Alina Zagitova

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Alina Zagitova took a break; what does that say about figure skating?

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All the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the potential end of Alina Zagitova’s competitive career at age 17 has had enough time to die down that everyone can take a less emotional look at the situation.

And what better time to do that than just before the Russian National Championships? Had Zagitova, reigning Olympic and world champion, been competing in Krasnoyarsk this week, she would have been hard-pressed to improve on her startlingly poor fifth-place finish of a year ago, when three junior skaters swept the senior podium. Those three are likely to get all the medals again.

Yes, Zagitova insisted in a clarification Instagram post two days after announcing her plans that she is only taking a competitive break, while performing in ice shows and continuing to train. Wait until she sees how much better it feels not to be beating herself up and down – trying to contend with skaters in just her own Moscow club like the current top three in the world and the 11-year-old girl who just landed a quadruple toe loop.

And this is a lot bigger story than whether one skating champion like Zagitova can no longer keep up with the competition.

That Zagitova is stepping away, at least temporarily, less than a year after winning worlds and less than two years after winning the Olympics seems singular on the surface, especially given how little time it took her to reach the top – from ninth at the Russian Junior Championships in 2015-16 to Olympic champion in 2018.

It is actually just a figure skating version of déjà vu all over again. Three previous examples of a seemingly early exit all predate — by 15 to 25 years — the jump revolution in women’s singles. Short careers are not unusual for Olympic champions.

*Oksana Baiul of Ukraine was 12th in the Soviet Championships in 1991, world champion in 1993, then, in 1994 at age 16, the second-youngest Olympic singles champion ever to that point. Having grown up poor as an orphan, Baiul immediately left Olympic-style competition for a career in what was, in 1994, a very lucrative professional scene.

*Tara Lipinski of the United States barely qualified for the free skate final at the 1996 Worlds (she wound up 15th), won the 1997 worlds at 14 and the 1998 Olympics at 15. Lipinski, now an NBC Sports analyst, still is the youngest world and Olympic singles champion ever. (Zagitova, No. 2, was 23 days older when she won the 2018 gold.) Lipinski turned pro a month after winning the 1998 Olympics.

*Sarah Hughes of the United States had a more predictable progression – fifth in the 2000 Worlds, third in 2001 – but her triumph at the 2002 Olympics still was utterly unexpected. Hughes won at 16 (she now is fifth-youngest ever), competed the next season, then went to college, eventually taking a one-year break from Yale to capitalize on her golden stature by skating on the Stars on Ice tour. Her final competition was the 2003 Worlds, in which she placed sixth.

*Adelina Sotnikova of Russia was 12 when she won her first of four senior national titles, 17 when she became the fifth-youngest Olympic champion at the time she won in 2014. Sotnikova caught lightning in a bottle; in her only senior worlds, a year before the Olympics, she was ninth. Her efforts to continue after the Olympics were compromised by injury, and her final competition was the 2015-16 Russian Championships 

Baiul and Hughes bookended a three-Olympiad period in which, to borrow from college basketball terminology, it was one and done.

Of course, few women’s Olympic champions continued competing past their season of triumph, so Sonja Henie of Norway (1928-32-36) of Norway and Katarina Witt of East Germany (84-88) are the only repeat winners. Yuna Kim of South Korea is the only one to have followed gold with another medal, a silver (2010-14.)

So why does Zagitova’s case seem so dramatically — and even cataclysmically — different?

Like everything in the social media age, it has been exaggerated by hot takes with woe-is-me, the sky-is-falling comments.

Truth be told, though, it is different for several reasons:

*The sport’s points-based scoring system has finally led to an unexpected exponential explosion in women’s jump difficulty this season.

“It has come so quickly,” said Finnish Olympian Kiira Korpi, 31, who retired in 2015 and now is a liberal arts student concentrating on psychology at The New School in Manhattan. “I don’t know if the word ‘shock’ is too strong, but it is a big surprise how fast the sport is changing. 

“It is not a new phenomenon that we have young skaters at the top – but not this kind of massive, massive evolution with the quads by these young skaters.”

*There now is a critical mass of these jumping phenoms, especially in Russia. Their dominance of the sport seems assured for the long term even if The Troika atop the sport now, aka The Three A’s — Alena Kostornaia (age 16), Alexandra Trusova (15) and Anna Shcherbakova (15) — do not make it past or even to the 2022 Olympics.

That means twentysomethings (and even late teens) have become “women of a certain age” in singles skating, with little-to-no chance for medals in major competitions at an age when artistic maturity and life experience has made them much more compelling performers than the little women (OK, girls) jumping onto the podiums.

When Hughes completed the first “baby ballerina” era in 2002, the other two medalists were 23 (Irina Slutskaya of Russia, who would go on to win bronze four years later) and 21 (Michelle Kwan of the United States.) When Sotnikova won in 2014, the podium also had two older skaters: Kim (23) and Carolina Kostner (27).

(Interestingly, the aggregate youngest Olympic podium was way back in 1956, with Tenley Albright, 20, and Carol Heiss, 16, of the U.S. and Ingrid Wendl, 15, of Austria. No idea if that provoked doomsaying.”

“That maturity is what many figure skating fans think is missing,” Korpi said. “In these young skaters’ programs, the jumps are amazing, but there is no so much room for artistry.”

Two seasons ago, Zagitova was a budding artist and on the technical cutting edge of her sport. Now, without a quad or a triple Axel, she simply is outmoded, old before her time.

It reminds me of how legendary coach Carlo Fassi once compared three U.S. skaters he had trained, world champion Jill Trenary (1990) and Olympic champions Dorothy Hamill (1976) and Peggy Fleming (1968).

“It’s like comparing a Porsche, 1956 Ford and Model-T,” Fassi said. “I’m sorry to compare Peggy to a Model T, but I was a bicycle when I competed.” 

Older women now are Model Ts in a sport full of Ferraris and McLarens. The question is why would they keep driving themselves?

Korpi, a three-time European Championships medalist, had the best results of her career from ages 22 through 24 (2010 through 2013.) Although recurrent injuries precipitated her retirement just before her 27th birthday, Korpi has a hard time imagining the idea of competing at that age today, even if she were healthy.

“Many skaters and coaches are struggling, because they know it is almost impossible to compete with these young girls,” Korpi said. “But it’s the sport you love, it’s what you do, so you have to kind of keep hope, to keep pushing.”

Denise Myers, who coaches 2018 U.S. champion Bradie Tennell, saw it similarly when asked why Tennell, soon 22, with no quads or triple Axel, hangs in when the gap between her and the world’s top skaters keeps getting bigger.

“She may never catch them, but we keep pushing forward, trying to improve on both components and technical,” Myers said. “She is not settling for where she is now.”

*Rules changes to rebalance the sport between technical and artistic may be hard to pass. They will seem to be targeting Russia at a time when interest in figure skating never has been higher there, while interest in the sport has declined significantly in North America and Western Europe. Russian skaters also are very popular in the sport’s biggest current hotbed, Japan.

Yet leaders of the sport’s governing body, the International Skating Union, are aware that the imbalance needs to be rectified – perhaps by raising minimum ages and/or by restricting the number of quad jumps and/or redoing some of the scoring system to give more weight to artistry as reflected in component scores that measure performance, composition of a program and interpretation of the music.

“The idea of raising the age limit is one possible solution and one of the main subjects being discussed at present, even among the top coaches,” said Fabio Bianchetti of Italy, chairman of the ISU singles and pairs technical committee. “The matter will very probably be considered at the next ISU Congress (summer 2020.)”

An 11th-hour, so-called “urgent” proposal for a higher age limit failed to get enough votes even to be discussed formally at the 2018 Congress. Since then, more of the sport’s influential voices are advocating for it, including decorated coach and TV commentator Tatiana Tarasova of Russia.

The current rule says skaters must be 15 by the July 1 before the ensuing season to compete as seniors. The talk has been of raising that minimum to 17 or 18.

“A higher age limit would make sense,” Korpi said. “Then you would make sure the technique for a quad is a technique that lasts beyond puberty, that skaters have longer careers than ages 14 to 17.”

It is too early to know whether skaters like The Troika will keep the big jumps as they mature physically. There is no doubt such jumps are easier for female skaters with pre-pubescent bodies – light, short, straight-line shapes. The three members of The Troika range from just under 5 feet tall to 5 foot, 1 inch.

It also is too early to know what the impact of doing the demanding jumps will be on the future health and well-being of the athletes doing them, since the women’s jump revolution is barely two years old. And it is the nature of elite athletes to keep pushing their sport forward by challenging physical limits.

Zagitova, whose body has matured into that of a woman, told the Olympic Channel in November she would need to lose six pounds (from where?) to reduce injury risk if she is to try quads.

Bianchetti thought the idea of limiting the number and types of quads women can do in the free skate “has merit” as a form of preventive medicine.

“There is no doubt that the health of all these ‘kids’ must be taken into serious consideration,” Bianchetti said.

Trusova has attempted five quads in a free skate, Shcherbakova three (Alysa Liu of the United States, 14, attempted two — plus two triple Axels — in the Junior Grand Prix Final.) Kostornaia for now is content with a free program that has two triple Axels, a jump added to her repertoire this season.

The scoring system values the big jumps so highly that anyone would be foolish not to work on them if their goal is the tangible rewards of success — titles and medals. The question of, “At what price?” has yet to be answered.

I once wrote this in the Chicago Tribune:

“On the surface, the changing face of the sport seems harmlessly cosmetic, with tiny teenagers doing stunning (…) tricks instead of more mature women mixing substance with style.

“But the problem is that the keen competition to perform more difficult and spectacular moves has sparked an ongoing physical self-selection process that is producing smaller and younger champions. Those little girls are then subjected to considerable physical and emotional stress as they are asked to achieve extreme levels of fitness and performance.”

That story, from late 1992, was about gymnastics. It could easily be written about figure skating in 2019.

“This is the part that I and many other people are worried about, the psychological and physical strain that doing these jumps and performing and training like professional athletes at such a young age are putting on children,” Korpi said.

“We need to be discussing whether it is impossible with the rules we are making to have our athletes healthy not only during their career but the rest of their lives. It’s not worth it to risk your physical and mental health for some external success that fades away very soon.”

Alina Zagitova will be an Olympic champion forever. 

She may have chosen just the right moment to back away and assure enjoying that forever status in good health.

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

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MORE: Figure skating season TV schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

Grand Prix Final results show women’s figure skating revolution progressing quickly

Grand Prix Final podium
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The revolution in women’s figure skating is being televised.

That’s a turn of phrase on an admittedly dated reference (Google it). The point is we all have been able to witness, from TV broadcasts or live streams, a season with the most radical change in the sport since child prodigy Sonja Henie, then age 11, began doing jumps in her programs nearly a century ago.

What we watched other child prodigies do at last week’s Grand Prix Final boggled the minds of even those who saw it coming, because no one imagined it coming this soon and to this degree.

This essentially Russian revolution, which has taken maximum advantage of the scoring system and youthful body types to overthrow longtime technical norms of women’s skating, has split the discipline into haves and have-nots.

There are those who have the high-scoring quadruple jumps or multiple triple Axels to seize all the medals. And those who do not have those big jumps and, as of now, no chance to regain the podiums from which they have been summarily ousted.

Given what already had happened this season, it was not surprising that Russian first-year seniors Alena Kostornaia, Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova swept the medals in the senior Final. Each had qualified by winning two of the six events in the Grand Prix series.

What is surprising is how far and fast the Troika – as NBC commentator and two-time Olympian Johnny Weir artfully nicknamed them, in a reference to a traditional Russian three-horse sled – has pushed the envelope and how far and fast they have left everyone else behind.

And imagine what the gap could be if women were allowed to do quads in the short program, which likely will be proposed at next year’s International Skating Union congress.

A year ago, it was shocking when the Troika, then all juniors internationally, swept the medals at the senior Russian Championships. Now it will be shocking if they don’t do it again at this year’s Russian Championships, which take place Dec. 24-29.

No women were regularly doing quads until last season. Consider what the Troika has done just this autumn:

*Kostornaia, 16, did not attempt a triple Axel in international competition before this season. Now she is doing one in the short program and two in the free, and all three were very well executed as she took gold at the Grand Prix Final.

*Shcherbakova, 15, began her international season the way she had finished last year at junior worlds, with one quad Lutz in the free skate; at the Grand Prix Final, she did two quad Lutzes (one clean, one under-rotated) and attempted her first quad flip (fall) in finishing second.

*Trusova, 15, began this season after having landed quad Lutz, quad Salchow and quad toe loop as a junior, but she was not attempting more than two in a program. In her senior Grand Prix debut at Skate Canada, she did four quads (three clean). At the Grand Prix Final, she added an excellent quad flip for five free skate quads, one of which she doubled and three of which were clean. She also attempted (and under-rotated) a triple Axel for the first time in the short program.

Even with the mistakes, the quads still racked up enough points for Shcherbakova that she beat a flawless Kostornaia in the free skate. And they gave Trusova a 20.71-point overall margin over fourth finisher Rika Kihira, 17, of Japan, who already had mastered triple Axels but has dropped so far from contention against the Troika that Kihira tried (and fell on) her first quad in competition.

And you have to feel a little sorry for reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova of Russia, at the technical cutting edge of her sport less than two years ago, now utterly overmatched – and still just 17 years old.

Zagitova’s free skate, an error-filled mess, dropped her from second after a fine short (less than six points behind Kostornaia) to sixth overall, more than 42 points behind Kostornaia and nearly 28 behind the third-place Trusova.

Even had she skated cleanly, having a long program with no quads or triple Axels meant the base value of Zagitova’s elements was more than 30 points less than Trusova’s, more than 20 less than Shcherbakova’s and about five less than Kostornaia’s. Zagitova would have needed otherworldly Grades of Execution marks and program component scores to compete for a medal.

Zagitova acknowledged the futility of her current situation by telling a Russian TV station Friday she was effectively putting her competitive career on hold by withdrawing from the Russian Championships and not asking to be considered for selection for either the European or world championships.

According to a Eurosport summary of the interview, Zagitova said she needed to find new motivation to continue competing. The story quoted her as saying she intended to do shows and keep training under her longtime coach, Eteri Tutberidze, who also coaches the Troika.

Zagitova also said she intended to learn new elements and ways to go into jumps.

“I need to find the desire to want to go into a competition,” she said, according to a translation. “The athletes who have gone down that road will understand me.”

Those who decry how much the quads have thrown the sport’s athletic-artistic balance out of whack found some satisfaction in Kostornaia’s having won with a performance and interpretive quality rare for a skater of her age.

Yet Kostornaia also accumulated some 21 free skate points for her triple Axels, about 13 more points than fifth-place finisher Bradie Tennell of the U.S. got for two clean double Axels. Even if Tennell had not made some relatively small mistakes, there was no way she could make up that difference.

And remember that if Trusova had cleanly landed the quad she doubled and the quad that resulted in a fall, she could have overcome not only her short program mistake but also the margin Kostornaia built in program components with clearly superior skating skills and artistry.

Tennell, 21, the top U.S. woman at the 2018 Olympics (ninth) and the last two World Championships (sixth and seventh), this season has displayed the best overall level of skating in her career. But a lack of quads and triple Axels has dropped her exponentially further behind the leaders.

Yet Tennell presses on.

“She may never catch them, but we keep pushing forward, trying to improve on both components and technical,” said Denise Myers, who coaches Tennell. “She is not settling for where she is now.”

About a month ago, I began to wonder if changing the factoring of the five Program Component Scores (PCS) so that they were the same for women as for men would level a playing field that has tilted so dramatically toward the jumpers.

Since the International Judging System was introduced in 2004, factors of .8 (short program) and 1.6 (long) have been applied to the raw total of each woman’s component score. They are 1.0 and 2.0 for men.

The logic behind the difference was until last season, a men’s free skate was 30 seconds longer with one more element. (Why it also applied to the short program is unclear, since the number of elements and time have been the same.)

“The idea of possible new factors for the program components for men was evaluated in the past season, because for the top skaters the technical score in the last years had considerably increased,” Italy’s Fabio Bianchetti, chair of the ISU technical committee for singles and pairs, said in an email.

“At the moment, for the majority of the [men], the [PCS] is still corresponding to about 50 percent of the total score. In some cases, the relation might not be exact, but a rule must consider all the skaters and not only the top five.

“Now we are dealing with the same situation for the ladies. This is something totally new, and we will study the problem during the season. But again, we cannot look at a couple of skaters only.”

In a recent interview with Nick Zaccardi of NBC Sports, Weir seconded the idea of giving the women’s PCS scores the same weight as the men’s.

“It would give them a little better chance,” Samuel Auxier, an international judge and former U.S. Figure Skating, said in a text message last month.

So much has changed on the jump front since then that it turns out using the men’s PCS factors would have had almost no impact on the women’s results at the Grand Prix Final.

With some computational help from skatingscores.com, I recalculated the PCS scores from the Final with the 1.0 and 2.0 factors, added them to the TES scores and found just one difference: Kostornaia would have moved from second to first in the free skate. The overall and short program finish order would have been the same.

Actual Grand Prix Final scores
One of these (factor .8 / 1.6) shows the actual scores. Skatingscores.com
A re-imagined scoring of the Grand Prix Final
The Refactored scores show what they would be with factors of 1.0 and 2.0. Skatingscores.com

So, the 20% adjustment of PCS factor gender equality is not enough to put women without the most difficult jumps into medal contention.

And as Bianchetti pointed out, making that change or a more substantial one in the women’s factoring must take into consideration not only a few exceptional new talents.

“I truly do not believe that anyone seriously thought a lady would deliver four quads so quickly and especially at such a young age,” Ted Barton of Canada, who was involved in the creation of IJS, said in a text message last month. “Alysa Liu is a good American example of what the present is and future might be.”

(And, yes, there is an elephant in the room: whether the young talents are getting exaggerated PCS scores from judges smitten by their jumping. That’s a question for another day – or lifetime.)

Yet there is every indication the Troika are only the leading edge of a blizzard of jumping phenoms, not only from Russia. After all, Junior Grand Prix Final silver medalist Liu, 14, last season became the youngest singles champion in U.S. history with three triple Axels, and she has added a quad Lutz this season.

“The factoring and [other] calculations were developed on what was being done at that point,” Barton said. “Now that skaters have shown new possibilities, the technical committees will look to see what adjustments can and should be made. Interesting times, indeed.”

For now, though, we are seeing in real time the unsettling effect revolutions can have.

And it seems surreal.

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

MORE: What’s next for Nathan Chen after third consecutive Grand Prix Final win?

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Alina Zagitova announces break from figure skating competition

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Alina Zagitova, the reigning Olympic and world figure skating champion, is taking a break from competition.

Zagitova said she is focusing on non-competitive shows and needs to find motivation to compete again, according to a Russian translation, after being supplanted by younger Russians this fall.

“I will stay on ice, and I will continue my training,” she said, according to a TASS translation. “I think it would be the right thing to do, because I’m going to learn some new elements.”

Zagitova reportedly announced Friday on Russian TV that she will not compete at the national championships later this month, nor apply for a spot on the Russian team for the European Championships in January or the world championships in March.

In PyeongChang, Zagitova became the second-youngest Olympic women’s singles champion at age 15. Last season, she was fifth at Russian Nationals (behind three junior skaters) and second at the European Championships but bounced back to win the world title.

MORE: Grand Prix Final a showcase of women’s skating progression

This season, Zagitova struggled to keep up with younger countrywomen throwing quadruple jumps and triple Axels who share her coach of Eteri Tutberidze.

“This is her decision, and, regretfully, it did not come out of thin air,” Tutberidze said, according to TASS. “Alina has been talking about this for about 18 months.

“The past 18 months when she kept competing and fighting, were difficult.”

“She skates beautifully, and she looks very good on ice, so the entire team of coaches tried to persuade her to continue. I think she would eventually arrive at the decision [to resume competitions]: she would not even make a pause in her training, so that she could return at any moment.”

Zagitova, who has never attempted a triple Axel or quad in competition, was second and third at two Grand Prix Series stops, then sixth in the six-skater field at the Grand Prix Final last week.

First-year-senior Russians Alena KostornaiaAnna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova swept the podium.

“Olympic champion all ready to be dethroned, really, in such a big way by her younger training mates,” NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir said while commentating Zagitova’s last-place Grand Prix Final free skate, looking ahead to Russian Nationals. “She’s got so much work to do. So many things to learn, quads, triple Axels. … People judge you by how you get up from defeat. She’s got to claw her way up.”

“It must be such a hard position to be in,” NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said as Zagitova awaited her free skate score. “This entire year is about adjusting her expectations until she does learn a quad or a triple Axel. … Just watching her here is breaking my heart.”

The Russian system produced a conveyor belt of skaters in this decade, with new teens constantly replacing past champions.

Adelina Sotnikova and Yuliya Lipnitskaya earned gold medals in Sochi, then stopped competing in 2016.

Elizaveta Tuktamysheva swept Grand Prix Final, European and world titles in 2014-15, but while competitive since has not returned to worlds or competed in an Olympics.

Yevgenia Medvedeva went undefeated for two years from 2015-17 before being supplanted by Zagitova in PyeongChang. She left Tutberidze’s group and took bronze at last season’s worlds but has not won on the top level in two years.

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MORE: Alysa Liu takes Junior Grand Prix Final silver with historic jump list