European Championships analysis: Female Russian skaters stars rise fast, but burn out too soon
Jean-Christophe Berlot is on the ground in Minsk, Belarus to cover the European Championships. This is his analysis of the pace and progression of women’s skating around the world.
Eteri Tutberidze, the renowned Russian coach, declined all interviews in Minsk, Belarus, the setting for the 2019 European Championships. The organization of the practice and main rinks made it possible for coaches to have no interaction at all with journalists during the week. Tutberidze could not be seen in the mixed zones, and she could flee the practice rink through underground paths that were not open to the press.
“I don’t know what I could say,” she politely answered when an interview request was made.
The same was true for Alina Zagitova, her star pupil. Zagitova, the Olympic champion, lost her 2018 European crown to Russian Sofia Samodurova.
Tutberidze was nonetheless quite a disputed behind-the-scenes topic in Minsk.
“The problem is that Eteri is very much criticized in Russia at the moment,” a noted Russian journalist explained. “People think that she pushes her pupils at a very young age and after a year or two they are done for the sport.”
True – Russian skating has been characterized by a never-seen turnover of its female wunderkinds in the recent years: Yulia Lipnitskaya was an instant star in 2014 and disappeared; Adelina Sotnikova won her Olympic gold and turned to other endeavors.
Yevgenia Medvedeva could have had the same fortune, had she not decided to move to Canada. The perspective of seeing Zagitova disappear can’t be discarded. And many more lesser known skaters left the radar as well.
The system has best demonstrated its nonsense at Russian nationals, one month ago, as the top three at the senior championship were not even allowed to compete on the senior level internationally. Skaters placed fourth, fifth, and sixth at Nationals were selected for these Europeans, namely Samodurova, Zagitova and Stanislava Konstantinova.
Tutberidze is far from being the sole responsible of what could be called the “Kleenex syndrome” of female skating – you take one, use it, and then throw it.
The turmoil is even amplified in Russia by the tons of hate messages that flood each day on social media. The phenomenon is far from being mastered, especially since most messages are written anonymously under a pseudonym. They destabilize the best skaters.
“I don’t want to read those criticisms, but they are actually there, as toxic as they are,” Maria Sotskova, a prominent skater until last year, explained. “Athletes shouldn’t read internet comments. They make you more nervous and make you lose some of your confidence.”
Medvedeva had to make strong decisions a few months ago: “I never expected that there would be so much negative on social media, so I’ve made a strong rule between social networks and me,” she told NBCSports at her French Grand Prix outing two months ago. “The connection with social media is running through my agent, and I’m not using it anymore.”
She has since made a reappearance on social platforms, but to a lesser extent than the past.
Zagitova had to come to a complete black-out as well.
“After Russian nationals, my parents took away my phone and gave me another one, with no access to the internet,” she said to media in Minsk. “Now I’m reading books and I’m studying for school. I don’t see or hear anything about what is being said. No social media. I only watch TV serials.”
More than any other country, Russia has created somewhat of a system – mostly unconsciously at the start, however: create the best jumpers and spinners of the world at a very young age, when children obey without condition, and make them win before puberty. Hence the proposal to raise the age limit that was presented to the last ISU Congress.
It was rejected.
Age may not be the key factor anyway, as every girl grows at her own pace. It also differs from one continent to the next.
“The Causasian and the Asian people are quite different,” Japanese coach Mie Hamada acknowledged a few years ago. “The Caucasian bodies do change much more dramatically than the Asians’. We do have body changes, but they are not as big.”
She cited one of her star students, Satoko Miyahara, as a good example: “Satoko’s body is changing, but she works very hard every day and she can reset and adjust day after day to the change. I don’t have any trouble there.”
The system is expanding fast. In Japan, new star Rika Kihira, who won every competition she entered at her first senior year (and is coached by Hamada), has three triple Axels planned in each of her outings.
Alysa Liu, the new U.S. national champion, is on par with Kihira – except she doesn’t have the age limit to compete in the senior ranks. This age limit is in itself a tough constraint on skaters and their coach; the shooting window in a skater’s life is quite short, as it ranges between that age limit and puberty. Having an Olympics take place at that precise moment helps.
How long will these young ladies keep landing their triple Axel remains to be seen.
“You have the choice,” offered Igor Samohin, coach and father of 2016 world junior champion Daniel Samohin. “Either you push them right away to do everything, but then they will have a short skating life. Or you opt for a long career and, as Brian Orser says, you go step by step. At the same time, can a coach, a parent, a federation accept to take the risk of taking time and going step by step, knowing there is an additional risk at puberty?”
Examples of wunderkinds embarking into a long-term career do exist: Michelle Kwan and Irina Slutskaya, in the late 1990s, both won at a tender age and did succeed in staying many years at the top. As did Mao Asada. In those days as well as throughout the whole skating saga, the younger skaters were there to learn and grow, not to shine all at once and disappear, with the risk of mental health problems, disordered eating and depressions that spread out recently.
Samodurova and Konstantinova, the most physically mature of the Russian squad in Minsk, stated firmly that they were there to last in the sport.
Some common answers in Minsk were clear-cut: “This is sport. The wheel has to turn, and it’s just turning faster.”
If this is the route, then what sense does the age limit to access the senior ranks make?
Yet how does skating as a whole benefit from the Kleenex syndrome? The 2015 and 2016 Worlds gold medalist, Javier Fernandez, was clear, it’s penalizing skating: “Why would you come to watch a competition, if after just a few years a skater you had enjoyed watching doesn’t even compete anymore?” he asked.
The Kleenex route nonetheless seems to be favored nowadays. The embroidered tissue becomes the exception, at least in the ladies’ field. For sure the show will be quite different from what we have known it in the past.
The challenge for the best coaches of the world is to find a way to develop the Kwans and the Katarina Witts of tomorrow. Knowing Tutberidze enough, we may be confident that she is striving to do so.
As a reminder, you can watch the European Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.
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