World Figure Skating Championships women’s preview
Ashley Wagner has not watched any of Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva‘s programs this season, but this much Wagner knows without looking:
“She is technically flawless, and if there is an athlete that we should be chasing, obviously it’s Yevgenia,” Wagner said.
Medvedeva, a 17-year-old from Moscow, is the biggest favorite across all four disciplines at next week’s world championships in Helsinki.
Wagner is the 2016 World silver medalist, the first U.S. woman on the podium in 10 years, but it would be shocking if she upgrades to gold next week. Realistically, she’s at best fighting for a silver or bronze along with Russians Anna Pogorilaya and Maria Sotskova, Canadians Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman, Italian Carolina Kostner and Japan’s Mai Mihara.
Medvedeva is in her own class.
Undefeated since November 2015. Winner of her last 11 events in her first two seasons at the senior level. She can become the first woman to repeat as world champion since Michelle Kwan in 2001.
In fact, another gold would give Medvedeva the most dominant two-season stretch by a female skater since Katarina Witt‘s stronghold in the mid-1980s.
“I really appreciate her in the sport because she is a set bar that everybody is chasing after, and I think in years past that bar was always changing,” Wagner said.
What sets Medvedeva apart is that she has been polished, from her triple-triple jump combinations and spins to her performance quality, since turning 16 in her senior debut season a year ago.
And her consistency. All other recent Russian stars -- 2014 Olympic champions Adelina Sotnikova and Yulia Lipnitskaya and 2015 World champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva -- simply could not put together two straight world-class seasons at the senior level.
Given that history, Wagner is not fully sold on Medvedeva.
“Time will tell,” said Wagner, who has joked that she needs to skate like “a robot” to compete with Medvedeva. “She is not part of this normal cycle of Russian athletes. I feel like they have one or two seasons of dominance, and then they kind of disappear. So we will see what happens to her, but she seems to be going very strong.”
Medvedeva, whose mom was a skater, started in the sport at age 3, inspired like many by the great Yevgeny Plushenko.
Figure skating is popular and storied in Russia, but Medvedeva is rarely recognized back home, where she still spends weekends watching cartoons. She does have more than 100,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram, though.
Medvedeva’s scores from her four international competitions this season are the four highest scores in the world, all above 220 points. This despite falling at one competition, having one jump called under-rotated at another and stepping out of a landing at another.
Nobody else in next week’s field has cracked 217 points -- in their careers.
At December’s Russian Championships, Medvedeva added a second triple toe loop onto a triple Salchow-triple toe loop combination, knowing she would get zero points for the superfluous jump. She did it three minutes into her free skate (with controversial music from a film about Sept. 11, 2001), when most skaters would be tired.
Medvedeva has shown disappointment when not breaking records and talked about adding a quadruple Salchow to her arsenal. She speaks some English in interviews, even though she hasn’t taken English classes in two years, according to Icenetwork.
“Sometimes I feel like I am two people: the grown-up and the kid,” she said in the fall, according to Icenetwork. “The first one is able to understand and execute difficult programs, while the other one is just like … watching cartoons all the time!”
Medvedeva was last outscored in the short program at last year’s world championships in Boston. She placed third behind Gracie Gold and Pogorilaya, with Wagner in fourth.
In the free skate, Medvedeva and Wagner climbed to gold and silver, respectively. Wagner tallied personal bests for both programs at the 2016 Worlds, yet still finished 7.47 points behind Medvedeva.
Wagner has been unable to replicate those kinds of skates this season. In two international events, her best total is 196.44 points, which seeds her eighth going into worlds. She was also beaten by surprise Karen Chen at the U.S. Championships in January.
“This year is not the year I’m planning on peaking,” Wagner said. “Next year is the year that I am like in it to kill. ... This year is my chance to work out all of the kinks, figure out where I want to be mentally going into next year and even though to some on the outside looking in, it wouldn’t look like it was the most successful season for me, I think at the end of the day this season has been exactly what I needed it to be.”
As noted, the pressure is on Wagner to lead an inexperienced U.S. team of three women in Helsinki. She’ll be joined by training partner Mariah Bell and Chen. The two worlds rookies have been less impressive than Wagner internationally this season. They’re seeded 10th and 16th.
The two best results out of Wagner, Chen and Bell must add up to no more than 13, or else the U.S. will only get two women’s spots at the Olympics for the second time in the last six Winter Games.
There is an outside chance of a Russian sweep, given the second-best skater this season, Japan’s Satoko Miyahara, withdrew due to injury. Pogorilaya, the 2016 World bronze medalist, has the next two highest scores this season after Medvedeva and Miyahara.
Russia also has Sotskova, the most impressive of the first-year senior skaters.
The experienced category is led by Osmond, having her best results since debuting as a senior in 2012, and Kostner, the six-time world medalist back after two years off. They’re seeded third and fourth.
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NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.