Alina Zagitova made history merely by showing up this fall. No other Olympic women’s singles champion competed the following autumn in the Grand Prix era.
To the 16-year-old Russian’s credit, she rebounded from a fifth-place stumble at March’s season-ending world championships to sweep her three starts this season, posting the world’s highest score in her September debut.
She is the favorite at this week’s Grand Prix Final but, technically, does not have the highest ceiling. And that’s going to be the story for at least Zagitova’s near future.
“In the Grand Prix [season], she hasn’t been her absolute best; she’s leaving the door slightly open,” NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said. “It’s the most vulnerable she’s been.”
Another 16-year-old, first-year senior Rika Kihira of Japan, had the highest score of the Grand Prix season (but hasn’t faced Zagitova). She has an inconsistent triple Axel, landing it clean and fully rotated two out of five tries between two Grand Prix starts.
Zagitova, who benefited last season from performing all of her jumps in the second half of programs for bonuses (a rule now limits this), does not have a triple Axel, and she should get familiar to facing skaters with more difficult jumps.
Not only has Kihira arrived, but also two 14-year-old Russians in the Grand Prix Final’s junior competition this week can land quadruple jumps.
NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir said the senior event conjures the 2005 Grand Prix Final, when a 15-year-old Mao Asada landed a triple Axel and beat reigning world champion Irina Slutskaya, despite not being age-eligible for the Olympics two months later.
“Rika is probably the one athlete that I would say I’m most excited about seeing in this Final,” Lipinski said.
There are other contenders in the six-woman field at the second-biggest annual international competition. Satoko Miyahara had the highest combined score between two Grand Prix starts. Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, the 2015 World champion, had a resurgent fall, landing a triple Axel with a positive grade of execution for the first time in nearly three years.
If everyone skates to their ability, Kihira is the class of the challengers to Zagitova’s repeat bid in Vancouver. That’s not to say Zagitova has stopped progressing.
“There’s a confidence and a bit more maturity,” Weir said.
Especially in relation to the Japanese phenom. Zagitova outscored Kihira by 21 points in program components (artistic marks) combining each woman’s four Grand Prix skates this fall.
“Rika Kihira looks inexperienced in comparison to Zagitova, just when they take the ice,” Weir said. “Rika skates to her opening position, and Alina skates to her opening position, there’s a whole different level of confidence there.”
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