In 2014, a 7-year-old ballet dancer and figure skater named Kamila Valiyeva got her first glimpse of the Olympics. She watched on TV as fellow Russian Yuliya Lipnitskaya, then 15, captivated the Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi, skating as the girl in the red coat to music from “Schindler’s List.”
On Friday and Saturday, Valiyeva, now 15, turned in her own performances to remember inside the same venue at the Black Sea resort.
Valiyeva recorded the highest scores in history (due to scoring changes, this effectively means since 2018) for the short program and free skate. Valiyeva broke her own record for best total score. She tallied 272.71 points to win the Rostelecom Cup by 43.48 with three quadruple jumps in her free skate.
Russians took the top three spots (Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva, Maiia Khromykh), giving the nation five of the six spots in the Grand Prix Final in two weeks. The Grand Prix Final is the biggest international competition before the Olympics, taking the top six per discipline from the six-event autumn Grand Prix Series.
American Mariah Bell was fourth, nearly posting a personal-best score. She jumped from fifth among U.S. Olympic hopefuls this season to second and will likely go into January’s nationals as a favorite to make the three-woman Olympic team, along with Alysa Liu.
No U.S. women made the Grand Prix Final. No U.S. women made a Grand Prix Series podium for the first time ever (debuted in 1995).
Valiyeva is the only female skater to eclipse 270 points. To eclipse 260 points. And to eclipse 250 points. No other woman in the world has scored within 30 points of her this season.
Valiyeva began 2021 on the junior level. Her story is similar to that of Alina Zagitova, who won the 2018 Olympic title at age 15 in her first senior season. Except that Zagitova had a close rival in training partner Yevgenia Medvedeva. Valiyeva, by contrast, is on pace to finish 2021 as the biggest favorite for gold among all of the figure skating events.
“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,” NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir said while commentating Valiyeva’s performance last month at Skate Canada, when she set the world record of 265.08 points that she just bettered in Sochi. “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.”
Valiyeva is the latest star churned out of the world’s most prestigious skating school, Sambo-70 in Moscow. The headmaster is Eteri Tutberidze, a no-nonsense coach who is set to go to a third consecutive Olympics with a 15-year-old phenom after guiding Zagitova in 2018 and Valiyeva’s inspiration, Lipnitskaya, in 2014.
Tutberidze, whose students include six of the world’s top eight skaters, calls Valiyeva “gifted,” and it’s easy to see why.
She puts both arms over her head to show the ease of her quadruple jumps. She (or, perhaps Tutberidze or a choreographer) had the audacity to choose “Boléro” for her free skate starting at age 14 (Michelle Kwan and Carolina Kostner, two of the most graceful modern skaters, performed to it in their mid-20s.)
What’s next for Valiyeva? Arguably the four biggest competitions of her life: The Grand Prix Final. The Russian Championships, the deepest competition in the world (including the Olympics), in late December, after which the Olympic team is expected to be named. The European Championships in January and then the Beijing Games in February.
Grand Prix Final fields set
Earlier Saturday, Georgian veteran Morisi Kvitelashvili earned his first Grand Prix win, jumping from third after the short program to edge Japanese Kazuki Tomono by 1.69.
American Jason Brown, who wasn’t competing, clinched his second Grand Prix Final berth once the overall results shook out. Countrymen Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou previously earned Final spots. They’ll be joined by Japanese Shoma Uno and Yuma Kagiyama and Russian Mikhail Kolyada.
Reigning world champions Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia won the ice dance with 211.72 points, distancing Italians Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri by 8.01.
That sets up a Grand Prix Final showdown between the Russians and four-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France. The last time they met, the Russians handed the French their only defeat of this Olympic cycle, but that was way back in January 2020. The French own the world’s top three total scores this season.
Also qualifying for the Final: Americans Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue and Madison Chock and Evan Bates.
In pairs, reigning world champions Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov leapfrogged fellow Russians Daria Pavliuchenkova and Denis Khodykin in the free skate, totaling 226.98 points to prevail by 14.39. Only Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, yet another Russian pair, have scored higher this season.
Four Russian pairs qualified for the Grand Prix Final. They’re joined by Olympic silver medalists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, China’s best hope for a figure skating medal in Beijing, and Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, the first Japanese pair to make the Final in 10 years.
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