Ice Network

Russian ladies playing game of 'catch us if you can'

Zagitova, Medvedeva benefit from training in Tutberidze's competitive rink
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Based on recent history, it wouldn't be surprising if the next Russian phenom quickly supplanted Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva from the top of the pecking order. -Getty Images

GANGNEUNG, South Korea - On the day before Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva made Russian history by taking the gold and silver ladies medals at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, video began circulating of what one of their younger compatriots had done thousands of miles away.

In Thursday's free skate at the Cup of Russia junior final in the western Russian city of Veliky Novgorod, a 13-year-old, Alexandra Trusova, landed a clean, impressive quadruple salchow -- and Trusova did not even win the event.

The confluence of those skating achievements within about 24 hours of each other is evidence enough that no matter what you call them, be it Olympic Athletes from Russia or anything else, the Russian domination of women's figure skating has just begun.

"It is the beginning of a wave, and they are going to be good for years to come," 1992 Olympic silver medalist Paul Wylie said.

Four years after Adelina Sotnikova became the first Russian woman to win the Olympic title, the country has two women on the Olympic singles podium for the first time.

Zagitova, 15, and Medvedeva, 18, tied for first in a free skate (Medvedeva was deemed the winner due to her higher program components score) in which they elevated the technical difficulty of their four-minute programs to a level that seemed unimaginable only eight years ago, when the top Russian finisher in the ladies event at the Olympics was ninth.

The difference between them was the 1.31-point margin Zagitova built in the short program by executing more difficult jumps. She had 239.57 points to 238.26 for Medvedeva and 231.02 for bronze medalist Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada.

This title had seemed destined for Medvedeva until about three months ago, when a broken bone in her foot forced her to miss December's Grand Prix Final and Russian championships. Zagitova seized that opportunity to win both of those events, and then beat Medvedeva at the European championships last month to firmly take the upper hand.

Barely two years ago, Zagitova finished ninth at the Russian Junior Championships. A year later, she was Russian and world junior champion. Now, in her first season as a senior, she is the second youngest ladies champion in Olympic history, a month older than Tara Lipinski was when she won in 1998.

Zagitova's gold was the first in these Winter Games for an Olympic Athlete from Russia.

Medvedeva's rise was similarly fast. She went from Russian and world junior champion in 2015 to winning her first of two senior world titles a year later.

"Zagitova is a phenom, and you can't beat phenoms, no matter how hard you train or work at it," two-time Olympian Paul Martini of Canada said.

Phenoms are plentiful in Russia. Both Zagitova and Medvedeva have all they can do to stay ahead of the little girls they practice with in coach Eteri Tutberidze's camp at the Crystal Rink in Moscow.

"In our group, there are so, so, so many younger skaters, some doing so difficult jumps and elements," Medvedeva said. "Not every men's skater is doing the same."

Then she gave a little laugh.

"You feel so strange, because you are older, and you must be stronger than them," she said.

Headed by Trusova, three of Tutberidze's skaters swept the podium at this season's Junior Grand Prix Final, the third such Russian sweep of that event in the past eight years. Russia finished one-two in four of the other years and had the winner in all eight.

"They have a team of rivals," Wylie said. "Working with and against each other, they have created the environment for girls to push each other."

Russian women have also won seven of the last nine world junior titles, with just one repeat champion.

"It's a conveyor belt, no question, and a conveyor belt of considerable talent," 1980 Olympic champion Robin Cousins said. "And it's not going to stop any time soon.

"What bothers me is, where are the girls who were on those podiums four, five, six years ago?" Cousins said. "Is the goal winning medals or trying to build an athlete that can have some longevity in a career?"

The answer clearly is medals. It became the goal in 2007, when Sochi was selected as the 2014 Olympic host, and Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded -- and facilitated -- great performances from the home team in the first Winter Games held inside his country's borders.

The poor ladies figure skating results at the 2010 Vancouver Games ratcheted up the pace of the drive for success.

Before 2014, Russian (or Soviet) women had won just three Olympic singles medals: bronze by Kira Ivanova in 1984, and silver and bronze by Irina Slutskaya in 2002 and 2006, respectively.

The sport's current scoring system, which rewards jump pyrotechnics to a much higher degree than in the past, created a template for Russia to develop its latest generation of female skaters. Its coaches knew younger, lighter athletes could handle more advanced jumps more easily, and they began having them learn those jumps as pre-teens.

"You have Russian athletes coming through novice and juniors who already are doing the identical technical layout the seniors are doing," Cousins said. "What you hope is they develop the quality of style and effortless ease that a [Carolina] Kostner has trained an entire lifetime to get." (Italy's Kostner, 31, the grande dame of the 2018 ladies event, ended her fourth Olympics in fifth place.)

Neither of the two Russian women at the 2014 Olympics, Adelina Sotnikova (then 17) and Julia Lipnitskaia (that year's phenom at 15), was still competing this season. Injuries stopped Sotnikova, while Lipnitskaia said eating disorders and anoxeria had precipitated her exit from the sport.

Russians Elena Radionova, Lipnitskaia and Anna Pogorilaya swept the world junior podium in 2013. Radionova, 19, competed this season, but the level of her skating has declined consistently since she won a world bronze medal in 2015, and she was not close to making this year's Olympic team. Pogorilaya, 19, the world bronze medalist in 2016, has been bothered by back problems over the past year and also missed the team.

When she joined Tutberidze's group after the Sochi Olympics, Zagitova had no idea where she was headed.

"I wasn't thinking of flying so high I would be taking part in international competition," she said.

The Russians are clearly willing to let some athletes fall off their pitiless conveyor belt.

"They do have a way of channeling resources toward these athletes that gives them development trajectories," Wylie said. "They understand that the window, in terms of how long a skater is going to reign, is very small."

It didn't stay open long enough for Medvedeva, who sobbed at the end of her free skate and looked heartbroken when the results went up on the video board.

Almost every day in practice, Medvedeva saw Zagitova do jumps and combinations of a difficulty she no longer could match. That included the five-triple-jump combination, a triple lutz followed by four triple loops, Zagitova tossed off at practice Thursday.

No matter that the rules do not allow for such a combination in competition -- Zagitova seemed to be doing it simply because she can.

"If the Russians think it's time to go for a five-jump combination, they are going to go for it," Wylie said. "If it's intimidating to the other skaters, all the better."

At the moment, the Russian women have taken on a similar stature to that of the 1992 U.S. men's Olympic basketball "Dream Team." The skaters have set a peerless standard for the rest of the world to aspire to.

"We live in an era when Russians can't be beaten," four-time world champion Kurt Browning said. "Let's remember Russia wasn't in the picture for a long time. It is what it is."

One thing seems certain: This isn't a snapshot of a singular moment in time but one likely to be taken over and over again for the foreseeable future.