Skating Gold Goes to Upstart in Fierce Duel Between Russian Teen Superstars

Tom Weir@@tomweirsportsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 23, 2018

Alina Zagitova won the gold at age 15, defeating figure skating's reigning world champion, 18-year-old Evgenia Medvedeva.
Alina Zagitova won the gold at age 15, defeating figure skating's reigning world champion, 18-year-old Evgenia Medvedeva.Bernat Armangue/Associated Press

For figure skating devotees, the long-awaited showdown between Russian superstars Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva for Olympic gold probably felt like a once-in-a-lifetime event. But we actually saw an American version of this moment of truth 20 years ago, and the outcome was almost exactly the same.

Back then, in 1998 at the Nagano Olympics, 15-year-old Tara Lipinski narrowly defeated the universally favored and more experienced Michelle Kwan. Prior to Friday, it was the last time two skaters from the same country went 1-2 in the women's final.

Friday it played out the same way, as the 15-year-old Zagitova's free skate had just enough elegance, flair and difficulty to hold off her 18-year-old compatriot.

The younger youngster prevailed by little more than a one-point margin from the judges, 239.57 to 238.26, but the scores easily could have been reversed.

For Americans, it also was a sad reminder of just how far behind the U.S. women have fallen since those days when Lipinski and Kwan ruled the skating world with the same stellar dominance. All three American women skated Friday as if they were rattled, and who wouldn't be when facing these two Russians?

Medvedeva, the two-time and reigning world champion, owned the stronger resume. But for these flying teens, the drama changes rapidly and without warning, like a stage play that's rewritten before every performance. When fractures were discovered in Medvedeva's foot bones last November, the window of opportunity opened ever so slightly for Zagitova, and she dove through like a circus lion through a ring of fire.

Evgenia Medvedeva finished just 1.31 points behind Zagitova.
Evgenia Medvedeva finished just 1.31 points behind Zagitova.ROBERTO SCHMIDT/Getty Images

Medvedeva was forced to wear a cast and sit out competitions. Zagitova, still largely unknown internationally, kept training, and perhaps that accounted for the microscopic difference between them Friday (Thursday night Eastern Time).

Crucially, Zagitova had distanced herself from Medvedeva in the short program, 82.92 points to 81.61, the two highest scores ever recorded. That gave Zagitova breathing room, but the pressure of a decisive Olympic free skate still no doubt was suffocating.

Zagitova skated 22nd in the 24-woman field and knew she had to keep the pressure on.

Medvedeva, skating last, had to be perfect, and she truly was. One guesses she will be tormented for days, if not weeks, thinking about whether there was one slight alteration that could have made the difference.

And those who watched and don't agree that the athleticism of figure skaters is tremendously under-appreciated...well, they must have had blinders on while the Russians were churning out triple jump after triple jump.

The two now will be locked together in skating history in the way Lipinski and Kwan are.

During a press conference after the short program, the two downplayed any sense of a bitter personal rivalry between them but readily conceded the friendship is put on pause when the competition begins.

"We are friends first and rivals second, because you have to have competitiveness in sport," said Zagitova, as reported by Rachel Lutz on NBCOlympics.com.

Said Medvedeva: "We are humans. We communicate as usual. We are friends. We are girls, young girls. We can talk about everything to each other."

But then she added: "When we take the ice, this is sport and we must fight. In every competition, I feel like a little war. This is sport; this is war. We must show our best, no matter if you are nervous or not. When you take the ice, you are alone. Yes, your friend is competing here, but you have to fight."

And fight she did, settling for silver with a program that would have won gold in any other year.

While the world waited for Medvedeva's score, Lipinski weighed in as an NBC commentator on the side of Zagitova. That shouldn't be a surprise, since Lipinski naturally related more to seeing another 15-year-old version of herself.

At U.S. Nationals in January, Lipinski told me, "I just think if we're all being honest, when you're younger, things are easier. Especially in a sport where you're doing triple-triples and back-loading these programs. [With jumps that get bonus points for being executed late in the program.] When you're younger, it's going to be easier."

But whether the competitor is 15 or 18, time is of the essence in figure skating. Both Russians took the ice knowing that, despite their youth, this might be a now-or-never proposition. Russian Adelina Sotnikova won Olympic gold in this event in 2014 but by 2016 ranked only sixth in her nation, and she didn't even make it to Russian Nationals the last two seasons. 

At U.S. Nationals, Lipinski also told me she was lectured on that same point by her mother in 1998.

"Going into the Olympic Games, my mom said, 'This is your Olympics—you really don't know what's going to happen in four years. You may never make another Olympic Games.'"

Tara Lipinski, 1998
Tara Lipinski, 1998David Madison/Getty Images

With that in mind, she insisted over her coach's objections that she'd lodge in the athletes village and immerse herself in the Olympic experience. When the night of the free skate arrived, she used the media's premature coronation of Kwan as fuel.

She had bombed at U.S. Nationals and remembers the harsh reaction.

"Literally the whole world was, 'Tara will never win. Her chances are over.' So it felt like the last three years of work were a waste. So when I stepped on the ice at Japan, I remember just starting my program shaking, and I kind of looked up at at everyone, and I saw the whole media section, and I said, 'I'm going to show you. I'm going to prove to you that I'm worthy of winning this medal.'"

Added Lipinski: "I was skating against one of the best skaters in the world in Michelle Kwan. My strategy was to up the ante and to go for harder and more technical elements."

Zagitova and Medvedeva also knew they were up against the best in the world and that, unfortunately, only one of them could win.

    

Tom Weir covered eight Winter Olympics as a columnist for USA Today.

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