The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Her figure skaters can fly. But do a Russian coach’s tactics go too far?

Russia's Yulia Lipnitskaya and her coach Eteri Tutberidze wait for her marks during the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014. (DAMIEN MEYER/AFP via Getty Images)
13 min

The era of Eteri Tutberidze began in 2014, when a 15-year-old girl in a red coat dazzled the world with a nearly flawless skating program to music from “Schindler’s List.”

The girl, figure skater Yulia Lipnitskaya, became a sensation at the Sochi Games and put her coach, Tutberidze, on the map. In the eight years since, Tutberidze has churned out one Russian star after another, pushing her young skaters to do jumps so difficult that they are in a league all their own.

But the controversy surrounding her latest star, 15-year-old Kamila Valieva, who was expected to take gold in this week’s Olympic singles event, has put Tutberidze’s methods under an unwelcome spotlight, renewing attention on her treatment of the young skaters in her charge. Tutberidze has a reputation for running an unforgiving and risky program that critics say drives to stardom and then discards teenage skaters, who have left the sport with severe injuries and reported lasting eating disorders.

After reports last week that Valieva tested positive in December for a banned heart medication, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled Monday that Valieva can continue competing at the Beijing Games, but the International Olympic Committee said no medals will be awarded until her case is resolved.

The decision was panned by others in skating and regulatory officials — criticism that spoke to frustrations with Russia and its history of doping at the Olympics. Investigations relating to Russia’s state-sponsored use of performing-enhancing drugs have spanned eight years and five Olympic Games. An independent commission from the World Anti-Doping Agency accused Russia of running a state-sponsored doping program in 2015, prompting the IOC to ban Russia from the 2018 PyeongChang Games but still allow athletes to compete as “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” This year, the athletes are competing as the “Russian Olympic Committee.”

ROC figure skater Kamila Valieva was cleared to compete in the women’s figure skating competition in Beijing, despite failing a drug test in December 2021. (Video: Hadley Green, Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

While there has been no direct evidence that Tutberidze was involved in Valieva’s positive test, to those familiar with Russian tactics, it’s unlikely any violation could have happened without the involvement of her coach — and potentially more powerful figures.

David Tinsley, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent and the CEO of 5 Stones Intelligence, the company previously hired by WADA to investigate Russian state-sponsored doping, said Russia’s Olympic coaches are often directly controlled by the country’s security and intelligence apparatuses.

“In Russian doping cases it’s often the athlete but even more so, particularly when the athlete is a child, there’s that figure in the shadows who’s working with the coach. They’ve got dossiers on every one of those coaches,” Tinsley said of Russian intelligence agencies such as the Federal Security Service. “The whole context of it is, ‘Don’t screw this up for the state.’ ”

There’s no doubt Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken an interest in Russia’s recent domination of women’s figure skating and the coach who has engineered that success. After Lipnitskaya propelled Russia to the team gold in 2014 — in the process captivating the world with her flexibility, artistry and spins — the performance earned her a hug and kiss from Putin. And following the PyeongChang Games in 2018, at which Tutberidze’s trainees won gold and silver, Putin pinned the coach with the country’s Order of Honor in a ceremony at the Kremlin.

This year’s Games held even more promise for the coach, whose skaters were widely expected to sweep the podium: 17-year-olds Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova and the country’s newest, biggest Olympic star, 15-year-old Valieva.

In an interview on Russian state television Saturday, Tutberidze insisted that Valieva was “innocent and clean” and vaguely implied a conspiracy was at play. “Either this was an ill-fated confluence of circumstances, or it was a very well-conceived plan,” Tutberidze said. “I hope our officials will not abandon us and defend our rights and prove our innocence.”

An American stint

Tutberidze’s unprecedented success as a coach was born of inauspicious beginnings, including a failed career as a figure skater and a nomadic stint as a coach in the United States.

Originally a singles skater, Tutberidze told a Russian television host that she switched to ice dancing when she grew too tall — a telling backstory given her later predilection for skaters who have not yet experienced pubescent growth spurts.

She was with an ice dancing troupe that was stranded for months in Oklahoma City in the mid-1990s when its financing apparently disappeared. Roughly three dozen Russians were living at a YMCA, according to her interview and news reports, when there was a massive explosion at the government building across the street.

“I was just wandering around, and then people started screaming, ‘Bomb, bomb,’ and everyone started running in different directions,” Tutberidze said in the television interview of her experience during the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which resulted in her name being listed among survivors at the city’s public memorial. “I found a rock wall and sat behind it.”

She later found work as a skating coach, traveling from Oklahoma to Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and Texas, where she married Nikolai Apter, a former Russian skater and instructor at the San Antonio Figure Skating Club.

Among her students in Texas was Jenny Zettner, who learned choreography from Tutberidze at San Antonio’s Crystal Ice Palace as a 13-year-old skater in 1996. The “shabby” rink, Zettner said, made for an unconventional setting for future Olympics coach Tutberidze, who was there with a couple of other Russians.

“We’re like, ‘Oh, my God, the Russian skaters — we have to have them as our coach, we’re going to be famous,’ ” Zettner said of her fellow students.

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Zettner said Tutberidze was “extremely professional and informative” but employed harsh tactics, which included advising her against drinking water during competition — an arguably brutal Tutberidze quirk that would become notorious when Russian gold medalist Alina Zagitova said in an interview that she did not drink water during the Olympics.

“I just took it as she knew what she was doing,” Zettner said of the coach’s domineering style. “It was never, like, mean to the point where I would cry.”

But during her time in the United States, Tutberidze told a Russian television interviewer, she missed her family — and expressed disillusionment with Americans. “They say to you, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ and as you’re about to tell them how, they walk away,” she said. She returned to Russia in the late 1990s.

Over the next two decades, she rose up the sport’s ranks in Russia, accompanied by a fierce patriotism in regards to her young trainees.

“What I try to teach my students starting at about the age of 13 is that you can’t just come to practice and start whining: ‘I am tired. I can’t do this now. Let’s do it tomorrow,’ ” Tutberidze said. “Just look at the map and see the size of Russia — and when you’re selected and sent to an international competition, you will have a jacket. On its back it says ‘Russia.’ And if you’re supposed to be the best that Russia sent for the world to see, then you cannot just step out on the ice with a bad attitude, thinking: ‘I am tired today. I don’t feel like skating my best and representing the Russian people as they expect me to.’ ”

‘A different system’

That attitude has pushed her skaters and the sport to new heights. All three of Tutberidze’s athletes at these Games jump quads, rotating four times in the air — a feat that no other female skater at the Olympics will attempt. That provides their programs with a significantly higher degree of difficulty, enabling them to stay ahead of the pack even if they falter.

But her tactics are also divisive, with rivals and others in the sport raising concerns about the short careers of her pupils and the burnout and long-term injuries they suffer as a result of highly intensive training.

“Most Russian coaches … that’s their mission: Every four years they have to produce an Olympic champion,” said Audrey Weisiger, a two-time U.S. Olympic team coach. “They have a different system of selecting their skaters.”

Other athletes and coaches say women’s figure skating has remained stagnant for many years and welcome the sport moving forward. But they say it must be done safely, with female skaters using athleticism and safe training methods to achieve quad jumps.

“I think we will have more and more American girls doing quads,” Weisiger said. “I’m not opposed to teaching kids difficult skills they can accommodate. I’m opposed to it when it means breaking your leg or taking drugs. I do think we have the ability, and I think we can push the envelope. We just need to do it intelligently.”

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Tutberidze has said her athletes train up to 12 hours a day, and several of her former stars have spoken about how severely they restricted their eating so that they could be light enough to perform quads and other difficult elements.

Tutberidze’s training appears to rely on keeping skaters as light as possible and having them rotate before they leave the ice in their jumps, which can cause severe back injuries. One student, who moved to train with Tutberidze when she was 13, was recorded in videos landing a quad jump. But by 14 she wasn’t able to jump anymore because of a back injury. Another student who landed quads retired before the Olympics because of a back injury.

After her skaters make history, Tutberidze appears to quickly move on to younger stars. Female skaters can face adversity when they hit puberty, Weisiger said, because their changing bodies force them to relearn many skills. (U.S. figure skater Alysa Liu became the first American woman to land a quad in competition, but she hasn’t attempted it since she hit a growth spurt.) Oftentimes they’re unable to get back some of those skills.

After captivating the world in 2014, Lipnitskaya’s career spiraled, and she left the sport just three years later. She disclosed she had been suffering from anorexia and had checked herself into residential treatment. After her last competition, Lipnitskaya said she put her skates in a closet and never looked back. “I’m no longer drawn to the ice,” she said in 2017.

Her eating disorder should not have surprised those paying close attention. Tutberidze told the press in 2014 she was glad Lipnitskaya could sometimes sustain herself on “powdered nutrients,” according to media reports.

Tutberidze’s gold and silver medalists in the 2018 Olympics adhered to similarly restrictive diets. Zagitova, who won gold that year, said she and Evgenia Medvedeva, the silver medalist, rinsed their mouths and spit out water as opposed to drinking it during the Olympic season.

Medvedeva — who was favored to win the gold before being overtaken by Zagitova — told a Russian news outlet she had to remain as “dry” as possible during the 2018 Olympic season and could not have performed her program if she gained any weight. She said she did not have much muscle, which made her body retain water and made everything “very tough” and caused damage to her body.

She left Tutberidze shortly after the Olympics to train in Canada, where her coach set her up with a nutritionist. It was only then that she began learning to have a healthier relationship with food, Medvedeva told a Russian news outlet, because she used to have a constant fear of standing on the scale.

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Medvedeva ultimately returned to train with Tutberidze during the pandemic before retiring with a back injury that rendered her unable to turn to one side. Zagitova stopped skating in 2019, at 17, and had previously said she would need to lose weight to compete with younger skaters jumping quads.

Another former skater under Tutberidze, Polina Shuboderova, told a Russian news outlet that “even if you are tired or you are injured, you still go on the ice and work.” She also said under Tutberidze, each student has their weight recorded before practice and cannot have fluctuations in their weight beyond half a pound.

It appears little has changed with Tutberidze’s most recent crop of skaters. Her choreographer, Daniil Gleikhengauz, remarked in an interview that Shcherbakova once said she was full after eating two shrimps for dinner and that she was lucky not to be obsessed with food like some other girls.

Another new star

Valieva only began competing at the senior level in the fall. But she immediately began stampeding her rivals, including her training mates. Her scores have broken world records. And her stunning success already has won her widespread acclaim in Russia; her fan club got her a Pomeranian, and she is an ambassador for Puma.

Figure skating veterans and casual Olympic observers alike marveled at Valieva’s short and long program in the team competition last week. Actor Alec Baldwin took to Instagram to thank Valieva for her “gift of heart-stopping beauty to the world.”

After the team event, Nikita Katsalapov, who competed in the ice dancing competition for the ROC, remarked on Valieva’s maturity as a skater and her unparalleled talents.

“I can tell you that this is a very fragile, little girl, and yet she’s a concentration of all the best qualities of a figure skater,” Katsalapov said through an interpreter. “. . . Watching her perform is a pleasure. It’s a delight. And she’s getting better from one competition to the next one.”

Then news broke that she tested positive in December for trimetazidine, a heart medication that has been banned by WADA since 2014. The drug’s ability to enhance performance is unclear, but some elite athletes have turned to it because it’s supposed to make the heart more efficient and could allow an athlete such as Valieva to train longer and harder and recover faster.

Tutberidze has defended a similar drug, meldonium, as harmless. Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, has called meldonium a “cousin” to trimetazidine. But the coach complained in a 2019 television interview that it was classified as a banned substance, resulting in tennis star Maria Sharapova, among other Russians, being suspended from international competition after positive tests.

“Our laboratories ... should have written a letter of objection to dispute the accusation” that the drug was a doping agent, Tutberidze said. “That this substance does not help with ‘highest, strongest, fastest’ and only helps to recuperate the heart muscles.”

Emily Giambalvo reported from Beijing. Olga Massov and Robert Samuels contributed to this report.