GANGNEUNG, South Korea — On the steel edge of figure-skating blades, a 94-pound 15-year-old achieved what none of her compatriots had managed at the PyeongChang Olympics on Friday. Alina Zagitova delivered the first gold medal of these Winter Games for the delegation of 168 Russian athletes. And she did it with impeccable form, racking up points like an adding machine in a red tutu.
Zagitova didn’t perform a jump until two minutes had elapsed, which enabled her to backload her program with seven triple jumps that earned bonus points for coming so late, when her legs should have been tired. While judges found nothing to quibble with technically, they left room in her artistic marks for her fellow Russian, two-time world champion Evgenia Medvedeva, skating last, to overtake her.
The 18-year-old Medvedeva was far more the sophisticate, as well as a convincing actress, fully inhabiting her “Anna Karenina” character in an elaborate beaded burgundy gown. But for one bobble on a three-jump combination she was perfection itself and broke down in tears at the end. And she wept again when the scoreboard reflected her marks of 238.26, falling just short of Zagitova (239.57) for gold.
Nonetheless, Zagitova and Medvedeva gave their country, competing here as Olympic Athletes from Russia, a 1-2 finish in women’s figure skating. In doing so, they sent a powerful message to the rest of the figure skating world — and the once dominant United States in particular. Raise your game, the Russian teens declared through the technical rigor and artistry of their programs, if you expect to take a place on the medal podium with us.
Canada’s Kaetlyn Osmond took bronze — the only medal that was truly in play.
For the United States, the Olympic medal drought among U.S. women’s figure skaters, who for decades set the standard of excellence in the sport, continues. At the next opportunity, the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, it will have been 20 years since Sarah Hughes won Olympic gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. And 16 years will have passed since an American woman won an Olympic medal of any kind: Sasha Cohen earning silver at the 2006 Turin Games.
Their showing here — with 2018 U.S. Figure Skating champion Bradie Tennell finishing ninth, Mirai Nagasu 10th and 18-year-old Karen Chen 11th — suggests a resurgence isn’t at hand.
It wasn’t simply that their technical rigor was lacking or that judges were unmoved by the artistic components of their programs. The deeper issue was that, in each case, the American women stumbled rather than stood tall on the Olympic stage. Tennell stumbled out of two jumps. Chen fell and never regained her composure. And after Nagasu whiffed on her opening triple axel, the ambitious program she had planned went off the rails. In each case, their free-skate marks fell shy of their season’s best scores, suggesting that something was lacking in the mental preparation. Athletes who don’t embrace pressure and use it to their advantage — as a springboard to greatness — can be dogged contenders but rarely, if ever, champions.
Nagasu bristled when asked why the Americans succumbed to pressure, calling it “a very aggressive question.” She cited others who struggled in the individual competition and implied that, in her case, she simply had little left after helping the U.S. to the bronze team medal.
“It has been a long, long journey,” Nagasu said. “We’ve had so many other commitments.”
Chen alluded to “boot issues” and missing her mother. She was the first American to compete Friday, up 14th among the field of 24.
As a shout of “Let’s go, Karen!” rang out from a 12,000-seat arena that never completely filled nor developed much of an atmosphere, Chen opened her sophisticated tango with a clean triple jump. But her legs seemed to give way near the midpoint of the program, and she fell on one jump and put a hand down on another. She couldn’t hide her disappointment, and her marks reflected her rocky performance.
Tennell, whose rock-solid jumping ability betrayed her in the short program, followed. With a tiara and powder-blue sequined dress, she set out to portray the “Cinderella” of her music. But like Chen, her rough patch came in the middle of her program as she stumbled awkwardly out of one jump and didn’t get full credit for a triple toe loop and Lutz, deemed under-rotated by judges. Her score (128.34) was also shy of her previous best for the same program.
As first-time Olympians, Chen and Tennell may well develop steelier performance skill by the 2022 Games. But Nagasu, 24, seemed blithely resigned to a disappointing finish in what may be her final Olympics.
She’d planned a program with nine triple jumps — two more than either of the favored Russians. Perhaps the overloaded script, which she was not obligated to perform, added to the pressure. She aborted her opening jump — the high-risk triple axel she has spent eight years mastering, with this stage in mind. And the program careened from there.
The fourth-place finisher at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Nagasu made history at the outset of these Winter Games as the first American woman to land the triple axel in Olympic competition. The high was tremendous, and she never quite recaptured the feeling.
Zagitova is the second-youngest Olympic gold medalist in history, less than three weeks younger than Tara Lipinski when she won gold in 1998 at 15.
Zagitova was just 11 when Russia flexed its sporting muscle at the 2014 Sochi Games, winning 13 gold medals. Subsequent evidence of state-sponsored doping led to the revocation of two of those golds and sanctions that permitted only certain athletes to compete in PyeongChang under the stateless designation of Olympic Athletes from Russia.
The preteen Zagitova wasn’t complicit. She didn’t even believe, as she watched the brilliant Russian skaters win the gold team medal on TV, that she could rise to their ranks. Asked in Friday’s post-competition news conference how she expected she’d feel later that night, when the Russian flag would not be raised in honor of her gold medal, as is customary, but replaced with a generic Olympic flag as part of the International Olympic Committee’s punishment, Zagitova said simply, “Could I please not answer this question?”
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