Thursday night’s ladies’ free skate is shaping up to be one of the greatest face-offs in Olympic history. 20 years after the Nagano Olympics, I feel like I’m witnessing the rivalry between Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski all over again, except this time the rivals are Russian and I’m old enough to down a bottle of wine while watching.
In 1998, Michelle Kwan was seen as the favorite heading into the Olympics, but her dreams of gold were spoiled by the shriek-worthy excellence of a 15 year-old challenger, Tara Lipinski. This year, Evgenia Medvedeva is sitting in that Michelle Kwan spot. For years, the 2018 Olympics were seen as Medvedeva’s to lose. Many have already called her, at the age of 19, the greatest skater of all time. Medvedeva is a two-time World Champion, and was undefeated in competition for over two years. In October, however, Medvedeva suffered a fracture in her right foot, and was forced to withdraw from several events. Suddenly, the impossible seemed possible. We had proof that Evgenia Medvedeva was human.
At the same time, a new star was on the rise: 15 year-old Alina Zagitova. Last season’s Junior World Champion, Zagitova moved up to the senior level this year and won every one of her Grand Prix assignments, including the Grand Prix Final (which Medvedeva sat out due to injury). Then, at the European Championships a month ago, Medvedeva and Zagitova finally went head-to-head. And much to the shock of the skating world, Alina Zagitova won. Suddenly, the Olympics were a two-horse race. Okay, “horse” isn’t exactly the right comparison for these tiny teens, but “two-bird race” doesn’t make any sense.
Let’s take a second to look at each of these Russian phenoms individually before examining at the poor unfortunate souls competing for bronze:
Evgenia Medvedeva (Olympic Athletes from Russia)
The combination of artistry and athleticism in Evgenia Medvedeva’s skating is almost unmatched in the history of the sport. Technically, she’s brilliant; the way she completes jumps with her arms over her head is almost a brag, as if to say, “These jumps were getting too boring, I had to make them harder or I’d fall asleep.” Artistically, she’s so wonderfully expressive that she draws in the entire audience with a single movement. You can’t tear your eyes away from her. It’s not just that you’re not checking your phone while she skates; Medvedeva makes you forget that you ever owned a phone.
In the Olympic short program, Medvedeva skated flawlessly to the music of Chopin and set a new world record. She must have breathed a huge sigh of relief, “Surely THAT will keep the little jumping bean off my tail!” It was like that moment in a Halloween film where Jamie Lee Curtis is certain that she has finally killed Michael Myers, despite having absolutely no proof. You can guess what happened next; Alina Zagitova set a new world record, toppling Medvedeva’s by 1.31 points. Now, Medvedeva must come from behind to fulfill her destiny of winning. By no means would I count her out. She has more international experience than Zagitova and her program component scores are the gold standard. I’m very worried though, because Medvedeva will be skating to Anna Karenina for her long program. I’m sweating over the idea that this music choice could be unintentionally symbolic if Medvedeva becomes a tragic Russian heroine herself, crushed by an unstoppable oncoming force. Okay, that was a bit much. Zagitova isn’t a train. But you get the point. This could be a rough night for Medvedeva.
Alina Zagitova (Olympic Athletes from Russia)
Alina Zagitova is peaking at the exact right moment. And while I’m trying my hardest not to make this Russian rivalry into an All About Eve narrative, Alina isn’t helping me out with her music choices. She literally skated to a medley of Black Swan (the story of a ballerina driven mad by the threat of being usurped) and Moonlight (a movie that won Best Picture over the presumed frontrunner). The symbolism is right there! Am I the only one seeing this or has my lust for strong female rivalries driven me mad? Alina’s short program broke the world record for a reason; her presentation was electric, her jumps were fearless, in every moment she was fully alive.
If you thought Zagitova’s short program was impressive, get ready for her free skate to Don Quixote. Alina is pulling off a mathematical trick to increase her score that reminds me of something out of an Air Bud movie – the flustered referee throwing his hands in the air while a dog slam dunks, “Technically there’s nothing against it in the rules!” In skating, a 10% bonus is added to the value of any jump that is completed in the second half of a program. And this bonus has a valid reason; landing a jump on tired legs is way more difficult. For years, skaters have put jumps at the end of their programs to milk this bonus for more points. But then Alina had the gall to come along and ask, “What if I did ALL my jumps in the second half?” Some call it an ugly way to arrange a program; others just call it unbalanced. Zagitova essentially kills time with spins and footwork for the first two minutes of her program, before launching into a non-stop jump-a-palooza at the halfway mark. And it kind of… works? Zagitova’s explosive jumps combine with the powerful music to make you feel like you’re watching a human fireworks show. I truly expect the International Skating Union to change the rules to end this sort of strategic back-loading. But for now, I’m kind of tickled that Zagitova is pulling off such a stunt. If she skates cleanly, I really don’t see how she can lose the gold. And with that sentence, my jinx on Alina Zagitova is firmly planted.
The Battle for the Bronze Medal
While Alina and Evgenia duel for gold, it’s up to the rest of the field to battle it out for bronze. I guess, mathematically, it’s possible for these skaters to end up winning it all, but only in the way that it’s technically possible for Betsy DeVos to become president in the line of succession.
Kaetlyn Osmond (Canada)
Reigning World silver medalist Kaetlyn Osmond couldn’t have asked for a better skate in the short program, and currently sits in third place. Skating to an Edith Piaf medley, Osmond nailed all her jumps while exuding a flirty sensuality reminiscent of Cyd Charisse. Is that reference too old? For the kids in the audience, Cyd Charisse is sort of like an old-Hollywood Catherine Zeta-Jones. And if you tell me you don’t know who CZJ is, you can stop reading right now because you don’t deserve my insights. Osmond set a new personal best in the short program, but she has struggled with putting together two clean programs in one event. If she can avoid a major disaster in the long, she’s in a solid position here to make it on the podium. And at the end of the day, is there anything more Canadian than doing your best and being happy with your bronze medal? Shout out to Canadian bronze-snatching icon, Joannie Rochette!
Satoko Miyahara (Japan)
Satoko Miyahara was truly living up to her potential in her Memoirs of a Geisha short program. The four-time Japanese national champion has struggled with health issues, so it was a joy to see her execute all her jumps cleanly. Though her choreography was impeccable, there was a bit of an emotional distance between Miyahara and the audience, something she’s going to need to break through to place higher on the international level. While technically she has a shot at gold, Miyahara was depressingly realistic in an interview after the short program. When asked about her chances to make the podium, she replied, “I reckon only about 20 percent. I am not really at the level yet where I can take on the skaters at the top, and it is all I can do to win the battle with myself.” That quote makes me want to grab her by the shoulders, look her in the eyes and say, “Satoko! You. Are. Enough!” On the other hand, Miyahara has a habit of under-rotating her jumps, so I’d say 20 percent is about right. God, she’s so sensible!
Kaori Sakamoto (Japan)
17 year-old Kaorki Sakamoto is making a splash in her first season on the senior level, winning the Four Continents Championship in January, and defeating Miyahara in the process. Sakamoto’s short program to “Moonlight Sonata” was absolutely entrancing, one of those powerful pieces that reminds you why figure skating forbade lyrics in music until a few years ago (no shade to the Belgian girl who skated to Madonna’s “Frozen”). Although she’s in 5th place heading into the long program, I don’t expect Sakamoto to earn a medal in Pyeongchang. Then again, I thought it was crazy for TIME to put no-shot-at-gold Sarah Hughes on the cover before the 2002 Olympics and she went ahead and won the whole thing. Do not make Vegas bets based on my predictions.
Carolina Kostner (Italy)
Artistically, Carolina Kostner is my favorite skater in the world right now. Her short program to Celine Dion’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” is exquisitely choreographed such that every moment strikes you right in the gut. Technically, however, she disappointed in the short program, doubling the second half of a triple-triple combo and putting a hand down on a triple loop. For that reason, Kostner is only in 6thplace heading into the free skate and is going to need some mistakes from the ladies ahead of her to repeat her bronze medal finish from Sochi. That Kostner is still competing with these teenagers is a feat in itself. Carolina Kostner is 31-years-old in a sport that considers 25 year-olds basically Crypt-keepers. You’ll notice that commentators are always calling her “mature” so we don’t forget her age. I understand wanting to give her credit for her longevity, but maybe we should ease up on treating her like she’s Angela Lansbury? On the other hand, when Kostner was Alina Zagitova’s age, Alina Zagitova was being born, so it’s a point worth making. Regardless of how Kostner places, she will remain a legend long after Pyeongchang.
You’re going to have to tune in a little earlier to see the American ladies in this event, because none of them placed high enough to skate in the final group in the long program. Mirai Nagasu, Karen Chen, and Bradie Tennell sit in 9th, 10th, and 11th place respectively after a set of shaky short programs.
Of these three, Nagasu has the best chance of jumping up in the standings, as she will be attempting a triple axel in her Miss Saigon long program. When she completed that jump in the team event, she became only the third woman to ever land a triple axel cleanly at the Olympics, helping solidify Team USA’s bronze medal. In the short program, however, she over-rotated the jump and fell badly, leaving her without a realistic shot at a medal.
Karen Chen was the U.S. National Champion last year and placed 4th at the World Championships, but has struggled this season. Perhaps the most complete artist of the three Americans in the event (the other two are more well known for their jumping prowess), Karen choreographed her programs herself, including her beautiful short program to On Golden Pond. Much like Nagasu, Karen made a costly mistake on her first jump and won’t be in the running for the podium.
If I had written this preview before the short program, I would have told you that U.S. National Champion Bradie Tennell is incapable of falling. And then, on her very first jumping pass in the short, Bradie Tennell FELL. If there’s one thing this girl is known for, it’s consistency, but she doesn’t have a ton of international experience yet and it seems the nerves got to her. Skating to Cinderella in the long program, you can tell Bradie wanted this to be her fairy-tale moment, but unfortunately her carriage turned back into a pumpkin well before midnight. Outside of the team event and ice dance, it’s been a rough Olympics for U.S. Figure Skating.
I hope you’re excited for the epic showdown between Zagitova and Medvedeva tonight. It’s all-too-common in our culture to pit women against women and revel in female conflict (see: half the programming on Bravo). But then again, unlike say, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, who are only “competing” on an abstract level, Medvedeva and Zagitova are quite literally competing for one thing: an Olympic gold. By all accounts, Medvedeva and Zagitova are training partners and friends. They have the same coach and won the team silver for the Olympic Athletes from Russia together. So fine, I give in, they’re probably rooting for each other… to win silver. See, I can’t help myself! “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”