AP

European Championships analysis: Female Russian skaters stars rise fast, but burn out too soon

Leave a comment

Jean-Christophe Berlot is on the ground in Minsk, Belarus to cover the European Championships. This is his analysis of the pace and progression of women’s skating around the world.

Eteri Tutberidze, the renowned Russian coach, declined all interviews in Minsk, Belarus, the setting for the 2019 European Championships. The organization of the practice and main rinks made it possible for coaches to have no interaction at all with journalists during the week. Tutberidze could not be seen in the mixed zones, and she could flee the practice rink through underground paths that were not open to the press.

“I don’t know what I could say,” she politely answered when an interview request was made.

The same was true for Alina Zagitova, her star pupil. Zagitova, the Olympic champion, lost her 2018 European crown to Russian Sofia Samodurova.

Tutberidze was nonetheless quite a disputed behind-the-scenes topic in Minsk.

“The problem is that Eteri is very much criticized in Russia at the moment,” a noted Russian journalist explained. “People think that she pushes her pupils at a very young age and after a year or two they are done for the sport.”

True – Russian skating has been characterized by a never-seen turnover of its female wunderkinds in the recent years: Yulia Lipnitskaya was an instant star in 2014 and disappeared; Adelina Sotnikova won her Olympic gold and turned to other endeavors.

Yevgenia Medvedeva could have had the same fortune, had she not decided to move to Canada. The perspective of seeing Zagitova disappear can’t be discarded. And many more lesser known skaters left the radar as well.

The system has best demonstrated its nonsense at Russian nationals, one month ago, as the top three at the senior championship were not even allowed to compete on the senior level internationally. Skaters placed fourth, fifth, and sixth at Nationals were selected for these Europeans, namely Samodurova, Zagitova and Stanislava Konstantinova.

Tutberidze is far from being the sole responsible of what could be called the “Kleenex syndrome” of female skating – you take one, use it, and then throw it.

The turmoil is even amplified in Russia by the tons of hate messages that flood each day on social media. The phenomenon is far from being mastered, especially since most messages are written anonymously under a pseudonym. They destabilize the best skaters.

“I don’t want to read those criticisms, but they are actually there, as toxic as they are,” Maria Sotskova, a prominent skater until last year, explained. “Athletes shouldn’t read internet comments. They make you more nervous and make you lose some of your confidence.”

Medvedeva had to make strong decisions a few months ago: “I never expected that there would be so much negative on social media, so I’ve made a strong rule between social networks and me,” she told NBCSports at her French Grand Prix outing two months ago. “The connection with social media is running through my agent, and I’m not using it anymore.”

She has since made a reappearance on social platforms, but to a lesser extent than the past.

Zagitova had to come to a complete black-out as well.

“After Russian nationals, my parents took away my phone and gave me another one, with no access to the internet,” she said to media in Minsk. “Now I’m reading books and I’m studying for school. I don’t see or hear anything about what is being said. No social media. I only watch TV serials.”

More than any other country, Russia has created somewhat of a system – mostly unconsciously at the start, however: create the best jumpers and spinners of the world at a very young age, when children obey without condition, and make them win before puberty. Hence the proposal to raise the age limit that was presented to the last ISU Congress.

It was rejected.

Age may not be the key factor anyway, as every girl grows at her own pace. It also differs from one continent to the next.

“The Causasian and the Asian people are quite different,” Japanese coach Mie Hamada acknowledged a few years ago. “The Caucasian bodies do change much more dramatically than the Asians’. We do have body changes, but they are not as big.”

She cited one of her star students, Satoko Miyahara, as a good example: “Satoko’s body is changing, but she works very hard every day and she can reset and adjust day after day to the change. I don’t have any trouble there.”

The system is expanding fast. In Japan, new star Rika Kihira, who won every competition she entered at her first senior year (and is coached by Hamada), has three triple Axels planned in each of her outings.

Alysa Liu, the new U.S. national champion, is on par with Kihira – except she doesn’t have the age limit to compete in the senior ranks. This age limit is in itself a tough constraint on skaters and their coach; the shooting window in a skater’s life is quite short, as it ranges between that age limit and puberty. Having an Olympics take place at that precise moment helps.

How long will these young ladies keep landing their triple Axel remains to be seen.

“You have the choice,” offered Igor Samohin, coach and father of 2016 world junior champion Daniel Samohin. “Either you push them right away to do everything, but then they will have a short skating life. Or you opt for a long career and, as Brian Orser says, you go step by step. At the same time, can a coach, a parent, a federation accept to take the risk of taking time and going step by step, knowing there is an additional risk at puberty?”

Examples of wunderkinds embarking into a long-term career do exist: Michelle Kwan and Irina Slutskaya, in the late 1990s, both won at a tender age and did succeed in staying many years at the top. As did Mao Asada. In those days as well as throughout the whole skating saga, the younger skaters were there to learn and grow, not to shine all at once and disappear, with the risk of mental health problems, disordered eating and depressions that spread out recently.

Samodurova and Konstantinova, the most physically mature of the Russian squad in Minsk, stated firmly that they were there to last in the sport.

Some common answers in Minsk were clear-cut: “This is sport. The wheel has to turn, and it’s just turning faster.”

If this is the route, then what sense does the age limit to access the senior ranks make?

Yet how does skating as a whole benefit from the Kleenex syndrome? The 2015 and 2016 Worlds gold medalist, Javier Fernandez, was clear, it’s penalizing skating: “Why would you come to watch a competition, if after just a few years a skater you had enjoyed watching doesn’t even compete anymore?” he asked.

The Kleenex route nonetheless seems to be favored nowadays. The embroidered tissue becomes the exception, at least in the ladies’ field. For sure the show will be quite different from what we have known it in the past.

The challenge for the best coaches of the world is to find a way to develop the Kwans and the Katarina Witts of tomorrow. Knowing Tutberidze enough, we may be confident that she is striving to do so.

MORE: Behind the scenes on Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 at the European Championships

As a reminder, you can watch the European Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Italy’s Sofia Goggia gets World Cup downhill win

Leave a comment

Fresh off world championships, the women’s Alpine World Cup tour returned to the Swiss Alps for a bit of speed in the form of the downhill.

After finishing well off the world championship downhill podium in 15th, Italy’s Sofia Goggia was the fastest on the day in Crans-Montana.

Goggia who won the 2017-18 World Cup downhill title, was forced to put this season on ice after she injured her ankle in training ahead of the first event.

Today’s results are her best since her return to racing when she finished second in both the downhill and Super-G last month in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

Despite her world championship downhill woes, Goggia didn’t leave Are empty handed, claiming silver in the Super-G.

Joining Goggia on the podium in Crans-Montana were two athletes skiing on home snow — Switzerland’s Joana Haehlen and Lara Gut-Behrami. The second place finish for Haehlen is the first World Cup podium appearance of her career, and for the two-time Olympian Gut-Behrami, her third podium finish of the 2018-19 season.

The newly-crowned world champion in women’s downhill, Slovenia’s Ilka Stuhec took a hard fall as the first skier out of the gate today. For the superstitious it should be noted that Stuhec finished 13th in both her downhill training runs in Crans-Montana and drew bib #1 for today’s race, but it was the woman wearing bib #13 who ended up on top of the podium.

 

The women return to racing tomorrow with the Alpine super combined, with the first run starting at 4:30 a.m. ET and the second at 7:30 a.m. ET. Watch live on Olympic Channel, OlympicChannel.com and NBC Sports Gold. Check out the schedule below for ways to watch this weekend’s remaining races.  

The men’s Super-G in Bansko, Bulgaria was cancelled earlier today after a storm swept in and dropped nearly a foot of new powder on the race course. Organizers will attempt to ready the mountain for Sunday’s giant slalom. Watch the first run live at 3:30 a.m. ET on OlympicChannel.com or using an NBC Sport Gold Snow Pass. The second run can be seen live on TV and streaming on Olympic Channel at 6:30 a.m. ET, as well as on NBC Sports Gold.

ALPINE SKIING WORLD CUP — Bansko, Bulgaria; Crans-Montana, Switzerland

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Sunday 3:30 a.m. Men’s Giant Slalom (Run 1) OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
4:30 a.m. Women’s Combined (Run 1) OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
6:30 a.m. Men’s Giant Slalom (Run 2) Olympic Channel Olympic Channel/NBC Sports Gold
7:30 a.m. Women’s Combined (Run 2) Olympic Channel Olympic Channel/NBC Sports Gold
10:30 p.m. Women’s Combined (Run 2)* NBCSN

*Same-day delay

Norway’s Therese Johaug wins gold in return to world champs

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Norway’s seven-time world champion Therese Johaug won her first world title today since 2015 in the women’s Skiathlon at the 2019 Nordic World Ski Championships in Seefeld, Austria. Johaug crossed the finish line with a time of 36 minutes 54.5 seconds.

Johaug returned to racing this season after being served an 18-month drug suspension for testing positive for the steroid clostebol in 2016.

Johaug said the infraction was unintentional, and due to her use of a lip cream to treat a cold sore which, unknown to her, included the banned substance. The mistake would be costly for the three-time Olympic medalist, who had won gold in Vancouver in 2010 as well as a silver and bronze medal four years later in Sochi.  

Banned from competition, Johaug’s suspension forced her to miss the entire 2017-18 World Cup season, the 2017 World Championships as well as the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Games.

Johaug has been making up for lost time this season on the World Cup. Each time the 30-year-old Norwegian has appeared on the podium, she’s been at the top, winning nine races so far this season. And now she can add a world title to her list of accomplishments in 2019.

“I’ve been looking forward for this championship for over two years,” an emotional Johaug said after the race in Seefeld. “The last time I was in a championship was in Falun, four years ago. I’m training so much and working so hard for this, and all the team around me have helped me every time, so I’m really happy.”

Johaug crossed the finish line nearly a full minute ahead of silver medalist, and her countrywoman, Norway’s Ingvlid Flugstad Oestberg. Russia’s Natalia Nepryaeva finished off the podium, taking bronze.

Full results are here.

The men’s Skiathlon came down to a three-way battle with just 2km to go in the 30km race. Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby made a late push to jump ahead of Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov on an uphill climb. Another Norwegian, Sjur Roethe was also keeping pace with the lead group. But as the trio neared the end, Sunby lost his lead when Roethe’s skis ran faster on a downhill section leading into the final stretch.

With all three racers within a ski’s length of one another, Roethe crossed the finish line first, just a tenth of a second ahead of Bolshunov who was able to overtake a gassed Sundby in the final push to the finish.

Check out this weekend’s remaining schedule for the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships and watch live on TV on Olympic Channel and online with OlympicChannel.com and NBC Sports Gold.

WORLD NORDIC SKIING CHAMPIONSHIPS — Seefeld, Austria

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Saturday 5:00 a.m. Cross-Country: Women’s 15km Skiathlon OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
6:30 a.m. Cross-Country: Men’s 30km Skiathlon OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
8:30 a.m. Cross-Country: Women’s 15km Skiathlon* Olympic Channel
8:30 a.m. Ski Jumping: Men’s LH Final OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
9:30 a.m. Cross-Country: Men’s 30km Skiathlon* Olympic Channel
10:30 a.m. Ski Jumping: Men’s LH Final* Olympic Channel
Sunday 4:30 a.m. Nordic Combined: Team LH OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
5:30 a.m. Cross-Country: M & W Team Sprint Final OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
7:30 a.m. Nordic Combined: Team Sprint OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
8:45 a.m. Ski jumping: Men’s LH Team Final* OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
9:30 a.m. Nordic Combined: Team LH* Olympic Channel
10:30 a.m. Cross-Country: M&W Team Sprint Finals* Olympic Channel
2 p.m. Nordic Combined: Team Sprint* Olympic Channel
3 p.m. Ski Jumping: Men’s LH Team Final Olympic Channel
11:30 p.m. Cross-Country: Women’s Team Sprint Final* NBCSN

*Same-day delay