Anna Shcherbakova, a 17-year-old from Moscow, toted the two most prestigious titles in figure skating into this Olympic season: world champion and Russian national champion. But the sport’s top label — Olympic favorite — has been swiped by her 15-year-old training partner Kamila Valiyeva.
It is so far playing out like a sequel of the last Olympic season in 2018. Then, reigning world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva was usurped by her 15-year-old training partner, Alina Zagitova. All four skaters were coached by Eteri Tutberidze.
“Competing as a Russian woman right now is almost like running from an avalanche,” NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir said during Shcherbakova’s short program at a Grand Prix in Italy two weeks ago. “You can always be taken over if you look over your shoulder, even for a second.”
Shcherbakova, a knitter, has time, and several competitions, to change the script. Such as this week at Internationaux de France, the fifth of six stops on the annual Grand Prix Series leading up to December’s Grand Prix Final, the sport’s most exclusive event taking the top six in the world per discipline.
Shcherbakova is the showcase skater this week in Grenoble, live on Peacock. The field includes another accomplished Russian, Alena Kostornaya, the world’s top skater when the pandemic hit. Plus U.S. Olympic hopefuls Karen Chen and Mariah Bell.
In the big picture, Shcherbakova’s primary competition is not a person but a score: Valiyeva set the standard with a whopping 265.08-point outing at Skate Canada three weeks ago, landing two triple Axels and three quadruple jumps between two programs. Shcherbakova is the only skater within 30 points of her this season — a distant 28.3 points behind.
Valiyeva is not in Grenoble, but Shcherbakova could have up to three head-to-heads with her between now and the Olympics — the Grand Prix Final and Russian Championships in December, plus the European Championships in January.
Shcherbakova doesn’t yet have a triple Axel, and without it will likely be playing catch-up to Valiyeva in any competition, given quads are not allowed in short programs.
“Out of the top contenders for Olympic gold, Anna, to me, feels a bit in the shadows,” NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said two weeks ago as Shcherbakova began her Grand Prix Italy free skate. Shcherbakova went on to hit a personal-best program with one quad and all positively graded jumps. Her score was 15.84 points shy of Valiyeva’s free the previous week.
At Skate Canada, Lipinski and Weir were at times left speechless and wondering if Valiyeva was of planet Earth for her total package of jumps (putting both arms over her head to show the ease of her quads), spins and artistry. Valiyeva was touted as a junior skater a year ago by Weir, who said then that she had “the biggest opportunity for Olympic glory.”
“If anybody can put it all together and be better than Kamila Valiyeva was today in less than 100 days at the Olympic Games, I will be shocked,” Weir said on the Skate Canada broadcast. “She makes everyone happy on either side, the technical purists or the artistic purists. She has it all, and that is ultimately who is supposed to win these competitions.”
In the men’s field this week, world silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama of Japan is the favorite. Jason Brown, after a silver at Skate Canada, has a chance to join countrymen Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou in the Grand Prix Final. He qualified for the Final once before in 2017.
Four-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron head an ice dance field that also includes world bronze medalists Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier of Canada. The French won all eight of their Grand Prix starts in this Olympic cycle and again rank No. 1 in the world this season.
Pairs features world bronze medalists Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy of Russia and U.S. champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier.
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2021 Internationaux de France Broadcast Schedule
|Friday||7 a.m.||Women’s Short||Peacock | STREAM LINK|
|9 a.m.||Rhythm Dance||Peacock | STREAM LINK|
|10:45 p.m.||Men’s Short||Peacock | STREAM LINK|
|12:45 p.m.||Pairs’ Short||Peacock | STREAM LINK|
|Saturday||7 a.m.||Women’s Free||Peacock | STREAM LINK|
|9:10 a.m.||Free Dance||Peacock | STREAM LINK|
|11 a.m.||Men’s Free||Peacock | STREAM LINK|
|1:10 p.m.||Pairs’ Free||Peacock | STREAM LINK|
|Sunday||4 p.m.||Highlights||NBC | STREAM LINK|