BEIJING — Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old figure skating phenom from Russia, leaped off the ice and into the air, attempting a jump never before landed by a woman on the Olympic stage. She lifted her arms above her head as she spun, with her red gloves becoming a blur over her head, and then she landed with softness and grace. She makes it seem effortless, even when she has just completed a history-making task.
No woman had ever landed a quad of any kind at the Olympics. Yet, in a blink Monday morning, Valieva managed four revolutions, landing a quadruple Salchow as her opening element. Valieva, the gold medal favorite in the women’s individual competition, has landed these quads for a few years, and so have her Olympic teammates. But because she was selected to perform in the team competition, Valieva received the honor of being the first to do so at the Olympics. And while making history, she also helped lead the Russian Olympic Committee to the gold medal by finishing first in the short program and in the free skate.
“I believe that I am coping with this pressure,” said Valieva, who has never skated at the world championships. “And sometimes it even pushes me forward. It helps me.”
After Valieva landed that opening quad, she performed a triple axel and another quad, this time a toe loop done in combination with a triple toe loop. When she attempted her third and final quadruple jump, which was supposed to be connected to two additional jumps, Valieva fell to the ice. Her recent run of form makes her seem unbeatable, but she’s not invincible. She’s still a 15-year-old at her first Olympics, facing enormous pressure and performing wildly difficult jumps. She giggles at times during interviews and entered the media area after her short program clutching a stuffed animal.
On Monday, Valieva bent over in exhaustion as she finished her free skate, the program that could help her clinch another gold medal in the individual competition next week. Even with the mistake during the team event, she scored a 178.92, good enough for a massive margin of more than 30 points over second-place finisher Kaori Sakamoto of Japan.
Valieva said she first watched the Olympics in 2014, but she believes that at age 3 she told her mother she wanted to be an Olympic champion. That goal has come to fruition — with the prestigious individual competition still to come. The 15-year-old said she’ll keep working — “believe me,” she said, noting that she fell on that final quadruple toe loop. But she now has one Olympic gold medal and said, “I believe that my next dream will come true, too.”
Valieva headlines the trio of Russian teenagers in Beijing, and her teammates figure to be her toughest competition. Together, they could sweep the podium, which has never been done by any country in women’s figure skating at the Olympics. Anna Shcherbakova, 17, had won Russian nationals three straight years until Valieva dethroned her this season. Alexandra Trusova, another 17-year-old star, can land all sorts of quads. She attempted four in her free skate at the recent European championships but fell on two. Trusova still finished third — behind only her training-mates, Valieva and Shcherbakova.
A month later, these three skaters arrived in Beijing for the biggest competition of their lives. They’re first-timers, trying to repeat the 2018 success of fellow Russians Alina Zagitova (gold) and Evgenia Medvedeva (silver), but they perform like seasoned veterans. They’re all pushing the boundaries of what’s perceived as possible in this sport.
“When you watch them skate, you forget about their age altogether,” said Russian ice dancer Nikita Katsalapov, a 30-year-old who joined Valieva on the gold-winning team.
The Russians are talented across all disciplines of figure skating, but they shine brightest in the women’s competition. They swept the podium at the 2021 world championships, with Shcherbakova winning the gold and Trusova taking the bronze. Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, who’s not at these Games, won the silver. But the attention gravitates mostly toward Valieva and her brilliance — because she’s the rising star whose young career has included hardly anything other than gold.
“I had this burden of responsibility,” Valieva said after her debut in the team event, “but I came out a winner.”