Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva finished her gold medal-winning Rostelecom Cup free skate last month at center ice, punctuating a final combination spin with a smile and an enigmatic swirl of her pointer finger.
Choreographer Yuri Smekalov had told the 2015 world champion to conclude her Japanese-inspired program, set to “Chronicles of a Mischievous Bird,” as though she were writing a kanji character in the air.
To those watching the 23-year-old finish what would be her first win at a Grand Prix event in two years, she seemed to instead be saying, “I’m not done yet.” Though this one consisted primarily of Russians, the win still spoke volumes considering the recent dominance of her compatriots.
“When I skate well, it takes on another meaning, that’s for sure,” the Russian confirmed to NBCSports.com/figure-skating by phone.
Earning 148.69 points in that portion of the competition, Tuktamysheva landed a pair of triple Axels to roar into the lead over two-time junior world champion Aleksandra Trusova, 16, and ultimately hold off reigning European champion Aliona Kostornaya, 17, who had led after the short program and followed her in the free skate. Anastasiya Gulyakova, 18, finished third, ahead of Trusova.
“I think winning this will keep me motivated to work more, and incorporate more difficult jumps in the program,” Tuktamysheva said. “After a good experience in competition, of winning a gold medal, you have a feeling as if you’re capable of anything.”
It was the first time the self-styled “Empress” had beaten Kostornaya or Trusova since either had entered the senior ranks. Along with former training mate Anna Shcherbakova, 16, the teenagers swept the podium at Russian nationals for the last two years – Shcherbakova twice taking home gold. Kostornaya and Trusova each left longtime coach Eteri Tutberidze shortly after the 2020 World Championships was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was a surprise to me, but they must have felt certain that they wanted to make a change, and in quarantine, so many lives have changed already, so why not make a few more?” the Glazov native mused of her rivals, who now train with 2006 Olympic champion Yevgeny Plushenko.
Plushenko spent his career training under Aleksey Mishin, who in turn coached Tuktamysheva to over a dozen victories on every stage imaginable in their ten-plus years together, though it has been six years since she claimed the Grand Prix Final, European and world titles all in one season.
Despite his years of experience, a global pandemic was a new frontier for the pioneering coach, who preached patience to his star pupil as they resumed training after nearly four months off the ice.
“He told me that it would be an interesting season, and that I would have to find that fire in my heart, because at the beginning of the season, I’d lost that amidst the struggle to find stability without the schedule to which I’d become accustomed,” she said. “He understands me, and didn’t put unnecessary pressure about how I should be skating or how hard I was working. Once I rediscovered the fire, I was able to work even harder.”
The primary challenge was to restore the already-intimidating technical arsenal that the 2018 Grand Prix Final bronze medalist had employed over the 18 months that preceded the pandemic – chief among them the triple Axel, which had helped spur a career renaissance as she began seriously contending for a spot on the teams for Europeans and worlds after three seasons of struggle.
“It was a strange feeling to be scared of the jump all over again,” Tuktamysheva remembered. “You know you can land it with your eyes closed, but you haven’t had those feelings for a long time, and being a little older, initially the body was like, ‘Uh uh, Liza! Not today!’
“We did a lot of exercises to bring it back and in making further attempts, it became less and less intimidating. Before the Cup of Russia competition in Sochi, I was more confident in the jump, and by landing it in both programs, I knew I could add a second to my free skate.”
It was at that third stage of the Russian Cup – a series of regional competitions which serve as qualifiers for this months’ national championships – that Tuktamysheva, known more for athleticism over her artistry, received high praise on social media from the likes of Kiira Korpi. The three-time European medalist, herself remembered for her grace and finesse on the ice, shared footage of her former competitor on Instagram, noting the maturity she displayed during her short program set to “Adagio” from the “Spartacus” ballet.
“When we decided to skate to Spartacus in the short program, I understood that it was going to be a lot of work, because it wasn’t my typical style,” Tuktamysheva said. “I feel the music and love the program, but it had been a long time since I’d attempted more classical music in my program. It’s very powerful, tragic music, and so we worked a lot to find the emotions and appropriate choreographic touches in order to present the program in a theatrical fashion.”
Where her short program shows a softer side – and some new spin positions – the free skate will be where she plans her most audacious elements, including a promised quadruple toe loop. Tuktamysheva has been seen landing quads, a staple of Trusova and Shcherbakova’s programs, multiple times in practice, but has only attempted it once in competition, when she finished fourth behind the trio – or Troika – at last year’s national championships.
“I’ve already spoken with my coach about exercises that will best prepare the body and add stability to each attempt,” she said. “I understand I can do it in practice, and now the next step will be incorporating it into a program.
“There isn’t a long time before nationals, but last year I had two weeks to get it ready and this year I have at least a month, so we will see.”
Off the ice, Tuktamysheva has become business-minded, launching an Empress Wear clothing line inspired by the figure skating fans she hopes will again fill stadiums following the pandemic. On the ice, she credits a both a commitment to health and fitness with helping her continue competing well past the average age of a modern elite women’s figure skater, and the unwavering belief that her best is yet to come.
“I’ve never felt as though I’ve done all I can do in figure skating,” Tuktamysheva said. “This feeling has stayed with me regardless of whether my season was good or bad.
“I still feel I have something more to show on the ice, and until I have nothing left to say as a figure skater, I will continue competing. Perhaps I will have a year where I feel I’ve given the absolute best of myself as an athlete and I will decide to stop, but in the meantime, I will skate.”