'The Russian Lady' defined the 2013-14 seasonImpossible to choose just one, the Russian ladies deserve a 'POTY' pick
Icenetwork will announce its choice for 2013-14 Person of the Year on May 15. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an icenetwork contributor.
They started appearing on rink horizons about four years ago: a flock of adolescent girls with oodles of triple jumps, the "baby ballerinas" of the Russian skating federation. There are so many of them that even today most skating fans would be puzzled to name them all: Sotnikova, Lipnitskaia, Radionova, Pogorilaya, Gosviani, Medvedeva, Tuktamisheva, Biryukova, Agafonova, Sotskova, Sakhanovich, Proklova.
In the 2013-14 season, five Russian ladies combined for nine medals during the Grand Prix Series and Grand Prix Final, three of which were gold. Five different Russian ladies won 12 medals, five of them gold, in the Junior Grand Prix, and Russian ladies swept the Junior Grand Prix Final podium. They also swept the 2014 World Junior Championships, although the winner there did not even compete at the JGP Final. Russian ladies finished one-two at the European championships, and, of course, a Russian lady won at the Olympics for the first time in the country's history.
No one specific Russian lady dominated the figure skating scene; rather, they dominated collectively, with the exception of losses to Mao Asada at the Grand Prix Final and the 2014 World Championships. As we look back on the season that has just ended, we're going to think of it as "The Year of the Russian Lady," and "The Russian Lady" is our choice for icenetwork Person of the Year.
Winning the first of her four Russian national titles at the young age of 12, 2011 world junior champion Adelina Sotnikova, now 17, appeared to be the "chosen one" at a very young age. She didn't quite rule on the senior circuit internationally, though, gathering mostly silver and bronze medals and finishing ninth in her only appearance at the world championships. And then, as everyone knows, she stormed through the 2014 Olympics and carried away the gold medal.
After winning the 2012 world junior title, 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia rose steadily as a senior and shone in the 2013-14 season, winning both of her Grand Prix events and the European title. She finished second to Mao Asada at the Grand Prix Final and the world championships, and contributed to the Russian team gold medal at the Olympics. Her only misstep all season was a shaky fifth-place finish in the ladies singles event in Sochi.
At 16, Anna Pogorilaya seems poised to be the next breakout Russian star after a gold and a bronze on the Grand Prix, and a strong fourth-place finish at worlds. Elena Radionova, 15, the 2013 and 2014 world junior champion, won medals at both her Grand Prix events in 2013 and qualified for the Final. Alexandra Proklova won a gold and a silver at her Junior Grand Prix events. Evgenia Medvedeva won both of her Junior Grand Prix events and a world junior bronze.
Until the youngsters reached the senior events, 23-year-old Alena Leonova was the lone standard-bearer for the motherland, winning a silver medal at the 2012 World Championships. Leonova appears to have been swamped by the mass of teenagers who have overtaken her. Elizaveta Tuktamisheva was the breakout star when she was 15, winning both of her Grand Prix events. She has been on a downhill slope since, save for a bronze at the 2013 European Championships, but she's only 17 and could rebound.
Coach Tom Zakrajsek says he isn't surprised by the explosion of Russian talent in the ladies division. He was in Sochi and mentioned the extraordinary crowd support for the Russian ladies.
"You'd have to be there watching to see the crowd reaction to Lipnitskaya. ... It was extraordinary," he said. "There's a lot of criticism on the Internet about how you have to be graceful to be a ladies champion, but I think you just have to be great. I see these Russian girls as great. They have a lot of great things about them. They're young. They may have a lot of growth, but you have to watch them. They're not easy to ignore."
The dominance is unquestionable. But what is the reason? Why has this discipline, traditionally the weakest for the Russians and Soviets, suddenly become so strong?
The surge probably started in 2007 when Sochi was awarded the Olympics. It's common for countries to pour support into marquee sports leading up to an Olympic Games at home.
"I heard Tamara Moskvina speak in 1991," Zakrajsek said. "She spoke about making champions, and she said, 'There is only one competition, and that is the Olympics.' The Russians believe that they're working four years for that event. Nothing is failure; it's all growing and learning and getting better."
To this, add the urgency sparked by the disappointing showing in the figure skating events at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, where Russia won just a men's silver medal and a dance bronze.
"They brought a lot of their Russian coaches home after the debacle in Vancouver," Scott Hamilton said. "Evgeni Plushenko told me years ago that the reason he was successful was it's easy to defeat people who have a belly full of warm milk. He was hungry. I think that when a country gets humiliated, they circle the wagons."
Zakrajsek notes that in order for a flock of talented singles skaters to be competitive between the ages 13 and 17, they need to have trained hard at very young ages.
"When you're talking about young girls that do triple-triple combinations, and the full cadre of triples. ... The amount of repetitions it takes just to achieve the jump, as well as getting it consistent in competition -- that's a staggering amount of work," he said. "These girls must have been so good at age 9 to 11. I remember talking to Alexei Mishin about how developing a lady in the sport is very different from developing a man in the sport. There's a little bit of recruiting going on for a certain body type. They're explosive and they can combine the timing with power to get a triple at a certain age."
"There are some amazing personalities," Hamilton mused. "Sotnikova was in the shadow of Lipnitskaia all year. The way Lipnitskaia looks, she brings back memories of a young Nadia [Comaneci], or Olga Korbut, but she's mature beyond her years. Time will tell."
Zakrajsek also pointed out that the up-and-coming younger girls in Russia now have inspiring role models in Sotnikova and Lipnitskaia, so it's likely enough that Russian ladies will continue to shine for many years to come.
"They've ignited a legacy for women's skating," he said. "Look at China and the pairs program. Once those ladies start having success, they become the role models for the next generation. That idea that you're going to go out there and compete and be great is just built into them. That's what they live for and work for. So it doesn't surprise me that the Russian athletes have that in spades. It was very inspiring to be [in Sochi] watching in person. I'm getting goosebumps thinking about it again."
"The Russian Lady" has forever left her mark on the 2013-14 figure skating season. The question now is if this trend is just a flash in the pan, or the beginning of an ongoing dominance of the sport by Russian ladies.