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Elizabet Tursynbayeva (silver), Alina Zagitova (gold), and Evgenia Medvedeva (bronze) at the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships in Japan. March 22, 2019
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A miracle at the World Figure Skating Championships

Source: Meduza
Elizabet Tursynbayeva (silver), Alina Zagitova (gold), and Evgenia Medvedeva (bronze) at the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships in Japan. March 22, 2019
Elizabet Tursynbayeva (silver), Alina Zagitova (gold), and Evgenia Medvedeva (bronze) at the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships in Japan. March 22, 2019
Andy Wong / AP / Scanpix / LETA

The World Figure Skating Championships have come to an end in Saitama, Japan. The most-discussed event of the championships, the women’s singles competition, took place on March 22. In that division, Russian athletes Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva won gold and bronze respectively while Sofia Samodurova made the top eight. Elizabet Tursynbayeva of Kazakhstan also made the podium, earning a silver medal and becoming the first woman to complete a quadruple jump in any seniors’ competition. Meduza asked sports commentator Yekaterina Kulinicheva to discuss the significance of those results and explain why the Russian women’s win can be considered a true sports miracle.

Was it even possible that a Russian woman might not win the 2019 worlds?

Yes, that was a real risk — this season has been very difficult for each of the leading skaters on the Russian team. Evgenia Medvedeva, the 2016 and 2017 world champion, took a long time to adapt when she decided to find a new trainer and move to Canada after the 2018 Olympics. She has begun working with coach Brian Orser’s team on new skating and jumping techniques, but that is never a speedy process. Throughout it all, her figure has continued to change. Medvedeva did not make the Grand Prix final and then performed poorly in the Russian National Championships, placing seventh. At first, she was not a part of Russia’s traveling national team, and she missed the European Championships as a result.

Olympic champion Alina Zagitova lost this year’s Grand Prix final, took fifth place in the National Championships, and let the gold go to Sofia Samodurova in the European Championships. The most alarming factor in Zagitova’s skating career has been that she began growing very quickly after the 2018 Olympics. As a result, her free skate has turned from an impressive adaptation of Carmen into a torturous struggle against her own body. Zagitova said openly in the course of the season that her feet were hurting her; foot pain is a common problem for athletes who continue to train actively during growth spurts. At some points, it seemed that the wisest choice for Zagitova would be to take a break, finish the season early, and spend time coming to terms with herself while working toward the future. However, it was clear that Zagitova’s team and its maximalist trainer, Eteri Tutberidze, would be unlikely to make that move.

2015 world champion Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva began her season marvelously, bringing back her signature move, the triple axel, and finishing third in the Grand Prix final. However, she was hospitalized almost immediately after that competition with severe lung inflammation, and she missed the National Championships. Since then, she has been unable to regain the form she had in December. In the February finals of the Russian Cup, whose results have become an unofficial basis for the selection of the World Championship team, Tuktamysheva placed second but clearly struggled to skate cleanly.

Stanislava Konstantinova, who was the highest-placing senior skater at the National Championships (she took fourth place), performed badly at the European Championships and has skated inconsistently overall. The only truly stable Russian women’s figure skater this season was Sofia Samodurova, who became the new discovery of the year in the Russian figure skating world. However, this was her first season competing in the seniors’ division, and 16-year-old Sofia does not yet possess much authority in the eyes of figure skating judges (a necessary condition for winning gold at the World Championships). High-value jumps can trump any level of authority by sheer mathematical power, but Samodurova does not yet perform them.

Russian figure skater Sofia Samodurova performs her free skate in the women’s singles division at the World Championships in Saitama. March 22, 2019
Alexander Vilf / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

On top of all that, these skaters faced competition on the international level that was as intense as ever. Their Japanese opponents seemed especially threatening: any one of the three athletes Japan sent to the World Championships was a medal contender, and Rika Kihira or Kaori Sakamoto could certainly have earned the gold. Kihira was the skater who beat Zagitova in this year’s Grand Prix final despite making errors in her skating. In the end, not a single Japanese skater made it into the top three, and that can without exaggeration be called the biggest sensation of these World Championships.

How were these skaters chosen for the World Championships in the first place?

Because this season was such a tough one for Russian women’s skating, the athletes who competed for spots on the worlds team were very strong but not entirely consistent. To select three skaters for the team, the Figure Skating Federation of Russia (FFKR) had to make a set of difficult decisions. Zagitova and Samodurova earned their places on the worlds team without a doubt, but the FFKR had to use the results of the Russian Cup to make an additional round of cuts. In the end, they chose Evgenia Medvedeva, who narrowly beat out Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva, to round out the team. Tuktamysheva, who has had her best season in several years, spoke publicly about her disappointment in the FFKR’s decision-making.

The World Championships clearly displayed why Medvedeva was the FFKR’s final choice. Her star status, her mass of major titles, and her reputation as one of the best women’s skaters in the history of the sport give her an advantage over other competitors. When Evgenia performs without making major errors, which is what she did in Saitama, those factors make for a kind of trump card, and the judges tend to be generous with their component scores and their bonuses for individual elements. In her free skate at the World Championships, only Zagitova and Kaori Sakamoto exceeded Medvedeva’s component scores. After that performance, Medvedeva said she had pulled a thigh muscle during her warmup and skated through the pain.

Does this mean Zagitova is in the clear after an unlucky stretch?

Only one thing can be said for certain: Alina Zagitova was able to pull herself together at the most important moment of the season. Her performance at the World Championships, with two error-free skates, was undoubtedly her best this year. Despite the difficulties she faced, Zagitova decided to perform the most challenging version of her free skate, with two jump sequences in the program’s second half (which earned her bonus points).

We may only discover at what cost Zagitova earned that victory in the course of next year’s season. After mobilizing all their strength and resources on such a scale, skaters often require an extended period of time to recover. But for now, there is reason for celebration: Zagitova has won the World Championships for the first time in her career, and that was the only major medal that had previously been absent from her already impressive collection.

Another important result of Zagitova’s victory was that Russia’s international quota will be preserved. At these World Championships, there was a sense that Zagitova was not just fighting for a line on her resume or even for herself alone. Thanks to her and Medvedeva’s placements, Russia will again be permitted to send three skaters to international women’s competitions next year. No one really believed Russia’s women would lose their quota, but in sports, anything can happen. This season had already been unpredictable enough.

It is entirely possible that the quota Zagitova earned will ultimately benefit other skaters. Multiple Russian women who currently compete as juniors already perform programs that are as difficult as those performed by senior men, and they will be eligible to debut in senior competitions next year.

What will happen next year? Will a new set of talented youngsters replace Zagitova and Medvedeva?

It’s impossible to say. An incredible group of junior skaters is indeed on the rise in Russia, and three of them have been known in the skating world for quite some time: Alexandra Trusova, Alyona Kostornaya, and Anna Shcherbakova. Trusova and Shcherbakova already perform quadruple jumps, and the rest of their elements also boast a very high level of difficulty. With programs that loaded, the three juniors are practically unbeatable and may even be able to defeat Zagitova. That said, they are now reaching the age that is most unpredictable for young figure skaters: their height or figures could begin changing at any moment, and those changes always affect skaters’ ability to perform difficult jumps. Meanwhile, 19-year-old Medvedeva and 22-year-old Tuktamysheva have likely already surpassed their most difficult growth spurts.

Everyone was talking about Rika Kihira, and she didn’t even make the podium. What happened?

Japanese figure skater Rika Kihira performs her short program during the World Championships. March 20, 2019
Pierre Emmanuel Deletree / Sipa / Scanpix / LETA

Rika Kihira was indeed the favorite to win these World Championships thanks to her triple axels. In that respect, she is indeed unique: no other senior skater in the world can perform multiple jumps with three and a half rotations. However, this time around, the Japanese skater was unable to complete those elements. In the short program, she performed only one rotation instead of three, producing an element that has no point value under the current system. That error left her in seventh place and ultimately proved fatal. In her free skate, Kihira fell while attempting to complete her second axel, and that prevented her from making up enough distance to earn a medal. However, in future competitions, Kihira will continue to present a serious threat to her competitors.

What is this I’m hearing about a Kazakhstani skater performing a historic jump?

Elizabet Tursynbayeva became the first senior woman in the history of figure skating to perform a quadruple jump in competition successfully. Many had suspected that honor would go to one of Russia’s current junior skaters when they begin competing as seniors next year.

The word “successfully” means that Tursynbayeva completed the required number of rotations in the air and did not fall when she landed. That accomplishment has landed the Kazakhstani athlete in the history books. She, like Zagitova, trains with Eteri Tutberidze.

Until now, only three female skaters had managed to perform quadruple jumps in international competition, but they all competed in the juniors’ category. These were Miki Ando, Alexandra Trusova, and Anna Shcherbakova. Tursynbayeva made her first attempt to change that fact in February at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships but fell when she landed on the ice.

Yekaterina Kulinicheva

Translation by Hilah Kohen