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Kamila Valieva dazzles as Russian team surges past the U.S. in figure skating

Kamila Valieva helped the Russian team surge past the U.S. in the figure skating competition. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images)

BEIJING — Vincent Zhou stood beneath the blazing lights in the Capital Indoor Stadium’s interview area late Sunday morning, dabbing sweat from his forehead. A few minutes before, the American had finished a solid but far-from-spectacular free skate in the team event that was only good for third place of the five competitors. A disappointment, yes.

“Some good things and some bad things,” he said.

He clutched a tissue and dabbed at the perspiration building above his mask. Then he looked down.

In less than three hours on Sunday, the U.S. lost its first-day lead in this event, falling to second, three points behind the team representing the Russian Olympic Committee. Zhou’s third-place finish came after Karen Chen finished fifth in the women’s short program. Each was far behind the brilliant performances skated by the top finishers, Russia’s Kamila Valieva and Japan’s Yuma Kagiyama.

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The Americans’ stumbles — Zhou under-rotated on back-to-back quadruple jumps and Chen fell to the ice on a triple loop and under-rotated on a triple Lutz and toeloop — left the American team somewhat deflated. That is especially because Monday’s final three disciplines play to the Russian team’s biggest strengths: the women’s individual, pairs and ice dance free skates. While the U.S. should be able to get at least a bronze medal, as it has in the two previous Olympic team figure skating events, it will have to battle with third-place Japan for the silver.

(Teams receive points in reverse order of finish in each of eight segments. With three segments left, the Russians have 45 points, followed by the United States with 42 and Japan with 39. Canada, with 30, and China, with 29, are well behind.)

In many ways, Zhou and Chen were the U.S.'s best hopes to contend for a team gold, especially after Kagiyama beat Russian Mark Kondratiuk in the men’s free skate. Afterward, Zhou was directly asked how he felt about him and Chen perhaps costing the Americans a gold. For a moment he looked shocked by the question.

“I would say that’s a little harsh,” he replied. “I think all of us are great athletes and prepared to do our jobs here. It’s a team effort; let’s see what happens.”

But even if Zhou and Chen had skated better on Sunday, it would have been hard to imagine the U.S. holding off the Russian team and its brilliant women.

In the morning stillness of the Capital Indoor Arena, one of them — the 15-year-old Valieva — kept spinning in a perfect, tight spiral, a flash of purple and sequins trapped in a perpetual twirl with her leg above the air. She held the spin for so long you could hear the rat-a-tat-tat of the photographers’ cameras.

Valieva has sailed through the highest levels of skating. After giving up gymnastics for skating at 5, she has been dominant. Over the past three years she has won every major junior and senior competition except for last year’s Russian championships.

Chen, seven years older, knew she would need to dazzle to keep pace. Unlike Valieva, she has never medaled at a major international competition. Her best finishes before this Olympics were two fourth places at the world championships, four years apart. She has always said her best performances have come when she skates clean programs and outlasts others’ mistakes.

An American woman won a snowboard slopestyle medal. She just wasn’t the one expected to.

But she made too many of her own mistakes Sunday, looking tentative through her entire routine and never recovering from her fall.

“I’m not going to lie — I definitely felt some pressure,” Chen said. “At the end of the day, it’s coming from myself. I want to skate well for my team, for myself, my coach, my family, for all these people. And so yeah I’m going to feel pressure.”

She added that she was happy that she had stayed with her program after the fall “and didn’t chicken out.”

“I’m definitely disappointed about the loop because like I should have hit it and I know I can hit it and if I had a chance to go out there again I know I can hit it. I’m proud of the fight I had in my performance,” she added.

Later, Zhou stood in the same interview area, a few feet from where Chen had been, still dabbing sweat from his head. Someone pointed out that his program, with four quadruple jumps, is challenging, designed to earn huge scores if all goes right. He nodded.

He started to say that he had been practicing the program well in the weeks since being named to the Olympic team last month. But suddenly a huge cheer rose inside the room. Kondratiuk had appeared, and a group of about 15 Russian reporters roared in celebration of his second-place finish. Kondratiuk smiled and placed his hands on his chest.

Their cheers drowned out Zhou’s explanation of the risk-reward of his free skate program. His lips moved but his words disappeared into the Russian journalists’ shouts.

Somehow it seemed a fitting end to a morning in which the U.S. hopes all but vanished against a Russian team it dared believe it could beat.