David Kane

Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva on 2022 Winter Olympics: “This is all that’s left”


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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At 23, Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva feels capable of anything, will continue ‘until I have nothing left to say’

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Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva finished her gold medal-winning Rostelecom Cup free skate last month at center ice, punctuating a final combination spin with a smile and an enigmatic swirl of her pointer finger.

Choreographer Yuri Smekalov had told the 2015 world champion to conclude her Japanese-inspired program, set to “Chronicles of a Mischievous Bird,” as though she were writing a kanji character in the air.

To those watching the 23-year-old finish what would be her first win at a Grand Prix event in two years, she seemed to instead be saying, “I’m not done yet.” Though this one consisted primarily of Russians, the win still spoke volumes considering the recent dominance of her compatriots.

“When I skate well, it takes on another meaning, that’s for sure,” the Russian confirmed to NBCSports.com/figure-skating by phone.

Earning 148.69 points in that portion of the competition, Tuktamysheva landed a pair of triple Axels to roar into the lead over two-time junior world champion Aleksandra Trusova, 16, and ultimately hold off reigning European champion Aliona Kostornaya, 17, who had led after the short program and followed her in the free skate. Anastasiya Gulyakova, 18, finished third, ahead of Trusova.

“I think winning this will keep me motivated to work more, and incorporate more difficult jumps in the program,” Tuktamysheva said. “After a good experience in competition, of winning a gold medal, you have a feeling as if you’re capable of anything.”

It was the first time the self-styled “Empress” had beaten Kostornaya or Trusova since either had entered the senior ranks. Along with former training mate Anna Shcherbakova, 16, the teenagers swept the podium at Russian nationals for the last two years – Shcherbakova twice taking home gold. Kostornaya and Trusova each left longtime coach Eteri Tutberidze shortly after the 2020 World Championships was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was a surprise to me, but they must have felt certain that they wanted to make a change, and in quarantine, so many lives have changed already, so why not make a few more?” the Glazov native mused of her rivals, who now train with 2006 Olympic champion Yevgeny Plushenko.

Plushenko spent his career training under Aleksey Mishin, who in turn coached Tuktamysheva to over a dozen victories on every stage imaginable in their ten-plus years together, though it has been six years since she claimed the Grand Prix Final, European and world titles all in one season.

Despite his years of experience, a global pandemic was a new frontier for the pioneering coach, who preached patience to his star pupil as they resumed training after nearly four months off the ice.

“He told me that it would be an interesting season, and that I would have to find that fire in my heart, because at the beginning of the season, I’d lost that amidst the struggle to find stability without the schedule to which I’d become accustomed,” she said. “He understands me, and didn’t put unnecessary pressure about how I should be skating or how hard I was working. Once I rediscovered the fire, I was able to work even harder.”

The primary challenge was to restore the already-intimidating technical arsenal that the 2018 Grand Prix Final bronze medalist had employed over the 18 months that preceded the pandemic – chief among them the triple Axel, which had helped spur a career renaissance as she began seriously contending for a spot on the teams for Europeans and worlds after three seasons of struggle.

“It was a strange feeling to be scared of the jump all over again,” Tuktamysheva remembered. “You know you can land it with your eyes closed, but you haven’t had those feelings for a long time, and being a little older, initially the body was like, ‘Uh uh, Liza! Not today!’

“We did a lot of exercises to bring it back and in making further attempts, it became less and less intimidating. Before the Cup of Russia competition in Sochi, I was more confident in the jump, and by landing it in both programs, I knew I could add a second to my free skate.”

It was at that third stage of the Russian Cup – a series of regional competitions which serve as qualifiers for this months’ national championships – that Tuktamysheva, known more for athleticism over her artistry, received high praise on social media from the likes of Kiira Korpi. The three-time European medalist, herself remembered for her grace and finesse on the ice, shared footage of her former competitor on Instagram, noting the maturity she displayed during her short program set to “Adagio” from the “Spartacus” ballet.

“When we decided to skate to Spartacus in the short program, I understood that it was going to be a lot of work, because it wasn’t my typical style,” Tuktamysheva said. “I feel the music and love the program, but it had been a long time since I’d attempted more classical music in my program. It’s very powerful, tragic music, and so we worked a lot to find the emotions and appropriate choreographic touches in order to present the program in a theatrical fashion.”

Where her short program shows a softer side – and some new spin positions – the free skate will be where she plans her most audacious elements, including a promised quadruple toe loop. Tuktamysheva has been seen landing quads, a staple of Trusova and Shcherbakova’s programs, multiple times in practice, but has only attempted it once in competition, when she finished fourth behind the trio – or Troika – at last year’s national championships.

“I’ve already spoken with my coach about exercises that will best prepare the body and add stability to each attempt,” she said. “I understand I can do it in practice, and now the next step will be incorporating it into a program.

“There isn’t a long time before nationals, but last year I had two weeks to get it ready and this year I have at least a month, so we will see.”

Off the ice, Tuktamysheva has become business-minded, launching an Empress Wear clothing line inspired by the figure skating fans she hopes will again fill stadiums following the pandemic. On the ice, she credits a both a commitment to health and fitness with helping her continue competing well past the average age of a modern elite women’s figure skater, and the unwavering belief that her best is yet to come.

“I’ve never felt as though I’ve done all I can do in figure skating,” Tuktamysheva said. “This feeling has stayed with me regardless of whether my season was good or bad.

“I still feel I have something more to show on the ice, and until I have nothing left to say as a figure skater, I will continue competing. Perhaps I will have a year where I feel I’ve given the absolute best of myself as an athlete and I will decide to stop, but in the meantime, I will skate.”

Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, armed with triple Axel, fights to compete with Russian teens

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Figure skating is moving fast, and 2015 World champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva is banking on an extra half-rotation to compete with a technical revolution led by quad-jumping countrywomen.

“I want to be on top,” Tuktamysheva told NBCSports.com/figure-skating in a phone interview following a bronze medal at Skate America. “If I want to do that, I have to work and keep improving in everything. Otherwise, I should stop skating.”

Five times a champion on the Grand Prix circuit – including at the 2014 Grand Prix Final – Tuktamysheva rallied from a solid short program but disappointing score of 67.28 (nearly six points below her season average) to land on the podium behind Russian national champion Anna Shcherbakova and 2018 U.S. champion Bradie Tennell.

“I was even happier to be third place here than I was when I was first place in Skate Canada last year, because I was thinking I could have been fifth because of the short program,” Tuktamysheva said. “I’m happy my free program was much better.”

Though the 22-year-old cleanly landed three of her signature triple Axels last weekend – including one in combination with a double toe loop in the free skate – she was nonetheless technically outgunned by Shcherbakova who, in her senior Grand Prix debut, became the first woman to land two quadruple Lutzes in international competition.

“Right now, it’s really hard to be on top in Russia, but you should keep trying so long as you feel like there’s a chance to win,” Tuktamysheva said. “I believe that I can compete. If there’s a girl who doesn’t believe, I don’t know why they would even try.”

Most fighting for one of three spots on the Russian team have a reasonable shot at earning medals – if not winning – at March’s world championships in Montréal, making December’s Russian Nationals a must-watch.

Besides Shcherbakova, Tuktamysheva must contend with Olympic champion Alina Zagitova, two-time world champion and Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva, reigning European champion and fellow Alexei Mishin pupil Sofia Samodurova, junior Grand Prix Final champion Alena Kostornaia – who attempted two triple Axels (landing one fully rotated) to win the Finlandia Trophy, and two-time world junior champion Alexandra Trusova, who landed four quadruple jumps at the free skate-only Japan Open on Oct. 5.

At an age where many skaters scale back their technical arsenals, Tuktamysheva continues to innovate, experimenting with a triple flip-triple toe loop short program combination while committing to three triple Axels at every competition.

Since beginning her season at the Russian Senior Test Skates – a veritable mini-Olympics featuring all eight women set to compete on the Grand Prix series – she has cleanly landed an impressive 12 of 14 triple Axels in competition.

“My technical conditioning is really good,” Tuktamysheva said. “This season, I hope to improve my components, programs, and also do the jumps. It’s so hard to be in your prime all season. It doesn’t work for me and, after all, I should be taking care of my health. I hope I’m going to do even better, but at the same time, I’m aware that I’m in my best-ever shape at the moment.”

Skate America saw more tinkering from Tuktamysheva, who unveiled a new transition into her “Drumming Song” short program’s triple Axel and changed the final edit of her Yiddish Jazz-themed free skate from “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” to a reprise of the opening “Caravan.”

“We had one day after between Finlandia and Skate America, but in one day we made so many changes,” she said. “When I did the free program in Finlandia, I felt that the music at the end might not be as powerful, so we took the time to change. I heard the new version and thought it was 100 percent better. This is the final part to the program, and this time, I feel much more power and happiness as I finish it.”

Her current free skate layout allows for seven triple jumps – one away from the maximum eight she was competing at the end of last season to win the World Team Trophy over triple Axel rival Rika Kihira. Tuktamysheva plans to retain that content ahead of her next competition at Cup of China, while re-introducing the flip-toe combination back into the short program.

MORE: Quad revolution within women’s skating

“I don’t want to make big changes now,” she said. “I just want to skate clean, with power. I want my programs to feel like films, with no empty places.”

Her two programs are an intriguing contrast, and an artistic evolution from last year’s “Assassin’s Tango” and “You Don’t Love Me/Petit Fleur/Catgroove” outings.

She called “Drumming Song” – an earthy and primal Florence and The Machine song – her favorite short program of her career. A mash-up of “Caravan” and “Utt Da Zay” in the free skate shows the powerful Russian at her most fun and flirty – a refreshing departure from some of the more dramatic numbers attempted by her younger competitors.

“I’m a different feel in figure skating,” she said. “It just comes from inside. I listen to the music and the choreographer, and try to do my best to feel. When I feel and understand, it all comes together and looks really nice.”

A near-lock for last year’s world team, a bout of pneumonia felled Tuktamysheva days after taking bronze at the Grand Prix Final, forcing her out of the national championships. A narrow defeat to Medvedeva at February’s Russian Cup Final handed the last spot to her compatriot, who went on to earn a bronze medal at the world championships in Japan.

Where last season was a return to form, this season forecasts the former world champion, one of the most decorated athletes to never make an Olympic Games, at her athletic and artistic peak. With the Winter Games in Beijing just over two years away, the otherwise amiable Tuktamysheva still has something to say on the ice and plans to use the next three months of competitions to make her point.

“I will skate until I no longer feel I can compete with the other girls,” she said. “Right now, I want, and I will, and I will fight.”

MORE: Final Skate America takeaways

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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