Medvedeva's dominance builds huge expectations17-year-old world champion will enter next season as Olympic favorite
Icenetwork will announce its choice for 2016-17 Person of the Year later this month. Here's one of the nominations for that honor from icenetwork contributor Sarah S. Brannen.
Evgenia Medvedeva hasn't lost a competition since the 2015 Rostelecom Cup. This past season, the Russian was not just undefeated -- she was utterly dominant, setting new world-record scores and then repeatedly breaking those marks on her way to a second consecutive world title. It's hard not to write things like "she crushed the competition" -- which can seem odd when you're talking about a slight, fresh-faced teenager who is still just 17 years old -- but this particular phrase fits when talking about Medvedeva's abilities.
NBC commentator Johnny Weir, who has seen his fair share of Medvedeva in action, has not been shy about expressing his admiration for the dominant star.
"What makes Evgenia great isn't simply her technique or her ability to maximize every element in her programs -- it's her determination and belief in every character she has portrayed that makes her very special to watch," Weir wrote via email. "Her consistency in training translates to her confidence in competition and allows her to be more than just a competitor…[she's] a true artist."
Starting around 2014, Russian women began their takeover in figure skating. The catch is that, until Medvedeva, they haven't been able to hold onto their crowns. A string of young stars have flashed and then fizzled out: Julia Lipnitskaia, Adelina Sotnikova, Elizaveta Tuktamisheva and Elena Radionova all won world medals -- and, in Sotnikova's case, the Olympic gold medal -- and then faded away for various reasons. Medvedeva is not only the first Russian woman ever to successfully defend her world title but the first woman to do so since Michelle Kwan in 2001.
This makes her my pick for icenetwork Person of the Year.
U.S. champion Karen Chen, who finished fourth at the 2017 World Championships, said Medvedeva has been a true inspiration to her.
"I feel like what she does is nothing short of amazing," Chen said during a recent phone interview. "Everything she does is so effortless and it looks so easy and it probably is easy for her. All her jumps and spins are pretty much flawless, every single jump looks exactly the same, and it's definitely something I aspire to."
Medvedeva is a slender 5-foot-2 and young enough that she may not be done growing just yet. Her large, expressive features contribute to one of her great strengths: her acting ability. Medvedeva's programs, several of which are choreographed by Ilia Averbukh, call for her to mime a variety of activities, all while interacting with various invisible props and unseen people -- tasks she carries out in flawless fashion. Top skaters before her have said they'd like to become actresses, and Medvedeva is the rare breed who might actually possess that potential, if she chooses to do so.
She gets straight 10's for the "performance" part of the components score -- and she should. But the teenager maximizes every other aspect of the judging system as well, and that is a big part of her consistency. Each one of her jumping passes in last season's short program came in the second half of the performance, and her five passes in the free skate earned the "well-balanced program" bonus for coming after the 2:00 mark. Most of her jumps get a +2 or +3 Grade of Execution, partly due to the fact that many of them include the feature of the arm above the head. She did nine jumps with one or both arms over her head at the 2017 World Championships and 10 at the World Team Trophy in Tokyo.
"She's smart, she's savvy, she's very, very good," USA Today's Christine Brennan said. "She is a beautiful skater, she is packaged perfectly, she knows what she needs to do to win, and she pulls it off."
It's hard to find a skater who doesn't respect Medvedeva. Grant Hochstein watched her at the 2016 World Championships -- where he finished 10th -- and he greatly admires what she does.
"She's really detail-oriented," he said. "There's a reason to the program; she's not just skating to music -- she's telling a story. You can relate to what her body is doing, and she makes you understand the music in her own way. There's artistry behind the skater; it's not just jumping."
Everyone I talked to spoke of Medvedeva's incredible consistency. She's the rare skater you watch without feeling the least bit nervous that she may fall.
"She has no doubts," Hochstein said. "She's in these high-pressure situations where people expect her to win and if she doesn't, it's shocking. You're on the edge of your seat, not because you think she might miss a jump but because you're going to see something special."
"As an audience member, you can feel calm watching her, which is certainly a rare quality and part of why she is so loved and respected," Weir added. "She has proved time and time again that she really is that much better than her competitors. Again, this comes from consistency.
"There are skaters who can rival her in specific categories -- [Carolina] Kostner in artistry, other Russians in jumping ability, and so on -- but nobody has been able to put it all together consistently like Zhenya."
Chen and 2014 Olympian Polina Edmunds agree that consistency will be the key if anyone is to beat the Russian phenomenon.
"She skates clean programs at most of her competitions, and that's why she's regarded so highly," Edmunds said by phone. "It's what all of us want to be doing in competition."
"It's a matter of being able to skate clean at literally every competition so a clean program isn't a big deal at all," Chen said. "In a way, she's in a league of her own, and I think that's a great thing."
Latvian coach and ISU technical specialist Konstantin Kostin, who competed for the Soviet Union until it fragmented, credits the Russian training system for Medvedeva's consistency. Skaters in Russia usually practice in groups rather than having private lessons. They have to skate well to get the coach's attention, and they're in a competitive atmosphere every single day.
"They know what they're doing, they know their routines, they know how to warm up," Kostin said. "They're all on the same ice and all have ballet training together. They train in a group and push each other, and they (the coaches and federation) only keep the best of the best."
Kostin says that when Russian skaters are young, they are first trained just to rotate. Next comes training in how to land jumps.
"When they're little, they don't have enough muscles to actually jump, and it's very important to develop the muscles for rotation," Kostin said. "Once they gain muscle and know how to jump, they already know how to rotate and land."
As far up in the stratosphere as Medvedeva is, is there any way for her to improve? Maybe. There's that arm-over-the-head thing: Some skating fans dislike the position, with the right arm bent, almost wrapping over her head. Compare the air position to Brian Boitano's groundbreaking 'Tano lutz, in which his left arm, which was nearly straight overhead, made for a dramatic lengthening in the air.
However, as the season progressed, Medvedeva kept adding jumps with both arms overhead, in a more extended position. Coaches I spoke to said that the position is not only more dramatic but more difficult. It would be exciting to see more arm variations: the left arm up instead of the right, a jump with both arms down at her sides, or perhaps a jump with one arm in front and one behind.
Kostin would like to see more maturity on the ice, and bigger jumps. Medvedeva pulls in as quickly as possible when she takes off for a jump.
"Her jumps are quick; they're not huge, but they're quick," Kostin said. "They're not as mature, so she can improve the height a little bit."
On a more serious note, the subject matter of Medvedeva's free program caused a lot of discomfort in the U.S.
To see the events of 9/11 acted out by a Russian teenager who was a baby at the time of the attacks -- to hear sirens and explosions, to see Medvedeva miming the sorrow of a wife whose husband was killed in the Twin Towers -- took some viewers to a place they didn't expect to go to while watching a figure skating competition. People talked about "trigger warnings," with some justification. It will be interesting to see what she skates to next season.
Ah, next season. As of today, Medvedeva is as heavy a favorite to win the Olympic gold medal as, say, Kwan was in 1998 and 2002 -- which ought to remind us of how unpredictable figure skating can be.
"We are handing her the Olympic gold medal today," Brennan said. "I've been in the sport since 1988, and sometimes the people who have the medal handed to them don't win it. If I were one of the other pursuers, I would be very aware of the fact that skating is a slippery sport. There's nothing harder than going into the Olympics and doing what everyone thinks you're going to do. The world championships pressure and Olympic pressure are two entirely different things."
Time will tell how Medveedeva responds to the pressure she will face in PyeongChang next February. If she meets that challenge like she has every other one she has encountered over the last 18 months, she will return to Russia a national hero.