Alina Zagitova took a break; what does that say about figure skating?

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All the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the potential end of Alina Zagitova’s competitive career at age 17 has had enough time to die down that everyone can take a less emotional look at the situation.

And what better time to do that than just before the Russian National Championships? Had Zagitova, reigning Olympic and world champion, been competing in Krasnoyarsk this week, she would have been hard-pressed to improve on her startlingly poor fifth-place finish of a year ago, when three junior skaters swept the senior podium. Those three are likely to get all the medals again.

Yes, Zagitova insisted in a clarification Instagram post two days after announcing her plans that she is only taking a competitive break, while performing in ice shows and continuing to train. Wait until she sees how much better it feels not to be beating herself up and down – trying to contend with skaters in just her own Moscow club like the current top three in the world and the 11-year-old girl who just landed a quadruple toe loop.

And this is a lot bigger story than whether one skating champion like Zagitova can no longer keep up with the competition.

That Zagitova is stepping away, at least temporarily, less than a year after winning worlds and less than two years after winning the Olympics seems singular on the surface, especially given how little time it took her to reach the top – from ninth at the Russian Junior Championships in 2015-16 to Olympic champion in 2018.

It is actually just a figure skating version of déjà vu all over again. Three previous examples of a seemingly early exit all predate — by 15 to 25 years — the jump revolution in women’s singles. Short careers are not unusual for Olympic champions.

*Oksana Baiul of Ukraine was 12th in the Soviet Championships in 1991, world champion in 1993, then, in 1994 at age 16, the second-youngest Olympic singles champion ever to that point. Having grown up poor as an orphan, Baiul immediately left Olympic-style competition for a career in what was, in 1994, a very lucrative professional scene.

*Tara Lipinski of the United States barely qualified for the free skate final at the 1996 Worlds (she wound up 15th), won the 1997 worlds at 14 and the 1998 Olympics at 15. Lipinski, now an NBC Sports analyst, still is the youngest world and Olympic singles champion ever. (Zagitova, No. 2, was 23 days older when she won the 2018 gold.) Lipinski turned pro a month after winning the 1998 Olympics.

*Sarah Hughes of the United States had a more predictable progression – fifth in the 2000 Worlds, third in 2001 – but her triumph at the 2002 Olympics still was utterly unexpected. Hughes won at 16 (she now is fifth-youngest ever), competed the next season, then went to college, eventually taking a one-year break from Yale to capitalize on her golden stature by skating on the Stars on Ice tour. Her final competition was the 2003 Worlds, in which she placed sixth.

*Adelina Sotnikova of Russia was 12 when she won her first of four senior national titles, 17 when she became the fifth-youngest Olympic champion at the time she won in 2014. Sotnikova caught lightning in a bottle; in her only senior worlds, a year before the Olympics, she was ninth. Her efforts to continue after the Olympics were compromised by injury, and her final competition was the 2015-16 Russian Championships 

Baiul and Hughes bookended a three-Olympiad period in which, to borrow from college basketball terminology, it was one and done.

Of course, few women’s Olympic champions continued competing past their season of triumph, so Sonja Henie of Norway (1928-32-36) of Norway and Katarina Witt of East Germany (84-88) are the only repeat winners. Yuna Kim of South Korea is the only one to have followed gold with another medal, a silver (2010-14.)

So why does Zagitova’s case seem so dramatically — and even cataclysmically — different?

Like everything in the social media age, it has been exaggerated by hot takes with woe-is-me, the sky-is-falling comments.

Truth be told, though, it is different for several reasons:

*The sport’s points-based scoring system has finally led to an unexpected exponential explosion in women’s jump difficulty this season.

“It has come so quickly,” said Finnish Olympian Kiira Korpi, 31, who retired in 2015 and now is a liberal arts student concentrating on psychology at The New School in Manhattan. “I don’t know if the word ‘shock’ is too strong, but it is a big surprise how fast the sport is changing. 

“It is not a new phenomenon that we have young skaters at the top – but not this kind of massive, massive evolution with the quads by these young skaters.”

*There now is a critical mass of these jumping phenoms, especially in Russia. Their dominance of the sport seems assured for the long term even if The Troika atop the sport now, aka The Three A’s — Alena Kostornaia (age 16), Alexandra Trusova (15) and Anna Shcherbakova (15) — do not make it past or even to the 2022 Olympics.

That means twentysomethings (and even late teens) have become “women of a certain age” in singles skating, with little-to-no chance for medals in major competitions at an age when artistic maturity and life experience has made them much more compelling performers than the little women (OK, girls) jumping onto the podiums.

When Hughes completed the first “baby ballerina” era in 2002, the other two medalists were 23 (Irina Slutskaya of Russia, who would go on to win bronze four years later) and 21 (Michelle Kwan of the United States.) When Sotnikova won in 2014, the podium also had two older skaters: Kim (23) and Carolina Kostner (27).

(Interestingly, the aggregate youngest Olympic podium was way back in 1956, with Tenley Albright, 20, and Carol Heiss, 16, of the U.S. and Ingrid Wendl, 15, of Austria. No idea if that provoked doomsaying.”

“That maturity is what many figure skating fans think is missing,” Korpi said. “In these young skaters’ programs, the jumps are amazing, but there is no so much room for artistry.”

Two seasons ago, Zagitova was a budding artist and on the technical cutting edge of her sport. Now, without a quad or a triple Axel, she simply is outmoded, old before her time.

It reminds me of how legendary coach Carlo Fassi once compared three U.S. skaters he had trained, world champion Jill Trenary (1990) and Olympic champions Dorothy Hamill (1976) and Peggy Fleming (1968).

“It’s like comparing a Porsche, 1956 Ford and Model-T,” Fassi said. “I’m sorry to compare Peggy to a Model T, but I was a bicycle when I competed.” 

Older women now are Model Ts in a sport full of Ferraris and McLarens. The question is why would they keep driving themselves?

Korpi, a three-time European Championships medalist, had the best results of her career from ages 22 through 24 (2010 through 2013.) Although recurrent injuries precipitated her retirement just before her 27th birthday, Korpi has a hard time imagining the idea of competing at that age today, even if she were healthy.

“Many skaters and coaches are struggling, because they know it is almost impossible to compete with these young girls,” Korpi said. “But it’s the sport you love, it’s what you do, so you have to kind of keep hope, to keep pushing.”

Denise Myers, who coaches 2018 U.S. champion Bradie Tennell, saw it similarly when asked why Tennell, soon 22, with no quads or triple Axel, hangs in when the gap between her and the world’s top skaters keeps getting bigger.

“She may never catch them, but we keep pushing forward, trying to improve on both components and technical,” Myers said. “She is not settling for where she is now.”

*Rules changes to rebalance the sport between technical and artistic may be hard to pass. They will seem to be targeting Russia at a time when interest in figure skating never has been higher there, while interest in the sport has declined significantly in North America and Western Europe. Russian skaters also are very popular in the sport’s biggest current hotbed, Japan.

Yet leaders of the sport’s governing body, the International Skating Union, are aware that the imbalance needs to be rectified – perhaps by raising minimum ages and/or by restricting the number of quad jumps and/or redoing some of the scoring system to give more weight to artistry as reflected in component scores that measure performance, composition of a program and interpretation of the music.

“The idea of raising the age limit is one possible solution and one of the main subjects being discussed at present, even among the top coaches,” said Fabio Bianchetti of Italy, chairman of the ISU singles and pairs technical committee. “The matter will very probably be considered at the next ISU Congress (summer 2020.)”

An 11th-hour, so-called “urgent” proposal for a higher age limit failed to get enough votes even to be discussed formally at the 2018 Congress. Since then, more of the sport’s influential voices are advocating for it, including decorated coach and TV commentator Tatiana Tarasova of Russia.

The current rule says skaters must be 15 by the July 1 before the ensuing season to compete as seniors. The talk has been of raising that minimum to 17 or 18.

“A higher age limit would make sense,” Korpi said. “Then you would make sure the technique for a quad is a technique that lasts beyond puberty, that skaters have longer careers than ages 14 to 17.”

It is too early to know whether skaters like The Troika will keep the big jumps as they mature physically. There is no doubt such jumps are easier for female skaters with pre-pubescent bodies – light, short, straight-line shapes. The three members of The Troika range from just under 5 feet tall to 5 foot, 1 inch.

It also is too early to know what the impact of doing the demanding jumps will be on the future health and well-being of the athletes doing them, since the women’s jump revolution is barely two years old. And it is the nature of elite athletes to keep pushing their sport forward by challenging physical limits.

Zagitova, whose body has matured into that of a woman, told the Olympic Channel in November she would need to lose six pounds (from where?) to reduce injury risk if she is to try quads.

Bianchetti thought the idea of limiting the number and types of quads women can do in the free skate “has merit” as a form of preventive medicine.

“There is no doubt that the health of all these ‘kids’ must be taken into serious consideration,” Bianchetti said.

Trusova has attempted five quads in a free skate, Shcherbakova three (Alysa Liu of the United States, 14, attempted two — plus two triple Axels — in the Junior Grand Prix Final.) Kostornaia for now is content with a free program that has two triple Axels, a jump added to her repertoire this season.

The scoring system values the big jumps so highly that anyone would be foolish not to work on them if their goal is the tangible rewards of success — titles and medals. The question of, “At what price?” has yet to be answered.

I once wrote this in the Chicago Tribune:

“On the surface, the changing face of the sport seems harmlessly cosmetic, with tiny teenagers doing stunning (…) tricks instead of more mature women mixing substance with style.

“But the problem is that the keen competition to perform more difficult and spectacular moves has sparked an ongoing physical self-selection process that is producing smaller and younger champions. Those little girls are then subjected to considerable physical and emotional stress as they are asked to achieve extreme levels of fitness and performance.”

That story, from late 1992, was about gymnastics. It could easily be written about figure skating in 2019.

“This is the part that I and many other people are worried about, the psychological and physical strain that doing these jumps and performing and training like professional athletes at such a young age are putting on children,” Korpi said.

“We need to be discussing whether it is impossible with the rules we are making to have our athletes healthy not only during their career but the rest of their lives. It’s not worth it to risk your physical and mental health for some external success that fades away very soon.”

Alina Zagitova will be an Olympic champion forever. 

She may have chosen just the right moment to back away and assure enjoying that forever status in good health.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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