Russia is dominating women’s figure skating like no other country in more than 80 years. The nation’s best — the early favorites for Olympic gold, silver and bronze medals in 15 months — go head-to-head-to-head this week in the strongest competition so far in 2020.
Rostelecom Cup, an annual international Grand Prix Series event in Moscow, will be largely a domestic one on Friday and Saturday (live on Peacock Premium) due to coronavirus pandemic-related travel precautions. NBC airs TV coverage on Saturday and Sunday from 4-6 p.m. ET.
The headline skaters: Aliona Kostornaya, 17, and Anna Shcherbakova and Aleksandra Trusova, both 16.
The trio — known as the Troika, or the three As — all became old enough to compete on the senior international level for the first time last season.
They did not ease in. The Troika, armed with triple Axels and quadruple jumps, combined to win all seven of the top fall 2019 competitions, capped by sweeping the podium at the most prestigious, last December’s Grand Prix Final.
They also took every gold, silver and bronze medal at the Russian Championships after Christmas and the European Championships in January. The pandemic forced the cancellation of last March’s world championships, where a single-nation podium sweep was expected for the first time since 1991 (Kristi Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan).
This week marks the first top-level event for Kostornaya, Shcherbakova and Trusova since January. Some things have changed — Russia’s most decorated Olympic figure skater in history is now part of the story — but the big-picture question-and-answer remains the same.
Who is the Olympic favorite? Russia.
“They are all so evenly matched,” NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir said.
Colleague Tara Lipinski concurred. “They’re all still on the same playing field,” she said.
At the end of last fall, Kostornaya had the edge. She made up for the lack of a quad jump (which Shcherbakova and Trusova boasted) with a triple Axel and higher artistic scores. But Shcherbakova narrowly won the Russian national title last December. This season, Kostornaya has yet to land a triple Axel in domestic programs.
“Without those jumps, she can’t be a threat, on paper, despite her exemplary skating,” to the other top Russians, Weir said of a skater who plans to retire after the Beijing Olympics to study to become a neurosurgeon.
Kostornaya made the same startling move in the offseason as Trusova, a prodigy who first landed multiple quads at age 13.
They each left Eteri Tutberidze, who trained the entire Troika, plus Alina Zagitova and Yevgenia Medvedeva to 2018 Olympic gold and silver medals, for an up-and-comer in the coaching ranks: four-time Olympic medalist Yevgeny Plushenko.
“Due to the popularity of Eteri Tutberidze’s school, there is little time for Eteri to spend extra time with all her students,” Weir said. “The Russian style of training is that everyone skates in a large group under the watchful eye of a head coach and his or her assistant coaches, and they compete for the attention of their team.
“When you reach a certain level, it can be hard to share your time with rivals and other students of your coaches and you want a more private coaching situation, and in most Russian rinks, that is not possible. One place that is possible, is at the rink of Yevgeny Plushenko. He owns his building and the ice inside it and can divide his time among his top students as he isn’t hustling to be in or out the door by a certain time.”
Plushenko is familiar with the story of a world-beating Russian skater leaving one Russian coach for another who can offer more personal attention. That’s exactly what his primary rival, Aleksei Yagudin, did before the 2002 Olympics in parting from their shared coach of Aleksei Mishin.
Shcherbakova, known for changing her costume mid-program last season, stayed with Tutberidze. She and Trusova combined to win all four domestic Russian Cup competitions so far this fall.
But yet another Tutberidze student could break up the Troika. Kamila Valieva, a 14-year-old who swept the major junior titles last season, can compete on the senior international level starting in the Olympic season. Valieva finished in second place in a Russian Cup event last month, seven points behind Trusova.
Lipinski said Valieva has the superior artistic skills of Kostornaya. Plus, she has a quad toe loop and “a cavalier attitude,” Weir said.
“Valieva has the biggest opportunity for Olympic glory,” Weir said, noting a caveat that, if Kostornaya can master a quad, she will be his favorite. “[Valieva] can land multiple quads in a program, has beautiful style and exquisite extension. She is a newcomer, but the Olympic Games are rarely won by the early favorite.”
Such was the case in the last Olympic cycle. Medvedeva, starting in 2015, went undefeated for more than two years. Then Zagitova became old enough to compete on the senior level in the Olympic season and seized it, becoming the second-youngest women’s skating gold medalist after Lipinski in 1998.
“In present day figure skating, you almost come to expect that,” Lipinski said of conveyor-belt-like turnover in women’s skating.
To be even more specific, Russian women’s skating.
Five different Russian women combined to win the season’s biggest event the last seven years. It’s the longest streak for one nation in women’s skating since Norway won every Olympic and world title from 1927-36. But in that era, one skater wore all of the crowns — Sonja Henie.
Take all of that into consideration when Kostornaya, Shcherbakova and Trusova skate in Moscow on Friday and Saturday, bidding for a Grand Prix title and a leg up in a 15-month run-up to the Beijing Olympics.
“What the results are now doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what you’ll see next season,” Lipinski said. “Especially with these three that are so close and have so much talent.”
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