Maria Sotskova

AP

European Championships analysis: Female Russian skaters stars rise fast, but burn out too soon

Leave a comment

Jean-Christophe Berlot is on the ground in Minsk, Belarus to cover the European Championships. This is his analysis of the pace and progression of women’s skating around the world.

Eteri Tutberidze, the renowned Russian coach, declined all interviews in Minsk, Belarus, the setting for the 2019 European Championships. The organization of the practice and main rinks made it possible for coaches to have no interaction at all with journalists during the week. Tutberidze could not be seen in the mixed zones, and she could flee the practice rink through underground paths that were not open to the press.

“I don’t know what I could say,” she politely answered when an interview request was made.

The same was true for Alina Zagitova, her star pupil. Zagitova, the Olympic champion, lost her 2018 European crown to Russian Sofia Samodurova.

Tutberidze was nonetheless quite a disputed behind-the-scenes topic in Minsk.

“The problem is that Eteri is very much criticized in Russia at the moment,” a noted Russian journalist explained. “People think that she pushes her pupils at a very young age and after a year or two they are done for the sport.”

True – Russian skating has been characterized by a never-seen turnover of its female wunderkinds in the recent years: Yulia Lipnitskaya was an instant star in 2014 and disappeared; Adelina Sotnikova won her Olympic gold and turned to other endeavors.

Yevgenia Medvedeva could have had the same fortune, had she not decided to move to Canada. The perspective of seeing Zagitova disappear can’t be discarded. And many more lesser known skaters left the radar as well.

The system has best demonstrated its nonsense at Russian nationals, one month ago, as the top three at the senior championship were not even allowed to compete on the senior level internationally. Skaters placed fourth, fifth, and sixth at Nationals were selected for these Europeans, namely Samodurova, Zagitova and Stanislava Konstantinova.

Tutberidze is far from being the sole responsible of what could be called the “Kleenex syndrome” of female skating – you take one, use it, and then throw it.

The turmoil is even amplified in Russia by the tons of hate messages that flood each day on social media. The phenomenon is far from being mastered, especially since most messages are written anonymously under a pseudonym. They destabilize the best skaters.

“I don’t want to read those criticisms, but they are actually there, as toxic as they are,” Maria Sotskova, a prominent skater until last year, explained. “Athletes shouldn’t read internet comments. They make you more nervous and make you lose some of your confidence.”

Medvedeva had to make strong decisions a few months ago: “I never expected that there would be so much negative on social media, so I’ve made a strong rule between social networks and me,” she told NBCSports at her French Grand Prix outing two months ago. “The connection with social media is running through my agent, and I’m not using it anymore.”

She has since made a reappearance on social platforms, but to a lesser extent than the past.

Zagitova had to come to a complete black-out as well.

“After Russian nationals, my parents took away my phone and gave me another one, with no access to the internet,” she said to media in Minsk. “Now I’m reading books and I’m studying for school. I don’t see or hear anything about what is being said. No social media. I only watch TV serials.”

More than any other country, Russia has created somewhat of a system – mostly unconsciously at the start, however: create the best jumpers and spinners of the world at a very young age, when children obey without condition, and make them win before puberty. Hence the proposal to raise the age limit that was presented to the last ISU Congress.

It was rejected.

Age may not be the key factor anyway, as every girl grows at her own pace. It also differs from one continent to the next.

“The Causasian and the Asian people are quite different,” Japanese coach Mie Hamada acknowledged a few years ago. “The Caucasian bodies do change much more dramatically than the Asians’. We do have body changes, but they are not as big.”

She cited one of her star students, Satoko Miyahara, as a good example: “Satoko’s body is changing, but she works very hard every day and she can reset and adjust day after day to the change. I don’t have any trouble there.”

The system is expanding fast. In Japan, new star Rika Kihira, who won every competition she entered at her first senior year (and is coached by Hamada), has three triple Axels planned in each of her outings.

Alysa Liu, the new U.S. national champion, is on par with Kihira – except she doesn’t have the age limit to compete in the senior ranks. This age limit is in itself a tough constraint on skaters and their coach; the shooting window in a skater’s life is quite short, as it ranges between that age limit and puberty. Having an Olympics take place at that precise moment helps.

How long will these young ladies keep landing their triple Axel remains to be seen.

“You have the choice,” offered Igor Samohin, coach and father of 2016 world junior champion Daniel Samohin. “Either you push them right away to do everything, but then they will have a short skating life. Or you opt for a long career and, as Brian Orser says, you go step by step. At the same time, can a coach, a parent, a federation accept to take the risk of taking time and going step by step, knowing there is an additional risk at puberty?”

Examples of wunderkinds embarking into a long-term career do exist: Michelle Kwan and Irina Slutskaya, in the late 1990s, both won at a tender age and did succeed in staying many years at the top. As did Mao Asada. In those days as well as throughout the whole skating saga, the younger skaters were there to learn and grow, not to shine all at once and disappear, with the risk of mental health problems, disordered eating and depressions that spread out recently.

Samodurova and Konstantinova, the most physically mature of the Russian squad in Minsk, stated firmly that they were there to last in the sport.

Some common answers in Minsk were clear-cut: “This is sport. The wheel has to turn, and it’s just turning faster.”

If this is the route, then what sense does the age limit to access the senior ranks make?

Yet how does skating as a whole benefit from the Kleenex syndrome? The 2015 and 2016 Worlds gold medalist, Javier Fernandez, was clear, it’s penalizing skating: “Why would you come to watch a competition, if after just a few years a skater you had enjoyed watching doesn’t even compete anymore?” he asked.

The Kleenex route nonetheless seems to be favored nowadays. The embroidered tissue becomes the exception, at least in the ladies’ field. For sure the show will be quite different from what we have known it in the past.

The challenge for the best coaches of the world is to find a way to develop the Kwans and the Katarina Witts of tomorrow. Knowing Tutberidze enough, we may be confident that she is striving to do so.

MORE: Behind the scenes on Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 at the European Championships

As a reminder, you can watch the European Championships 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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

[twitter-follow screen_name=’nbcolympictalk’ show_count=’yes’ text_color=’00ccff’]

Behind the scenes at Grand Prix France: Day 4

AP Photo
1 Comment

Jean-Christophe Berlot is on the ground in Grenoble to cover Internationaux de France, the sixth and final Grand Prix event in the series before the Grand Prix Final. This is his behind-the-scenes look at the competition on the day after the competition.

Chen has much more in store

Don’t try to follow the planned program content of Nathan Chen’s skates. He often changes them at the last minute.

“I know the rules and how to coordinate the jumps, in regards to combos and not repeating quads,” Chen explained after his victorious free skate in Grenoble. “I have a basic layout ready for the program, but also Plan B variations. Before a program I have a layout ready, but that also may change!”

In Grenoble, Chen had planned a quad Salchow followed by a quad Lutz, and he delivered a quad flip and a quad toe to open his program.

“We made the decision yesterday, before practice. I’m not yet at the level I should be. Skating a clean program is very important nowadays. Also, I need to be realistic with myself. I skated the maximum I could pull as now,” Chen added. And yet, watching Chen skate, one could feel that his program still had a lot of potential.

“Yes, the goal is to keep on improving and adding things. It’s a big confidence boost to know I can!” Chen concluded.

Watch the board!

It happened right during Team USA’s Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov’s free program Saturday night: the plastic tile of a sponsor fell off from the board onto the ice. In a split second, while Lu and Mitrofanov were skating to the other side of the rink, a staff member jumped over the board onto the ice and threw the tile over. He jumped back again before they were back, thus avoiding a potentially dangerous fall by the skaters, especially since the tile was ice-white and would have been difficult to see. However impressive the guy’s jumps were, the points he amassed there couldn’t be found in the team’s results!

Heading to Nationals

A journalist asked the three best pairs in Grenoble to comment about how they planned to prepare the big national championships awaiting them. Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea talked about the work they were planning to in their Colorado training base and subsequently gave the microphone to Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès.

“No,” Ciprès replied jokingly: “I won’t say anything, because the question is about ‘big championships.’ We don’t have a big championship here!” The room erupted in laughter. No other internationally competitive pair exists at the moment in France.

Fortunately, Russia’s Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii had a lot more to say about the level of Russian Nationals!

Applause-o-meter

If the placement of a skater were correlated to the loudness of the applause he or she received, then Yevgenia Medvedeva would have come first in all categories in Grenoble. The audience cheered at her as soon as she stepped on the ice, be it for practice or competition. She didn’t make it to the podium this time, but watching the protocols makes you wonder: maybe the volume of support she got could be correlated to her components? She received the best of the field for her free program Saturday. At any rate, and however strongly the social media in Russia may be bashing her, she can count on a solid – and unique – crop of fans around the world!

Rika and her big bag

When she arrived at the post-event press conference after her impressive victory, Rika Kihira was carrying a huge bag full of the gifts she had received on the ice, plush toys, cards and flowers all mixed up at once. The bag was so big, that it was almost hiding her, and she could certainly have been put in it as well. Watching her, all smiles out, you could really tell how petite and young she is. Yet a big champion already!

Food is over!

“No food?” was Medvedeva’s first reaction when she discovered that the Skating Lounge, where skaters and coaches could nurture themselves after a practice or a competition segment, had been destroyed and chairs had already been piled up. Medvedeva was one of the first ones to reach the site Sunday morning, but most skaters and officials had the same reaction afterwards: “It’s a pity, the food was so good!” an official said. “We have managed to save some water,” an ISU staff member suggested with a smile – to make the ice maybe?

This column is way too harsh on the French organization, however, as the Club of Grenoble did a wonderful job for all of us here. Grenoble is regaining its status as a skating capital of the world it was, half a century ago!

Improbable encounter

Lady Jayne Torvill graced the rink with her presence. The 1984 Olympic gold medalist (with Christopher Dean) was invited to the French Team Supporting Club party. There, she was found discussing with an elderly gentleman, saying how much he remembered her team’s world famous “Bolero”, that night of February 14, 1984. This gentleman happened to be Guillaume Cizeron’s grandfather. He explained to her how he taught Guillaume to do tumbling when he was younger. You have to listen to Grandpa’s memories to come to know your heroes better!

Just like school children!

Preparing the final gala is always a feat – if not a feast. Yohann Deslot, who coaches in Grenoble, rehearsed the group numbers with the best ranked skaters of the competition Sunday morning. Needless to say, they were not the best-disciplined class one would dream of. Deslot was trying to give his instructions, but the skaters had other plans.

Kevin Aymoz, the French men’s hope, was playing on the ice like a fish in the water. Canada’s Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier were certainly the most exuberant of all, cheering and pulling their fellow skaters. Maria Sotskova, Yevgenia Medvedeva and Stanislava Konstantinova, the three Russians, were dancing as if they were in a nightclub. Morgan Ciprès lifted Vanessa James into a pair spin – just for the fun of it. Guillaume Cizeron looked like a 1970s New York gangster with his trendy cap above his beard. Nathan Chen skated with his Yale student’s classy glasses. Fortunately, the final number could drive from their talent!

Bye Grenoble!

The six legs of the Grand Prix season are now over. The next stage, for the happy few, will take place in beautiful Vancouver. Thank you, skaters and coaches and team members to have given us such a thrill in Grenoble. Thank you all for having followed us. It’s been a privilege for us to give you some of the powerful vitamins only skating can give.

Stay tuned though: there is much more awaiting you in the following week… And the week after!

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series 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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Nathan Chen rallies to capture Grand Prix France title 

Alina Zagitova’s win ups pressure on Ashley Wagner for last GP Final spot

Leave a comment

Russian Alina Zagitova‘s Olympic-medal-worthy free skate at Grand Prix France meant one thing for American Ashley Wagner.

Wagner essentially must win Skate America next week to qualify for December’s Grand Prix Final, the biggest international competition before February’s Olympics.

Zagitova, the 15-year-old world junior champion, leaped from fifth after Friday’s short program to win in Grenoble on Saturday.

GP FRANCE: Full Results | TV Schedule

The training partner of Olympic favorite Yevgenia Medvedeva recorded the third-highest free-skate score under a 13-year-old judging system.

That’s 151.34 points with seven triple jumps — all in the second half of the four-minute program to earn 10 percent bonus.

Only Medvedeva has scored higher — 160.46 and 154.40 at her last two events of an undefeated 2016-17 season.

Zagitova outclassed a field headlined by world silver medalist Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada.

Osmond, who led by 1.26 after the short program, fell on a triple loop and singled an Axel in her free skate to fall to third place — 7.03 behind Zagitova.

Another Russian, Maria Sotskova, remained in second place, 5.02 back of Zagitova, with a personal-best 208.78 points.

Medvedeva, Zagitova and Sotskova are all going to the Grand Prix Final, which takes the top six skaters from the fall Grand Prix season. Russia can send three women to the Olympics, and these are the clear favorites to be chosen after nationals in late December.

Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy (the only woman from the top six in Sochi skating this season) and Osmond are also qualified for the Grand Prix Final.

The last Grand Prix Final spot will be decided at Skate America in Lake Placid, N.Y., next week.

It will go to one of three skaters — Russian Polina Tsurskaya, Japanese Wakaba Higuchi or Wagner.

Higuchi is the clubhouse leader with second- and third-place finishes in her two Grand Prix starts this fall. She is the last hope for Japan to keep a streak of qualifying at least one woman for the Grand Prix Final for a 17th straight year.

Japan has promising skaters, but zero Olympic medal favorites and only two women’s spots in PyeongChang. It had the maximum three spots at the Olympics in 2006, 2010 and 2014.

Wagner and Tsurskaya are tied in Grand Prix points, having finished third in their respective events earlier this fall.

If either Wagner or Tsurskaya wins Skate America, she goes to the Grand Prix Final.

A Skate America win would be a major resume boost for Wagner, since the three-woman U.S. Olympic team picks will be based not only on January’s nationals results but also from finishes in major competition the previous two seasons.

Wagner is the only active U.S. woman to win a Grand Prix (she’s done it five times) and the only one to make a Grand Prix Final in 10 years (also five times).

Wagner could make the Grand Prix Final with a runner-up at Skate America.

In that case, Tsurskaya would obviously have to finish lower, plus Wagner would need a personal best by more than 20 points to beat Higuchi via tiebreaker scores.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Figure skating season broadcast schedule

[twitter-follow screen_name=’nzaccardi’ show_count=’yes’ text_color=’00ccff’]

Internationaux de France
Women’s Results
1. Alina Zagitova (RUS) — 213.80
2. Maria Sotskova (RUS) — 208.78
3. Kaetlyn Osmond (CAN) — 206.77
10. Polina Edmunds (USA) — 157.77