From two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu to reigning World champion Anna Shcherbakova, some of the biggest names in figure skating associate with a stuffed animal that fans might throw onto the ice in the aftermath of an epic performance.
Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva could have hoped crowns would be thrown to the self-styled “Empress” upon her arrival at the 2021 World Figure Skating Championships—her first appearance at the event since winning it in 2015. However, the absence of non-athlete spectators at the Ericsson Globe in Stockholm, Sweden, left Tuktamysheva to summon an inner strength, one that had already brought her back to the sport’s pinnacle after six years on the periphery, to ultimately earn a silver medal as part of a Russian sweep alongside Shcherbakova and Aleksandra Trusova.
“I had to believe it wasn’t the end,” she told NBCSports.com/figure-skating by phone on Sunday. “I had to tell myself that I still have a future, that I should continue, and that adversity would only make me stronger. Every time I’ve had a bad situation in my life, I’ve told myself that. Bad things will happen, but I have to survive and move on.
“My career has been a lot like a mountain, something I climbed up and down before I could climb back up again.”
That climb back up has been fraught with peaks and valleys in the last Olympic quadrennium. Tuktamysheva was on course for a world team berth in 2019 after a bronze-medal finish at that season’s Grand Prix Final, only for pneumonia to force her out of the Russian national championships. She ultimately lost her spot to Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva in a skate-off at the Russian Cup Final.
“I was definitely upset when I knew I wouldn’t go to worlds, and [that] wasn’t an easy time for me in my career,” she said before chuckling, “I have had a lot of moments like that.”
This past season began in similar fashion; days after holding off Trusova and 2020 European champion Aliona Kostornaya at the Rostelecom Cup, Tuktamysheva tested positive for COVID-19 and was off the ice for two weeks.
“I didn’t have terrible COVID symptoms, just a fever for two days, and I remember feeling so tired. I’m happy I was only sick like that, and relieved that it was nothing worse.”
Unable to afford another withdrawal, the 24-year-old made the trip to nationals, a veritable thunderdome replete with quad-jumping teenagers, and finished fourth among worlds-eligible athletes to trigger another tiebreaker between herself and Kostornaya—who had withdrawn due to her own COVID diagnosis.
“I was glad to be able to show my programs at nationals because it was important just to be there and skate as well as I could,” Tuktamysheva said. “I was happy I didn’t fall on every jump and that it wasn’t so bad!
“After COVID, it took a while to skate my free program with good breath; I would get tired faster than before. By the Russia Cup Final, I understood I was back in shape and ready to compete.”
A near-perfect free skate in Moscow—one that included a triple lutz-triple toe combination in addition to her signature pair of triple axel jumps—assured her of a long-awaited worlds return, where she placed third in both portions of the competition to finish second overall.
“For me, international competitions have always been less pressure than the ones in Russia. Our national competitions have a good number of girls jumping quads, and so when I went to the world championships, I felt so much less pressure, and just… like I was able to enjoy the fact that I’m actually a really good skater.”
It is this kind of radical candor that has helped make Tuktamysheva a fan favorite and one of her sport’s premier personalities.
“I feel people understand me because of how open I am with them,” she explained. “I’m the same person on social media, in interviews, in real life, and I think that’s why people don’t just see me as an athlete, but like I’m their friend. Their love and support give me a lot of energy.”
A season full of national competitions allowed her the opportunity to draw unlikely support from rivals like Shcherbakova, with whom she led Russia to a maiden victory at the World Team Trophy earlier this month. in which Tuktamysheva was team captain.
“We’ve started to be more like friends,” Tuktamysheva said. “She’s a really cute and nice girl, and I feel comfortable with her. At competitions where her parents couldn’t be with her, I tried to keep her company.”
Seven years Shcherbakova’s senior, Tuktamysheva doesn’t envy the uniquely competitive atmosphere encouraged at the Sambo 70 club, led by coach Eteri Tutberidze and home to a bourgeoning next generation of Olympic-eligible talent like junior world gold and silver medalists Kamila Valiyeva and Daria Usacheva.
“I didn’t feel nearly the same amount of pressure at their age as I’m sure they feel now,” says Tuktamysheva. “It was a different time in figure skating; the level wasn’t as high, and so it was easier for me to feel confident about my place in the sport.
“At the same time, I was such a crazy girl growing up, and no one could stop me or tell me anything! I just led with my mind.”
Tuktamysheva’s triumphant finish to the 2020-2021 season puts her in unexpectedly good stead to at last compete in an Olympic Games, having fallen short of the team in both 2014 and 2018. Looking to set her programs with famed coach Aleksei Mishin before taking a short vacation in the Maldives, she aims to do all she can to earn the only crown still missing from her collection.
“I’ve had a lot of great moments, and I’ve had a long career,” she said. “An opportunity to finally make it to the Olympics would be the cherry on the cake. In my wildest dreams, I see myself winning bronze, silver, gold, standing on that Olympic podium. It’s going to be so hard getting there, and I don’t want it to be my main goal for next season, but it would mean so much to me and for my career to be able to make it to the Olympics.
“I’ve already done almost 100% of what I can do, and this is all that’s left.”
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