She was an artist, possessing an enthralling style, feeling the music all the way to her fingertips. She could land triple jumps so easily that she performed them with one hand over her head.
She won the world championship in 2016 and 2017, and the skating world assumed the 18-year-old would crush the competition this year in the PyeongChang Olympics.
But Medvedeva knew better. A new competitor would emerge. And she happened to be training in the same rink.
Dressed in a tutu, Alina Zagitova arrived just in time to challenge for the gold medal. At 15, Zagitova possesses the springy jumps that are trademarks of Russian women’s skating. She zips around the ice with impressive speed. Medvedeva often jumps with one hand in the air; Zagitova jumps with two.
Nowhere near as mature or steady in her edge quality, Zagitova takes advantage of a specific rule: Jumps receive a 10-percent bonus if they are performed in the second half of a program, so that’s when she would jump. And the last time they competed against one another, Zagitova emerged victorious.
The women’s short program begins Tuesday with a familiar conflict in skating: refined maturity versus infectious youth, artistry versus jumps. For casual fans, it is Michelle Kwan vs. Tara Lipinski all over again, this time with a Russian twist.
Every competitor in the short program must complete a jump combination, a footwork sequence, an axel (either double or triple), another triple jump and three spins in an aesthetically pleasing two minutes and fifty seconds. To be in the medal hunt, a skater will have to score somewhere above 75 points.
The two Russians are so consistent that they likely will win the gold and silver medals, barring a breakdown.
More than a half-dozen women are in the hunt for the bronze medal, with momentum building for American Mirai Nagasu.
Nagasu has been the buzz of these Games after cleanly landing the difficult triple axel in the team event. The axel takeoff, easy to tell because it is the only jump that launches with the skater going forward, is so difficult that it even bedevils American dynamo Nathan Chen. Nagasu will be the only woman trying it all competition. It is worth so many points that she could place well if she completes all 3 1/2 rotations in the air and falls; the other women will be attempting double axels, which are easier and worth fewer points.
According to practice reports, Nagasu’s triple axel has been getting only stronger. The short program has long been Nagasu’s strength, and a clean program would launch her into the medal conversation.
Fellow American Karen Chen is also a talent, but she tends to delay snapping her body into a tight air position when she jumps. That means she has less time to complete rotations in the air. Expect to see lots of yellow boxes as judges scrutinize each of her moves to make sure she isn’t cheating. If she is able to jump well, Chen likely will be among the top six skaters.
The third, current national champion Bradie Tennell, has displayed an unusual and impressive calm when it comes to competing. In terms of jumping, she has one of the hardest programs in the competition, but lacks the polish of her competitors.
Other top contenders for the bronze include Japan’s Satoko Miyahara, the 2015 world silver medalist; Canadians Gabby Dalemn and Kaetlyn Osmond and Maria Sotskova, the third-best Russian in the competition. A familiar face will be Italy’s Carolina Kostner, the 2014 Olympic bronze medalist. At 31, competing in her fourth Olympics, Kostner skates with speed and passion but has not been consistent over the past two seasons.
Medvedeva must establish a wide lead in the short program, when Zagitova’s jumping-bean qualities are limited because skaters are limited to three jumping passes. While Nagasu attempts the triple axel, Medvedeva’s double axel might be her undoing: She tends to stumble on this jump when she is nervous.
Zagitova will attempt the most difficult jump combination of the competition, a triple lutz jump (that vaults on the outside curve of the blade) followed immediately by a triple loop. If Zagitova is nervous, she will fall on the second half of that combination. Given the intensity of the competition, that’s a mistake she can not make.