A Russian ball at figure skating worlds? Women’s medal sweep possible, not probable

Anna Shcherbakova
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A year ago, three Russian women seemed ready to have a ball at the world figure skating championships.

A debutante ball.

Not only was Russia’s “A” team (each first name began with that letter) composed of first-year international seniors, there was a good chance they would sweep the medals, joining a 1991 U.S. trio as the only women to have done that at worlds.

After all, Aliona Kostornaya, Anna Shcherbakova and Aleksandra Trusova had finished first in all six 2019-20 Grand Prix events, each winning two, and they swept both the Grand Prix Final and European Championships podiums in that order.

Not only that, all three had the same coaching team, headed by Eteri Tutberidze in Moscow.

And then …

*The coronavirus pandemic forced cancellation of the 2020 Worlds in Montreal.

*A soap operatic summer of coaching musical chairs sent Trusova and Kostornaya across Moscow to train with the “Angels of Plushenko,” a team headed by 2006 men’s Olympic champion Yevgeny Plushenko.

*Kostornaya, 17, contracted the virus and was forced to drop out of December’s Russian Championships. After later switching both her short and free programs, she was an underwhelming sixth at the decisive final stage of the Russian Cup in February, missing out on a 2021 World team spot to the self-styled Empress, veteran Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva, 24, who was fourth at that event.

Soon after, Kostornaya announced a return to Team Tutberidze for next season.

Which leads us to the question of whether Shcherbakova, Trusova and Tuktamysheva can pull off that podium sweep at worlds in Stockholm, which begin with the short program Wednesday (full TV, live stream schedule here).

And this is how that shapes up (given the underlying caveat that ice is slippery):

The Medalists

Shcherbakova, Trusova and Japan’s Rika Kihira.

Kihira, 18, who has a solid triple Axel, needs a very strong short program to have a decent shot at gold. The Russians’ big-points quadruple jumps, which aren’t allowed in the short program, give them a substantial base value advantage in the free skate, even though the Japanese champion broke through by cleanly landing a lower-value quad (Salchow) at her nationals in December.

Despite competing with what was said to be pneumonia rather than Covid-19, Shcherbakova, who turns 17 Sunday, won a third consecutive Russian title with two clean quads (Lutz, flip). Trusova, 16, who was third at nationals (a junior took second), also landed two clean quads (both Lutzes.)

Shcherbakova’s record of coming up big in big events gives her the edge for the title.

Other Podium Possibilities (if any of the top three significantly falter):

Tuktamysheva; Kaori Sakamoto and Satoko Miyahara of Japan; Bradie Tennell of the U.S.

As a woman of a certain age in a sport dominated by teenyboppers, the personable Tuktamysheva, coached by the venerable Aleksey Mishin (he just turned 80) in St. Petersburg, is something of a sentimental favorite (with a triple Axel.) It took the 2015 World champion six years to get back to worlds.

Tuktamysheva’s 10th-place free skate at the Russian Championships (seventh overall) can be mostly explained by her having missed training and lost fitness after contracting Covid-19 a few weeks earlier. But consistency has been problematic for her since the 2014-15 season, when she utterly dominated.

Sakamoto, 20, was fifth at the 2019 Worlds. Miyahara, who turns 23 Friday, was a world medalist in 2015 and 2018, but she lacks the jump firepower to compete with the current top Russians. Tennell, 23, who won her second U.S. title in January, has the highest total score of any non-Russian or Kihira.

And what about the reigning world champion from 2019?

That’s Alina Zagitova of Russia, also the reigning Olympic champion. Zagitova, still just 18, left competitive skating after her last-place finish at the 2019 Grand Prix Final, when it became apparent her efforts to keep up with the young Russian quad squad had become Sisyphean.

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

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