By Sophie Zhu
Following a delayed and somewhat anticlimactic Summer Olympics in Tokyo just three months ago, the Winter Olympic season begins. Women’s singles figureskating, recently renamed from “ladies” has recently intensified in rivalry, due mostly to the explosion of strong teenage female skaters from Russia.
Singles figureskating consists of preparing two programs for each competition season: a short program and a free program. Each program is composed of a collection of jumps, spins, and step sequences, and they are graded on technical content and artistic interpretation. The only difference between the short and free program are their lengths and thus requirements for how many jumps, spins, etc. they must include.
Since its conception, women’s figureskating has fallen slightly behind men’s figureskating in terms of its technical elements. In the 2010s, the top female skaters consistently landed triple jumps, which is a collection of jumps in which one turns 3 full revolutions before landing, whereas quadruple jumps were necessary for any male skater to reach the top. However, in 2015, a new Russian skating club formed in Moscow, named Sambo 70, a group that now produces the majority of the top contenders for the Olympics next February. Headed by Eteri Tutberidze, it sent the then-15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya to the Olympics and European Championships in the 2014-15 season, making her the youngest female skater to win a gold medal at both. The next two seasons were dominated completely by Evgenia Medvedeva, who set a 13-victory streak and numerous world records for program scores, mostly breaking her own. Then in Pyeongchang 2018, she and her younger teammate, Alina Zagitova, fought for the gold medal, the latter taking it home by just a little more than a point.
By then, Tutberidze already had several junior skaters groomed to become the next Olympic champion in Beijing 2022. In 2019-20, Zagitova and Medvedeva quickly became overpowered by a triplet of skaters nicknamed “the 3As”: Anna Shcherbakova, Aliona Kostornaia, and Alexandra Trusova. All coached by Tuterbidze, they incorporated ultra-C elements into their programs, which are the most difficult technical skills for any skater of any discipline: the triple axel (also called a 3A; technically a triple jump, though it requires 3.5 revolutions and a much more difficult take-off) and the quadruple jumps. At the time, Shcherbakova and Alexandra exercised their quads, as the 4-revolution jumps are nicknamed, while Kostornaia relied on her triple axel. Due to the first two’s inconsistencies with the difficult jumps, Kostornaia took home gold in every single international competition that year.
The next season was mostly cancelled due to COVID, but here’s the hitch: Trusova switched to Evgeni Plushenko’s new skating club right after the 2019-20 season, a season in which she failed to claim a single gold medal over her main competitors, despite her success in junior competitions. Plushenko is a 4-time Olympic medalist in men’s singles and took up coaching following his retirement, his primary rival being Tutberdize. Then, just two months later, Kostornaia made the switch as well after she failed to regain her triple axel jump at Sambo 70. Shcherbakova remained under Tutberdize’s guidance, going on to become the 2021 World champion, while neither Trusova and Kostornaia grew much as a skater under Plushenko’s supervision. Eventually, both skaters returned to Tutberidze in sprint 2021.
While most countries can easily select two or three skaters for the Olympics, Russia will be conducting a bloodbath for its top three, and here’s the breakdown for which Tutberidze pupils it will likely fly off to Beijing in February.
- Anna Shcherbakova
Although Shcherbakova does not have the triple axel, she has an overall strong consistency in her jumps. Despite the fact that she is unable to land all of her quads each competition, she, unlike many other skaters at Sambo 70, has never in her career faced a sinkhole. She may not be the guarantee for the Olympic gold, but considering her strong artistry, she is almost certain to make the team. This year, her free program features a mosaic of tones throughout, from lyrical to melancholic to festive, and her performance at the Russian test skates demonstrated her flexibility in genre. On the other hand, Shcherbakova is lacking in spins, often travelling several inches during combo spins, though this should not be a concern, for she receives incredibly high points for this element at international competitions regardless.
- Kamila Valieva
Three other skaters at Sambo 70 become eligible as seniors and, thus, for the Olympics this year, but only one is promising as an Olympic contender—Kamila Valieva. She is consistent in nearly all of the ultra-C elements, from the triple axel to the quadruple toe loop, making her one of the top picks for both the Russian Olympic team and the Olympic gold medal. In addition, Valieva is particularly strong in spins, in part due to her extreme flexibility. Able to execute them in both directions and in high speed, she will gain a slight advantage in points over her teammates. Her artistic component score is in the mid-high range, though Sambo 70 skaters often receive higher points in this region because their choreographers cram a lot of transition material between technical content, like twizzles and Ina Bauers.
- Alexandra Trusova
Known as the “Russian Rocket” for her quad jumps, Trusova stands a good chance of being named to the Olympic team. Over the past two years, she has remained the underdog of Sambo 70 senior skaters, for she is incredibly inconsistent in quads at international competitions. At the Russian test skate, she landed five quads cleanly, an official record for women’s singles, though she failed to do so at the first stage of the Russian Cup just weeks later. Moreover, she possesses a weakness in artistry and spins, though her programs this year were crafted rather well for her, for the music choice and choreography helped mask her general lack of musicality. Because of this shortcoming, she relies solely on landing these quad jumps to succeed.
- Aliona Kostornaia
Although Kostornaia swept the 2019-20 competition season with her beautiful triple axel—great height, excellent speed, difficult entry—she will likely struggle to snatch a spot in this year’s Olympic team. She recently regained her triple axel, though it is rocky and certainly not as stable as before. Her performance at the Russian test skates was also subpar compared to her debut senior season vigor—Kostornaia’s artistry lies not in lyricism but in strong energy and a unique sass, yet both of her Olympic programs fail to exemplify this strength of hers. Visibly out of the element at the test skates, she also underrotated her triple axel. Her performance may improve as the season progresses, but there is a drastic change that occurred within her after her switch to Plushenko in summer 2020 that seems to have not been reversed since. Moreover, her coaches have remarked that it is her attitude, not physical limitations, that may be the root of her plight, an issue that is difficult to remedy.