite going into Thursday's free skate.
Japan's Shizuka Arakawa was lying third.
Slutskaya is unlikely to get too flustered as the lead held by Cohen is negligible under the new cumulative-points scoring system.
"I am happy. I skated well. This is a competition and sometimes things don't go as you'd like them to," said Slutskaya, the silver medallist from four years ago.
"Everybody thinks about (me making history) but not me."
If Slutskaya wins on Thursday, Russia will become the first nation to sweep all four figure skating titles at the Games.
Cohen, second behind Slutskaya at last year's world championships, looked nervous as she skated on the ice to perform the last short program of a long evening. She hardly acknowledged the crowd, thick with U.S. flags.
Once she had landed her first two jumps performed to a medley of Russian folk music, she started smiling, when she landed the next one, her shoulders relaxed and she swung through the rest of her routine with ease.
When she finished, she punched the air and cried, "Right on!" before skating around the rink to receive deafening applause.
As she saw her marks flash on the scoreboard, it gradually dawned on her that she had scored high enough to challenge the top field.
When she was announced as being in first place, she leapt in the air with one arm raised, a huge smile across her face.
But she refused to get carried away by her achievement.
"The free program is going to be like starting over, like tonight didn't really count. It's back to square one," said Cohen, who finished fourth in the Salt Lake City Games.
"We are separated by so little that anyone could win."
Sporting a sparkling catsuit, Slutskaya was the 18th out of 29 skaters to perform and her dramatic routine to Liszt's Totentanz remained the benchmark for most of the evening until Cohen squeezed past her.
The Russian executed a series of soaring jumps and artistic spins to draw loud cheers from the crowd and will fancy her chances of overhauling Cohen on Thursday as she will be the last competitor to take to the ice.
The top three were separated by only 0.71 of a point after Arakawa led a strong showing by the Japanese contingent.
Her compatriot Fumie Suguri finished fourth while Miki Ando, who will attempt to become the first women to land a quadruple Salchow at the Olympics in the free skate, was eighth.
Italy's chances of winning a medal at the Palavela rink all but vanished when world and European bronze medallist Carolina Kostner mistimed her opening triple-triple jump combination and crashed to the ice on her bottom. She finished 11th.
European silver medallist Elena Sokolova also put herself out of contention for a medal with an error-filled display.
A stunned Sokolova struggled to hold back the tears when she was left in 18th place.
(Reuters via China Daily February 22, 2006)