Examining the streak of Russia's ladies figure skating supremacy
Before Adelina Sotnikova won the coveted ladies’ figure skating gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Games, Russia had never before had a ladies' Olympic champion. Now, the country seems to be mass-producing talent: Yulia Lipnitskaya, Yelena Radionova, Anna Pogorilaya, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, Yevgenia Medvedeva, and Alina Zagitova. A look into Russia’s history of ladies figure skaters at the Olympics and in international competition.
It wasn’t until Kira Ivanova won a bronze medal in 1984 that Russia put a ladies figure skater on an Olympic podium. Russia didn’t have a world champion in ladies figure skating until Maria Butyrskaya was crowned in 1999. It wasn’t long before Russia had a perennial champion on their hands.
Enter Irina Slutskaya. She was the first woman to land a triple Lutz triple loop jump combination, doing so at the 2000 Grand Prix Final. Then at Worlds in 2001, she was the first woman to land a triple Lutz triple loop double toeloop combination. Slutskaya won the 2002 Olympic silver medal and followed it up with the world championship gold in the same year. She won the world title again in 2005 in front of a home crowd in Moscow. At the 2006 Olympics, Slutskaya earned a bronze medal. Throughout the course of her career, Slutskaya tallied seven European Championships titles.
And then Russian ladies figure skating went through a medals drought for nearly a decade at the European, world, and Olympic levels.
The New York Times explained that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, government-supported sports training funds evaporated. Coaches looked for jobs in other countries, and skating rinks were left in disrepair. Parents of would-be skaters didn’t let their children take up the sport.
Once the economy was on the upswing, municipal rinks opened for hockey and figure skating. Children began to learn how to skate again. Russian government stipends help skaters support their families.
As Slutskaya told the Times before the Sochi Olympics, “We didn’t have diamonds before. Now we have all these young girls.”
Yulia Lipnitskaya won the European title in 2014. At the Sochi Olympics, she was adored at home and abroad after a stirring performance to “Schindler’s List” in the team event free skate. She helped Team Russia to gold medals in the first-ever Olympic team event.
But the other young Russian in the ladies field, Adelina Sotnikova, not Lipnitskaya, became Russia’s first-ever ladies' gold medalist. Sotnikova is hurt and won't compete in PyeongChang.
At the 2014 World Championships, Lipnitskaya won a silver medal. The other Russian in the field, Anna Pogorilaya, placed fourth.
Lipnitskaya switched coaches and never returned to top form. She retired from skating 2017.
Elizaveta Tuktamysheva assumed the throne next. She swept the three biggest events of the year during the 2014-15 season: Worlds, the European Championships and the prestigious Grand Prix Final. Russian teammate Yelena Radionova joined her on the Worlds podium with a bronze medal. Tuktamysheva even included the elusive triple Axel in her programs, notoriously difficult for ladies skaters.
Tuktamysheva struggled the following season, and fell behind in the seemingly-endless Russian talent pool.
Most recently, Yevgenia Medvedeva won the junior world title in 2015 and graduated to the senior ranks for the 2015-16 season. That season, she won a Challenger Series event, and a gold and silver medal on the Grand Prix circuit. At the exclusive Grand Prix Final, the struck gold again. She won the Russian national title against a deep field, and followed it up with golds at the European and world championships in 2016. She was the first female skater to follow a junior world title with a world title the subsequent year. Joining her on the Worlds podium was Russian teammate Pogorilaya, who captured a bronze medal. Radionova was not far behind, placing sixth.
The rhythm had been established by this point. One dominant Russian per season, but then they would fizzle out – or so it seemed. Medvedeva flipped the script.
She stayed in peak form the following year, the 2016-17 season. She won every individual competition she entered, including a second consecutive world title in 2017. Nobody since Michelle Kwan in 2000 and 2001 had won back-to-back world titles in ladies skating. The other Russians in the field, Pogorilaya and Maria Sotskova, finished eighth and thirteenth, respectively.
Three seasons seems like an eternity for Medvedeva maintain prime conditioning, given Russia’s young talent is on the rise. And it’s not like Medvedeva won’t see the competition coming: Medvedeva’s standout training partner, Alina Zagitova, is the 2017 world junior champion and will graduate to the senior level for the Olympic season. In their first head-to-head battle on the senior level, the European championships in January, Zagitova came away with the gold ahead of Medvedeva, setting up an epic Olympic battle.