Russian skaters make history, US women make excuses
By MARK ZEIGLER | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: February 23, 2018
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Tribune News Service) — Eteri Tutberidze had seen enough.
Alina Zagitova was crying too much and training hard with too little at her Sambo 70 figure skating rink in Moscow, and she wasn’t putting up with it any more. So she told Zagitova to leave.
Zagitova figured she’d move back her hometown of Izhevsk in the Ural Mountains and find a rink and coach there. She and her parents brought flowers to Tutberidze to thank her and say their goodbyes.
Tutberidze offered them a second chance.
The fairy-tale ending: Zagitova won the Olympics on Friday to become the youngest champion after American Tara Lipinski and the first person from Russia – uh, the Olympic Athletes from Russia – with a gold medal at the Pyeongchang Winter Games.
Zagitova is 15 years, 281 days. Lipinski was 15 years, 255 days when she won in 1998 in Nagano, Japan.
There are more parallels than age with Lipinski, who also upset an older and favored countrywoman Michelle Kwan in Nagano with a more technically demanding program after finishing behind her in prior competitions.
Zagitova’s stiffest competition came not from someone across the world but from across her own rink. Two-time world champion Evgenia Medvedeva, 18, was the favorite here and received the exact same score – 156.65 points – for the 4-minute free program. The difference was Zagitova’s world-record score of 82.92 points in the short program, 1.31 points higher than her rinkmate, gave her a total of 239.57.
“Figure skating is a sport that you must love,” Zagitova said, “that you must give your everything at every practice. I fully realize that my journey to these Olympics Games, all the work I have done, was not in vain. I will try to continue with the same momentum.”
Asked her thoughts that the Olympic flag – not the Russian flag – will be raised at the medal ceremony as part of her nation’s penalty for doping at the Sochi Olympics, Zagitova smiled and said:
“Could I please not answer this question.”
It was the only thing she backed down from all night, which was more than the U.S. women could say.
Canada’s Kaetlyn Osmund was third at 231.02. Then came a Japanese skater, an Italian, another Japanese, a Korean and another Russian.
And then, in ninth place at 192.35, came the top American, Bradie Tennell, who entered the competition having landed 32 straight triple jumps this season and botched three over the short and free programs. Mirai Nagasu did a half-rotation Axel instead of a triple and was 10th. Karen Chen missed jumps and her mommy – we’re not making this up – and was 11th.
No U.S. woman had finished below sixth place since figure skating was introduced to the first Winter Olympics in 1908.
The Americans did win a bronze medal in last week’s team competition, and Nagasu brought it with her to Gangneung Ice Arena for the free program.
“Here she is,” Nagasu told reporters, holding up the medal. “I told myself, ‘Mirai, you’ve already done your job.’ My focus has been a little bit too much about the medals, and so today that’s why I put my medal in my pocket. Like, I already have a medal. When I didn’t land my triple Axel in the short (program) my mom told me: ‘Who cares if you get last place? This is the Olympics. Making it is the hard part.’
“Maybe it won’t be enough for another person, or maybe someone else could have done a better job. But I didn’t back down, and although I got zero points for my attempt at the triple Axel, in my mind I went for it. It’s unfortunate that I hit a rut today, but I’m proud of what I did.”
Nagasu also said this in a television interview with the Olympic network:
“F it all, I’m taking home a medal and that’s all that matters for me … I’m ready to go home.”
Nagasu’s other excuses: walking in Opening Ceremony, a trip to USA House in the mountains taking four hours, having to go to bed at 8 o’clock each night and wake up at 4 a.m. (“which is hard for me”), the temperature of the water in the showers, being physically and emotionally drained from the team competition.
(Footnote: Seven of the eight women who finished ahead of them also skated at least once in the team competition, including both Russians.)
When politely asked other why countries were able to better manage their hardships and pressures, Nagasu called it “aggressive question” and noted that Canada’s Gabrielle Daleman, who fell three times in the free program, “didn’t have a strong outing here.”
Nagasu added: “I thought of this as my audition for ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ I would like to be on the “Dancing with the Stars” because I want to be a star, and I made history here by landing the first triple Axel for a U.S. lady (in the team competition) and the third at the Olympics. So I think that’s a big deal.”
Chen talked about boot problems in her morning practice session; about this being her first Olympics; about not being around her mother “24/7” at the Athletes Village, where families aren’t allowed.
“To be honest, when I first came here I didn’t know what to expect,” said Chen, 18. “I knew it was going to be big, it was going to be grand. I didn’t know what the media was going to be like, I didn’t know what the ice was going to be like, what the village was going to be like. It was all so brand new and different.
“The biggest change for me was not being able to see my mom 24/7. For me, that was something that I really missed.”
Asked what her mother means to her, Chen began crying and the interview ended shortly after.
Tennell, the reigning U.S. champion at age 20, was asked what it would take for the U.S. women to elevate their level to Russia’s teen-agers.
“I think anything is possible with hard work and determination,” Tennell said. “The rest of the world just has to catch up.”
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