Zaccardi: Peaking at right time critical for Alina Zagitova, Yevgenia Medvedeva
GANGNEUNG, South Korea – What must have spun through Yevgenia Medvedeva’s head as she stared through Russian camera crews and interviewers, eyes locked on a TV screen in the mixed zone.
Medvedeva, the 2016 and 2017 world champion, undefeated for two years until late January, had finished her Olympic short program 15 minutes earlier. She scored a personal best. A personal best for her is always a world record.
But on the TV, the 18-year-old Medvedeva saw the score of her training partner, 15-year-old Alina Zagitova. It was better.
“I’m satisfied with my performance,” Medvedeva said shortly after, “but as you see it’s not enough.”
The short program Wednesday reminded skating followers just how quickly fortunes can change in this sport.
Zagitova, born three months after the Salt Lake City Olympics, scored 82.92 points, giving her a 1.31-point lead over Medvedeva going into Friday’s free skate. Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond is third, 4.5 points behind.
No U.S. woman will be in the final group of an Olympic free skate for the first time in recent memory, perhaps ever. Mirai Nagasu (ninth), Karen Chen (10th) and Bradie Tennell (11th) all erred on their opening jumps. Nerves.
Back to Zagitova. A year ago, she was competing at the world junior championships (and winning).
Given the nature of skating, Zagitova went into this season as an Olympic medal contender even though she had never competed on the senior international level. The hype was apparently lost on the skater.
“Actually, I didn’t even think I will be at the Olympics at all,” the barely 5-foot Muscovite said through a translator. “If somebody had told me that two or three or even one year ago, I would have been very surprised.”
Zagitova had her struggles facing the world’s best in the fall, especially in the short program, but always pulled herself up in the free skate.
She went undefeated in the Grand Prix series and won December’s Grand Prix Final, essentially a dress rehearsal for the Olympics, though Medvedeva wasn’t in any of those fields.
In the last decade, a new Russian teen skater seemingly pops up every year. In 2014, Adelina Sotnikova won the Olympics without any prior world championships or Olympic medals. Yulia Lipnitskaya was the darling of the Sochi team event at 15 years old. In 2015, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva won the world championships after placing 10th at the previous season’s nationals.
None of those three – or even 2013 and 2014 World junior champion Yelena Radionova – had a realistic shot at making this year’s three-woman Russian Olympic team.
Which made Medvedeva’s recent streak so special.
Between placing third at the December 2014 Russian senior nationals (one month after turning 15) and being upset by Zagitova at last month’s European Championships (in a comeback from a broken foot), Medvedeva suffered a single defeat. Her two-year-plus winning streak was the best run by a female singles skater since Katarina Witt in the 1980s.
Medvedeva broke Yuna Kim and Mao Asada’s world records. She continues to up her scores. But as she said Wednesday, it wasn’t enough to keep up with the new Russian teen du jour, her own training partner.
If Zagitova holds on in the free skate, Medvedeva’s recent dominance may be remembered, at least in Olympic terms, as a case of bad timing. The free skate is a long 4 minutes, 30 seconds, though. Medvedeva’s time isn’t up yet.
Americans Nagasu and Tennell wish their recent success could have carried over into the short program.
After landing a triple Axel in the team event, Nagasu put too much energy into the jump leading off her short. She spun out and fell.
Nagasu, viewed as a dark horse for the bronze medal, was so nervous Wednesday morning that she wanted to perform a double rather than a triple.
“If I had done a double, I would have been more angry with myself for not going for it,” she said, tears welling. “I’m feeling a little bit like I disappointed myself and my country.
“Sometimes I wish in figure skating it was like some of the other sports where you get three chances.”
Tennell, the day’s first skater, fell on her opening triple-triple combination.
The U.S. champion came into the short having not fallen on any of her 33 jumping passes in four major competitions this season. No other female skater – not Zagitova, not Medvedeva – had gone fall-less this season.
“I very rarely make a mistake,” she said. “I’m not very fond of being in the first warm-up [group].”
Tennell said she was up at 4 a.m. and Instagramming from the rink around 5:15.
The third American, Karen Chen, put her hand down on her opening jump, which was supposed to be done in combination. She later tacked on a double toe loop to a triple loop, giving up more points because her combo wasn’t a triple-triple.
Chen was clutch at last year’s worlds, finishing fourth to help the U.S. get three Olympic spots. But on Wednesday, she felt nervous and said she put too much pressure on herself to nail the opening jumping pass.
“It’s always been my dream to come here, and now that I’m here, it’s so exciting and in some ways it feels like a dream,” Chen said. “But it’s officially reality.”
The free skate is Thursday, February 22 in Primetime on NBC and NBCOlympics.com.