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Figure Skating: Alina Zagitova Wins Russia’s First Gold Medal

Figure Skating: Alina Zagitova Wins Russia’s First Gold Medal


PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Technically, Russia did not win its first gold medal at these Winter Olympics on Friday.

Strictly speaking, Alina Zagitova, the 15-year-old victor in women’s figure skating, competed as a neutral “Olympic Athlete From Russia.” At a medal ceremony later Friday, she was to see the five-ringed Olympic flag raised instead of the Russian flag and to hear the Olympic hymn played instead of the Russian anthem.

But a nominal barring of Russia from the Olympics for operating a systematic doping scheme at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, was more of a semantic prohibition than a complete ban. One hundred sixty-nine Russian athletes were permitted to compete here. And there was no question which country Zagitova represented in winning her gold medal with a score of 239.57 points as fans chanted her name and waved the Russian tricolor.

“In our souls we know,” she said recently.

Her friend and training partner, Evgenia Medvedeva, took the silver medal with 238.26 points while skating as Tolstoy’s tragic Anna Karenina. Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada won the bronze with 231.02 points.

Medvedeva, a two-time world champion and consensus favorite to win gold before she broke a bone in her right foot last fall, was forced to confront a sobering reality at age 18: Experience and emotion and expressiveness did not prevail against mathematics.

Zagitova became the second-youngest women’s skater to win Olympic gold with a program of shrewd design, remarkable stamina, precise jumping and inevitability that comes from youthful certainty. What she lacked in the full elegance that comes with maturity, Zagitova compensated for with a keen understanding of skating’s current rules.

Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia.CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times

In her balletic “Don Quixote” routine, she landed all 11 of her jumps in the second half of her four-minute free skate. This is known as back loading, and is meant to gobble up a 10 percent bonus awarded for each jump beyond the halfway point of a routine, as skaters’ legs begin to tire.

Meanwhile, Medvedeva landed three of her 11 jumps at the beginning of her program and repeated two triple jumps – the flip and the toe loop – while Zagitova repeated the more difficult and higher-scoring lutz and flip.

Some find the beginning of Zagitova’s routine – limited to spins, footwork and choreography – to be a somewhat tedious preamble. But she and her coach have cleverly taken advantage of the rules as currently written.

“If I had the tenacity to do all my jumps in the second half, I think I’d get that done,” said Mirai Nagasu, the American who finished 10th.

A year ago, Zagitova was the world junior champion while Medvedeva, her training partner in Moscow, was the senior world champion and heavy favorite to win Olympic gold. Then two things happened. Medvedeva broke a bone in her right foot last fall, missed training time and two important competitions and perhaps never regained her full stamina. And Zagitova came into her own, defeating Medvedeva at the European championships last month and again in Wednesday’s Olympic short program.

Zagitova has sometimes clashed with Eteri Tutberidze, who coaches her and Medvedeva in Moscow. Several years ago, Zagitova admitted she did not train hard and nearly quit. But now she skates with a seriousness of purpose and a whispery inevitability. At practice on Thursday, Zagitova landed five consecutive triple jumps with effortless pogo-sticking.

The skating world has seen a similar changing of the guard before.

At the 1998 Winter Olympics, Michelle Kwan of the United States was widely favored to win a gold medal. But Tara Lipinski, then 15, entered those Games as the senior world champion and skated with a technical mastery and joyous inevitability while Kwan displayed the slightest caution. Lipinski won and remains the youngest Olympic champion by a few weeks at a comparable age to Zagitova.

“She was literally a junior last year; it’s even hard for me to understand that,” Lipinski said Friday. “What sets her apart is she has this fearlessness and the technical brilliance. I think she knows in a confident way that she’s the best.”

During the Soviet era, women’s skating produced only a single Olympic bronze medal. The prevailing theory is that the top skaters were placed into pairs, an event which the Soviets and Russians long dominated until recent Games.

Mirai Nagasu of the United States.CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

But Friday’s victory by Zagitova was the second consecutive gold medal won by Russian women, who operate in a centralized training system in which the top skaters challenge each other daily in practice.

After the Soviet Union fell, a number of rinks closed and some top coaches moved to the United States. But there are dozens of rinks in Moscow now, some private, some state-operated. Many of the top women’s skaters are funneled to Tutberidze.

“I would say that the girl who is beyond the top 10 is just as strong as the top three in the world,” Tutberidze said in Moscow last fall.

According to Evgeni Plushenko, the 2006 men’s Olympic champion who now has a skating club in Moscow, there are about 15 Russian girls who can land four-revolution jumps. At a competition in Russia this week, one of Tutberidze’s junior skaters, Alexandra Trusova, 13, boldly attempted two quads in her routine, landing a quad Salchow and falling on a quad toe.

Meanwhile, women’s skating in the United States — once dominant — continues to edge toward irrelevance at major international competitions. Bradie Tennell finished ninth here, just ahead of Nagasu, while Karen Chen was 11th.

The American women have not won an Olympic medal since 2006 and have won only a single medal at the annual world championships since then. Lipinski has criticized American officials for not adjusting to the current scoring system, which rewards the most difficult jumps.

George Rossano, the editor of the website Ice Skating International, said, “The timeline for developing U.S. skaters is four years slower than the rest of the world. If you don’t have triple-triple” combination jumps “by 14, you’ve missed the boat to be a world-level competitor.”

Russia is not without its own issues, including the health of its young star skaters.

Adelina Sotnikova, the 2014 Olympic champion at age 17, is not competing this season due to injury. Yulia Lipnitskaya, who won gold at 15 in the team competition in 2014, has retired after battling anorexia. Medvedeva’s Olympic season was disrupted by a broken bone in her foot.

“It is a concern,” Alexander Lakernik, a Russian who is vice president of the International Skating Union, said in a recent interview.

But it is a concern to be addressed on another day. For now, Russia is celebrating its first champion at these Olympics. Officially, it athletes are stateless, competing as neutrals. But a gold medal is still a gold medal.

Here’s how it happened:

Kazakhstan’s Tursynbaeva Skates to Early Lead

American television viewers may not be seeing it yet, but the early skaters are on the ice. The early leader through seven skaters is Elizabet Tursynbaeva of Kazakhstan, skating to Celine Dion. She fell, but did well enough on her other triples to ease into first.

For Americans, a Chance for Redemption

Just about everyone was disappointed with the Americans’ short programs. None skated cleanly, and they sit in ninth, 10th and 11th. While medals seem out of range, one or more of them could move up with strong free skates. Especially Mirai Nagasu, who is skating a difficult program to “Miss Saigon.”

Chen Fails to Skate Clean Program

Karen Chen was the first American to skate, choosing Jalousie by the one-hit wonder composer Jacob Gade. She fell on one jump and landed awkwardly out of another, both later in the program when skaters often get tired. Still, there was enough difficulty to put her in second place, behind the third Russian, Maria Sotskova. Ten skaters still to go though, including Bradie Tennell, next.

Tennell Lands Triples, but Not Cleanly

Bradie Tennell landed an awful lot of triples in a program to Cinderella. But she put a hand to the ice on two of them. Still, it’s enough for second place behind Maria Sotskova: Landing those two jumps would almost certainly have put her in the lead.

Nagasu’s Aggressive Program Falls Apart

A lot of American hopes have rested on Mirai Nagasu, who skates a difficult program and had a strong performance in the team competition last week. In ninth place after the short program, she had every chance to move up quite a bit by nailing her long program. To do so she would have to land nine triples. But she did not. She inexplicably turned her opening triple axel into a single, then did the same on a triple-triple combo later in the program. Nagasu does some of the most beautiful triples in the sport, but the misses hurt her badly. Her score puts her in fourth, well behind the new leader, Dabin Choi of South Korea.

Japan’s Miyahara Moves into the Lead

There is a new leader in the competition. Satoko Miyahara, skating to Madame Butterfly, was close to perfect, landing her triples except for one that was judged to be slightly under-rotated. Fourth going into the free skate, Miyahara put herself in good position to get a medal if one of the top three falter.

Sakamoto Delivers Strong Program; Top Skaters Next

Another near-clean performance from a Japanese skater. To the music from “Amelie,” Kaori Sakamoto avoided falls or major missteps and moved into third behind her countrywoman, Satoko Miyahara and the veteran Carolina Kostner of Italy. The three leaders are up next to finish the event.

Zagitova’s Strong Routine Puts Her in First

Three skaters to go, and the first was the 15-year-old Russian Alina Zagitova, the leader. But she led by only 1.31 points over her countrywoman Evgenia Medvedeva, so a strong performance was vital. And Zagitova nailed it. She reversed the order of a triple and a combo from her original plan, but it was hard to tell if that was a spur-of-the-moment decision or a planned change. It mattered little. All the triples were solid, and her technical score was 6 points higher than the leader, Satoko Miyahara of Japan, who had an outstanding routine.

In the subjective department, Zagitova scored between 9.2 and 9.6. Medvedeva regularly exceeds those numbers, but will need to crush her routine in the same way to have a shot at gold.

Canada’s Osmond Guaranteed a Medal

Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada, skating to Swan Lake/Black Swan, took her triples earlier than the Russians, and stepped out of one. The only question really was whether she would hang on to third place. And she did. And now it’s up to Evgenia Medvedeva. Silver, or gold?

Medvedeva Takes Silver

The final skater was Evgenia Medvedeva, the 18-year-old world champion. And she would need something special to grab the gold from young Alina Zagitova. The jumps were there (just one was deemed under-rotated). But by taking her triple-triple at the top of the program, her degree of difficulty was lower. Her technical score was 7 points lower. But the judges again loved Medvedeva in the subjective categories, giving her scores as high as 9.89. Taken together, it meant the two Russians had the exact same free skate score. So the 1.31-point edge in the short program was the difference. Zagitova won the gold medal. Medvedeva silver. Osmond bronze.

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