During the Russian Figure Skating test event last weekend, when Brian Orser and Yevgenia Medvedeva were bridging the 5,000-mile span between him in Toronto and her in Moscow via video chat, they laughed about how different the atmosphere seemed than it had been at the same event two years earlier.
Orser would tell me Wednesday morning he had no idea during those weekend conversations that the bridge linking them was on the verge of collapse under the weight of separation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
A few hours before Orser called me, what Medvedeva had told him Tuesday became public: she was making the stunning move of returning to her previous and longtime coach, Moscow-based Eteri Tutberidze, whom she had left in an acrimonious split three months after the 2018 Olympics.
“She (Medvedeva) and I agree if there was no pandemic, we would not be having this discussion right now,” Orser said.
So, there was a bittersweet irony in Orser’s recollection of his earlier conversations with Medvedeva, 2016 and 2017 world champion and 2018 Olympic silver medalist.
“We talked about how two years ago at the test skates, it was all about me and Eteri,” Orser said. “I could see from the telecast that this time, it was about Eteri and [Yevgeny] Plushenko. It was nice not to be involved in that media circus, and Yevgenia and I joked about that.
“Fast forward two days, and I’m back in it.”
The 2020 test skates came a few months after two of Tutberidze’s stars, Alexandra Trusova and Alena Kostornaia, had decamped to join a group headed by Plushenko, the 2006 Olympic champion. Plushenko and Tutberidze already had been sniping at each other on social media before the skaters officially switched sides.
The 2018 test skates had come just a few months after Medvedeva made the even more startling decision to leave Tutberidze to train with Orser. Never before had one of the sport’s Russian stars left Mother Russia to train with a non-Russian coach.
But this latest switch is almost as startling because she has gone back to the coach who had bad-mouthed Medvedeva publicly when their 2018 split was imminent.
“Yevgenia told me she had four options,” Orser said, declining to specify them. “The going to Eteri one was totally out of the blue. I don’t think anyone saw that coming.
“I’m definitely not angry, and there is absolutely no bitterness. I don’t believe this was a case of a political move or a strategy. It just happened.”
In a statement issued by the Russian Figure Skating Federation, Medvedeva said, “I am very grateful to Brian for his understanding and the work done.”
Medvedeva, who turns 21 in November, and Orser stopped working together in person soon after the pandemic led to cancellation of the 2020 World Championships and the shutdown of Canadian rinks in March.
Medvedeva first went to Los Angeles to work with choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne on new free program and then to Japan for a show that was cancelled. After quarantining in Japan, she and her mother returned to Moscow.
Trying to get back into Canada was complicated for Medvedeva, Orser said, because she would be coming by air with no guarantees she would be given an exception from Canada’s immigration restrictions in response to the pandemic. There was also the issue of whether her mother would be allowed to enter Canada.
As the weeks passed, it became obvious to both Orser and Medvedeva that she needed more coaching than he could give a few times a week via Face Time.
“I told her she needed to get some real coaching, daily coaching,” Orser said.
Until they spoke Monday, after Medvedeva’s poor performances at the test skates Saturday and Sunday, Orser had no inkling that would lead to her ending their relationship.
“These wheels were not in motion prior to the test skates,” Orser said. “Yevgenia and I don’t mince words, so she got right to the point (Monday) and said, ‘I’m thinking of going back to Eteri.’ Of course, I was kind of shocked.
“I told her, I can’t do anything for you if we can’t be together. The pandemic is bigger than both of us. Our hands are tied.”
Medvedeva made up her mind Tuesday.
“I don’t know how it all came down,” Orser said. “The (Russian) federation was involved, Eteri was involved and ultimately Yevgenia was involved. And that’s fine. They want to help her.”
Tutberidze suddenly found herself with openings for senior skaters when Trusova and Kostornaia left, and Alina Zagitova, the 2018 Olympic champion, all but retired in announcing she was skipping the test skates to be host of a reality TV show. At the test skates, cameras caught Tutberidze clapping encouragement for Medvedeva after her badly flawed free skate.
In an interview at the Toronto Cricket Club in early fall 2018, Medvedeva had pointedly avoided criticizing Tutberidze. She spoke of feeling “more adult” and also of how at the Cricket Club “…everyone looks so happy that you don’t feel you came to do heavy work, hard work, only work, work, work and nothing else. You feel you just came here to improve yourself, to improve your personality, not only your athlete side.”
“Maybe Yevgenia will be able to go back into her old environment with a different outlook,” Orser said. “I don’t know if there are any conditions. I don’t know if she [Tutberidze] will approach coaching her any differently than she did before. Whatever the conditions are, I think she [Medvedeva] will have some kind of control.”
Medvedeva had drawn virulent criticism on social media for her decision to leave Tutberidze. But spectators have been overwhelmingly supportive when she competed in Russia, turning her into something of a beloved grande dame trying to fend off skaters three and four years younger who brought quadruple jumps to the party.
Her two years with Orser had ups-and-downs that were not unexpected for someone who not only had changed coaches but had turned her life inside out and was dealing with what has become chronic back pain.
The first season ended with an unexpected bronze medal at the 2019 world championships. The second ended unexpectedly when boot problems forced her to withdraw from the 2020 Russian Championships.
Earlier last season, she finished second to Trusova at the 2019 Rostelecom Cup. Medvedeva won the short program and finishing second in the free skate with a near flawless performance without the quadruple jumps that accounted for Trusova’s winning margin.
“I think we made some great progress.” Orser said. “I think I got her back on track emotionally to the point where she really loves skating and training.
“I guess I kind of got her to see it from another angle. I think she came to the conclusion she is not being defined as a person by her championship medals. She’s a strong woman. It was a great experience to coach her.”
Orser said he had no idea if Medvedeva might come back to him when the pandemic is brought under control.
“She is jumping in with both feet right now, so I’m out,” he said. “There is not going to be a collaboration between me and Eteri. And that’s fine. All I want is for Yevgenia to be happy and skating well.”
She began training again with Tutberidze Wednesday. Medvedeva posted a picture to her Instagram account of her and the old/new coaching team with the caption, “Good, when all is good. We will work hard, and that is great.”
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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