GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Even before the first competitor skated at Gangneung Ice Arena, the question looming over figure skating’s women’s short program Wednesday wasn’t one of the razor-thin margins.
It was a question of gaps: How wide would the chasm be between Russia’s elite teenagers — 15-year-old Alina Zagitova and two-time world champion Evgenia Medvedeva, 18 — and the rest of the figure skating world?
The answer is “vast.” Zagitova and Medvedeva demonstrated that with performances that soared over the rest, setting them up for a gold-silver finish, though not necessarily in that order, when the decisive free skate determines the medalists at the PyeongChang Olympics.
“This isn’t what I wanted, but at the same time, you can’t always have what you want,” said Nagasu, 24, who had made history as the first American woman to land a triple axel in an Olympics during last week’s team event. Hoping to replicate the feat, Nagasu over-rotated, her adrenaline flowing too hard, and fell on the landing, putting one knee and two hands down to brace herself.
Still, she voiced pride amid the tears that fell as one interviewer after the next asked what had gone wrong with a jump that no other female skater is attempting at these Games.
“I’m so incredibly proud of myself for taking that fall and continuing the rest of the program and getting every element done,” said Nagasu, who placed fourth at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and was snubbed for a spot on the 2014 Sochi squad.
Part ballerina, part butterfly, Medvedeva shattered her own world record for a short program with an exquisite, lighter-than-air program to Chopin’s “Nocturne.” Less than 20 minutes later, Zagitova relegated Medvedeva’s record 81.61 points to the sport’s ash bin with an 82.92 for her performance set to “Black Swan.”
Both Medvedeva and Zagitova — wearing a tutu-skirt that, at first blush, made her look like a tiny ballerina in a musical jewelry box — tricked the adoring audience of 12,000 into believing that what they do is simply too pretty to be a sport. But figure skating is cruel and often cutthroat, as many competitors were reminded Wednesday, falling and faltering in programs they had polished for months in hopes of peaking at precisely this moment.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Zagitova recounted the physical and psychological hardships that led to this moment, poised to become figure skating’s second-youngest Olympic champion. (Tara Lipinski was the youngest in 1998.) She also would win the first gold medal for the Olympic Athletes from Russia, who are competing here without representing their country officially.
“You have to love figure skating to be able to perform well,” Zagitova said, through a translator. “You have to go out every single day and do the same thing over and over.”
Medvedeva, seated to her right in a post-competition news conference, giggled when asked whether the two skaters were friends as well as rivals.
“We are girls. We are young girls! We talk about everything with each other,” Medvedeva said, flashing a smile at Zagitova. Then her mood grew serious.
“When we take the ice, this is sport,” Medvedeva said. “Every competition, I feel, is like a little war. This is sport. This is war.”
Medvedeva went on to explain that there are countless more Russian skaters in the developmental ranks, already working on jumps and elements that are more difficult than the ones she has mastered.
“It forces you to be stronger when you see the younger skaters doing more difficult things,” Medvedeva said. “You just feel inside so strange because you are older, and you want to be stronger than them.”
Such is the depth of figure skating excellence in Russia. Its 2014 Olympic champion, Adelina Sotnikova, isn’t on the 2018 team and has hardly been missed.
Of the top 10 scores posted by women in the 2017-18 International Skating Union season, five were by Russian skaters. The top score by an American (Tennell) ranked 14th.
This is part of what the top U.S. figure skaters face in seeking to end their Olympic medal drought. It has been 16 years since the last American woman won Olympic figure skating gold — Sarah Hughes, in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. And it has been 12 years since an American woman won an Olympic medal of any sort, as Sasha Cohen did at the Turin Games, taking silver.
The current world standard, as exemplified by Zagitova and Medvedeva, is simply beyond their reach. The Russians boast technical expertise and artistry that towers above their rivals. Moreover, they are shrewd in structuring the programs — placing more difficult elements in the second half of the programs, rather than early, to collect bonus points awarded for stamina when skaters’ legs are fatigued.
Lipinski, now a figure skating analyst for NBC, weighed in with an unflinching analysis in the New York Times on the eve of Wednesday’s competition, explaining how American women lost their dominance in the sport and what needs to happen for them to reassert hegemony. The headline: “It’s time to take risks in the rink again.”
The trouble started, Lipinski noted, when international figure skating revised its scoring system 14 years ago, and the United States didn’t follow suit — at least in its developmental ranks. Rather than challenging young skaters to stretch their technical ability, U.S. Figure Skating’s scoring system at the juvenile and novice levels rewarded skaters for spotless performances. It gave little incentive for trying harder skills.
Meanwhile, the rest of the skating world — Russia and Japan, in particular — was minting would-be champions who fearlessly attacked the most difficult jumps, pushing their own limits.
The solution, Lipinski wrote, lies in the bold approach of skaters such as Nagasu, who are determined to push their own boundaries.
Tennell, 20, the recently minted U.S. national champion who only recently emerged on the international scene, had the challenge of competing first. Known as a rock-solid jumper, Tennell had planned an ambitious program that opened with a triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination. But her timing was off on the first of the two jumps, which made the second element impossible to complete, and she fell.
Tennell couldn’t remember the last time she had fallen in a competition and attributed the uncharacteristic error not to the nerves of competing in her first Olympics but to the simple fact of being human.
“We all make mistakes,” said Tennell, who prepared for her performance as she routinely does, eating a bowl of cornflakes, listening to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and sitting still as her mother bundled her long blond hair in a bun.
Her score (64.01) reflected a one-point deduction for the fall and relatively low marks for the artistic elements (component scores) of her programs, such as transitions and interpretation of the music, in this case, from the score of the South Korean war film “Taegukgi.”
Chen, 18, also a first-time Olympian, was the last American to go and came closest to delivering a pristine performance. Skating to music from “On Golden Pond,” which opened with birdsong, Chen wore a sequined white dress with a feather-like ruffle down one sleeve. But after her first graceful steps, she put a hand down on her opening triple Lutz and was forced to abandon the second element of the high-value combination.
“I’m not going to lie; I’m pretty disappointed in myself,” Chen said. “I definitely felt the pressure. I felt the nerves. I think part of it was just realizing that this is the Olympics. This is what I’ve dreamed of since I was young, and . . . I wanted to skate so well.
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