Ice Network

Zagitova claims first PyeongChang gold for OAR

Medvedeva finishes second; Osmond takes bronze; U.S. ladies struggle
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Alina Zagitova held off countrywoman Evgenia Medvedeva to capture the Olympic gold medal, the first by an Olympic Athlete from Russia at these Games. The 15-year-old piled up 156.65 points for her 'Don Quixote' free skate, and she took the title with a total of 239.57. -Getty Images

Alina Zagitova edged Evgenia Medvedeva at Gangneung Ice Arena on Friday, giving Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) its first gold medal of the PyeongChang Games.

The teenaged training partners battled to a scoring draw in the free skate, each earning 156.65 points for flawless, technically demanding programs. The difference came down to one jump in the short program: Zagitova entered the free skate 1.31 points ahead thanks to her triple lutz-triple loop combination, worth 1.65 points more than Medvedeva's triple lutz-triple toe loop.

It was the second straight loss for Medvedeva, 18, who also placed second to the 15-year-old Zagitova at the 2018 European Figure Skating Championships. Prior to that, the two-time world champion had not lost an event since November 2015.

"It's life, it's a lesson," said Medvedeva, who trains alongside Zagitova in Eteri Tutberidze's Moscow skating school. "Every day, every week, every year you must become stronger."

Many observers in PyeongChang saw it coming: the overnight transition of Medvedeva from wunderkind to sentimental favorite, perhaps no one so clearly as the skater herself.

During Thursday morning's practice, Medvedeva was about halfway along a clean run-through of her Anna Karenina free skate when, about 20 feet away, Zagitova glided to the middle of the ice and upstaged her with a triple lutz-triple toe-triple loop combination. A few minutes later, the youngster landed a combination retweeted around the world: a triple lutz, followed by four triple loops.

Friday's result was presaged by the short program, held two days earlier. Medvedeva skated first, setting a new world standard of 81.61 points. That lasted a few minutes -- about the lifespan of a puddle in the sun -- before Zagitova erased it, notching 82.92 points.

"In our group, there are lots of young talents who provide additional drive for you to go on," Zagitova said through an interpreter. "They inspire you to do more than they do. Sometimes we fail at it...we can't always be in top form."

Neither skater failed Friday. In her free skate to Minkus' Don Quixote, Zagitova spent the first two minutes of the program executing a difficult step sequence and one flying camel spin, showing charm and musicality but no jumps. Those were all saved for the program's second half, and each one of her seven jumping passes earned a 10 percent scoring bonus.

"My program is very harmonious," Zagitova said. "In the beginning, I skate to slow music that works well with the step sequence. Then, the music becomes more dynamic, and I jump to the beats of the music. It captivates the audience and makes them watch to the end."

The first jump Zagitova tried, a triple lutz, was planned as a combination with a triple loop, but a slightly imperfect landing left it a solo triple. Zagitova calmly added the triple loop to her second lutz, saving herself 5.65 points.

"I knew I had to skate with no mistakes, and show a clean program," she said.

Medvedeva's free skate was more emotive; the skater seemed to channel Anna Karenina's mounting anxiety and desperation, while landing jumps comparable to her rival's. But two of her jumping passes -- a triple lutz-triple toe combination and triple flip -- were done in the first half, and her technical base value was 3.68 points lower than that of Zagitova. Her program components score was 2.44 points higher than Zagitova's but not enough to make up the difference.

"Now I have a reason to get higher technical scores, and I will work for that," Medvedeva said, adding, "My sports life will be long. I love what I do. I don't intend to change."

The Moscow-born Medvedeva has trained in Tutberidze's group, which includes associate coach Sergei Dudakov, since 2008. Zagitova, who is from the Udmurt Republic, joined the school in 2015. Other students included Julia Lipnitskaia, who won a European title and world silver medal by the age of 16 but battled an eating disorder as well as hip and back injuries, and was retired by age 19.

Tutberidze is a controversial figure, with some accusing her of running a factory of interchangeable teenaged champions and driving her young charges too hard. In PyeongChang, she has largely avoided the North American press.

But her coaching career began in the U.S. 20 years ago, when the show she was touring with lost its financial backing and left her stranded in the Midwest. Lacking money and just learning English, she and pairs skater Nicolai Apter ended up in Cincinnati, doing a skating adagio act at Kings Island amusement park. For extra money, she started giving lessons at a local rink.

"She was not a huggie, smiley, laughing person on the ice, although she can be playful off the ice," said Rob Shmalo, a former U.S. ice dance competitor who trained with Tutberidze for two years. "She really wanted you to work hard, and she would work hard with you."

Tutberidze's coaching methods, including on-ice stroking classes and off-ice exercises, were exotic for Cincinnati at that time, and Shmalo remembers many coaches being wary of her technique. But she became close to Shmalo's family, attending his sister's bat mitzvah and gifting his parents a balalaika guitar that still adorns their living room. Eventually, she had to relocate to other cities because she couldn't get enough work in Cincinnati.

"She believed in using every second possible on the ice, to really practice whatever you were working on at any given time," Shmalo said. "She got right down to business. People looked at her in an interesting way, but I loved every second with Eteri."

So, seemingly, do Zagitova and Medvedeva. Both repeatedly praised Tutberidze and her team during the post-event press conference.

"I know that my coaches never give me bad advice," Zagitova said. "They always support me. Sometimes, it's the carrot-and-stick approach. Sometimes they praise me, sometimes they say I don't work hard enough."

"We have a large team of coaches, choreographers and doctors, all united by love of figure skating," Medvedeva said. "We are all completely devoted to figure skating. This, we have in common."

Kaetlyn Osmond, third after the short program, had a career-best free skate to music from Black Swan that opened with two sterling combinations, a triple flip-triple toe loop and a double axel-triple toe. The powerful, 22-year-old Canadian attacked her program with speed and confidence, and her only error was turning out of the landing of a triple lutz. She placed third in the free skate with 152.15 points and won the bronze medal with 231.02 points.

"I was so happy to put out two clean skates here, which I haven't done in a really long time," Osmond said. "Usually, I talk a lot, and I didn't talk much today. It was really exciting, and I felt more prepared than anything out on the ice."

The Edmonton, Alberta, skater suffered a career-threatening injury in September 2014, when, swerving to avoid another skater in practice, she broke her right fibula in two places. It took two surgeries and nearly a year for Osmond to return to competition.

"I was questioning whether I was going to continue skating or not, but I reinforced my passion for skating and why I love competing," Osmond said. "In that time, I grew up, I matured a lot. I worked a lot on mental focus and just making every single thing count. And that's how I felt today -- I made every single thing count."

Satoko Miyahara skated a clean free skate, including a triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, but judges did not award her the Grades of Execution (GOEs) or program component marks they granted the top finishers, and she placed fourth with 222.38 points. The event's second-highest program component scores helped propel Italian Carolina Kostner, the 2014 Olympic bronze medalist, to a fifth-place finish.

It was a disappointing day for the U.S. trio of Bradie Tennell, Mirai Nagasu and Karen Chen, who placed ninth, 10th and 11th, respectively.

Tennell climbed from 11th after the short with a solid, if imperfect, outing of her free skate to music from the Cinderella soundtrack. The U.S. champion, who had not missed a triple jump all season before arriving in PyeongChang, landed her opening triple lutz-triple toe combination but under-rotated and stepped out of the second half of a double axel-triple toe combination as well as her second triple lutz. She ended with 192.35 points.

"I messed up on the lutz, but I'm proud of myself for coming back with the triple loop combo and finishing strong," Tennell said.

After becoming the first U.S. lady in history to land a triple axel at the Olympics in the team event, Nagasu fell on her attempt in the short program and popped the jump in her Miss Saigon free skate. She also later singled a planned triple lutz, and she finished with 186.54 points.

"I have been crying every day since (winning bronze in) the team event because I was so happy, but we have to keep training and training and training," Nagasu said. "It's exhausting; it's a lot to represent our country. I thought of what I did here, and maybe it would not be enough for another person, but I didn't back down."

Karen Chen, fourth in the world last season, began the day inauspiciously, with an Instagram post highlighting her boot problems and asking fans to pray for her. She turned out of several jumps and fell on an under-rotated triple loop to earn 185.65 points overall.

"I am extremely disappointed, I'm not going to lie," Chen said, adding, "I was having some boot issues, and I had to make some adjustments in practice this morning. ... It kind of split and moisture sank in, and it affected the mount a little bit.

"But it's no excuse. I felt like I should have skated better, and I should have focused better."