Yevgenia Medvedeva on coaching change, moving past controversy and new outlook on figure skating
TORONTO – She was not supposed to be sitting here, in a coach’s office at a skating club in Canada. Yevgenia Medvedeva is Russian, just 18 years old, figure skating world champion in 2016 and 2017, and only eight months ago winner of the singles silver medal at the Winter Olympics in South Korea.
Barely two months after the Olympics, she left her Russian coach of 10 years, Eteri Tutberidze, who had guided her to the top of the figure skating world, for reasons Medvedeva has not discussed except in general terms. The move she made was startling and utterly unexpected.
Star Russian skaters stay in Russia. Never before had one of the sport’s pre-eminent Russians left the country to train with a non-Russian coach. Not since Michelle Kwan in 2001 had a skater with a career record as brilliant on the world and Olympic level as Medvedeva’s made such a dramatic coaching change, and Kwan did it without leaving her native California.
But Medvedeva felt she had no other choice after a tumultuous 2018 season that did not end with the Olympic gold medal she had seemed a lock to win.
“I just thought if I will not do any changing, if I will leave everything how it was, I just wouldn’t compete at all,” Medvedeva said. “I just understood that I really wanted to improve myself. I want to start a new life.”
She made the change huge. She moved from her native Moscow, the only place she had lived, to train with Brian Orser, the Canadian who won singles silver medals at consecutive Olympics and coached a singles winner in the last three Olympics. The distance was not only 5,000 miles but also a world of difference linguistically, culturally, and gastronomically.
At least the cold weather in Canada would not be a shock. The overheated reaction in Russia to her move had been shock enough.
Winter still was a long way off when Medvedeva arrived at the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club on a balmy end-of-summer morning. Orser stood up from his desk and motioned for Medvedeva to sit in his chair for an interview in the cramped office next to the main rink at the club. She had the day off from practice, limiting her physical activity to some work in the club’s upstairs gym.
Medvedeva wore a black warmup jacket and black warmup pants. Her flowing brown hair, star of the Pantene commercials she has done, tumbled over her shoulders. She frequently smiled and laughed while answering questions during the hour-long interview, sometimes playfully hectoring herself to find the right word (“English, hello…”) in her fast-improving and largely self-taught English. She was full of an effervescence that sometimes masks the steely will that lies beneath.
“She has a laser focus and ability to keep moving forward,” said Tracy Wilson, a co-coach with Orser.
Moving forward is what this is all about. And while the recent past has been turbulent for her, she seemed utterly comfortable in the present, in Orser’s chair, as if Medvedeva had been here for years and not just a few months, as if her decision to relocate from Moscow to Toronto had not been fraught with tension and melodrama and misunderstandings and criticism. It has been a lot for an 18-year-old to deal with, even without adding the cultural transition and the mental exhaustion of getting through most of each day in a second language.
That is why, when the interview ended, there had been not only answers to the questions but also a feeling of the surreal, of wondering how it happened that Medvedeva was here in the first place. She is in the odd position of wanting to resurrect a career that has included nothing but titles and medals in her first three seasons as a senior skater.
Everything but an Olympic gold medal.
“When she looks at it, there was a goal that wasn’t met,” said 2015 U.S. champion Jason Brown, who also left his longtime coach to join Orser’s group this summer.
Medvedeva left a Moscow training group currently full of stunningly talented Russian young women, including 2018 Olympic champion Alina Zagitova, 16; the three leading juniors in the world, 14-year-olds Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova (the latter having made history as the first junior woman to land two quads in a free skate) and 15-year-old Alena Kostornaia, all of whom almost certainly will move into senior level competition next season; and two 12-year-olds, Kamila Valieva, who won September’s Moscow Junior Open with a strikingly impressive short program score (75.81); and Daria Usacheva, who won that event.
Medvedeva joined an Orser-directed training group in Toronto full of stunning talents from several countries, including Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, whom Orser has coached to consecutive Olympic gold medals; Javier Fernandez of Spain, an Olympic bronze medalist, two-time world champion and six-time European champion; 2014 Olympic team bronze medalist Brown; and 2018 Olympians Gabrielle Daleman of Canada, a gold medalist in the team event, and Junhwan Cha of South Korea. All but Medvedeva, who turns 19 next month, and Cha, 16, are in their 20s.
“I feel more adult here,” Medvedeva said.
In Moscow, given the composition of the group, the training sessions were relentlessly competitive. In Toronto, where there are no Russians among the men and women Medvedeva trains with, the training is collaborative.
“When you come to Cricket, everyone looks so happy that you don’t feel you came to do heavy work, hard work, only work, work, work and nothing else,” Medvedeva said. “You feel you just came here to improve yourself, to improve your personality, not only your athlete side.”
Medvedeva will not detail her feelings about how things worked in Tutberidze’s group compared to how they do in Orser’s. “I can’t say one way is better or worse,” she said. “It is just another way.”
She also said she appreciated and benefitted from “the so good side” of having been in a highly competitive environment every day of the last few years in Moscow. The new atmosphere in Canada required a mental adjustment.
“Now I have to understand my only rival is me,” she said. “I have to compete with myself to be the best version of myself.”
It will be an occasionally frustrating process with a plan geared to have its fulfillment in the 2022 Olympic season. Orser is reworking parts of Medvedeva’s jump technique, and Wilson is concentrating on making the stroking of her blades more fluid. And her 2018-19 programs are a substantial stylistic departure from what she had done so well in the past.
“She has embraced the idea of rebuilding,” Orser said. “I think she understands that’s the only option, and we may have to take a couple hits along the way.”
People will (or may already have) jump to conclusions every time Medvedeva skates. Medvedeva clearly understands that, saying, “People are always judging so fast. That’s okay.”
When she filled out the Russian Figure Skating Federation document that asks each skater to identify goals for this season, Medvedeva’s replies were neither immodest nor unrealistic: top two finishes in her Challenger Series and Grand Prix events, top two at the Russian and European championships, a medal at the World Championships.
“My main goal for this season is to feel confident, to feel freedom and to feel satisfied with the changes in my life,” she said. “If I do my hard work every day, try to improve myself every day, everyone will see how much my skating has improved.
“My goal for the next four years? I want to show everyone my love for figure skating.”
Wilson, the 1988 Olympic ice dance bronze medalist, sees that powerful love underpinning her equally strong desire to win.
“She has a fierce determination and the soul of an artist,” Wilson said.
Medvedeva’s first appearance under her new coaching team came early last month at the Russian federation’s test skates, which were not judged, in two Moscow-area arenas. Both Orser and David Wilson, the primary choreographer at the Cricket Club, made the trip to support her during what figured to be an emotionally charged return home.
The first test, for the short program, was closed to the public and felt like a practice session. But spectator video soon appeared on the Internet, showing Medvedeva in what looked like practice clothes – black top and tights – giving a solid if unremarkable performance with three clean jumping passes.
The second, for the free skate, was live streamed to the world and took place in the 13,000-seat Megasport Arena, which was nearly filled with paying spectators and adorned with fan posters heralding the top skaters. Once again, she was dressed not in a costume but black top and tights.
“It felt like a world championships, and I can’t say I was ready for this,” Medvedeva said with a laugh. “I was so confused.”
She wound up forgetting most of the choreography in the second half of a free skate performance that included a fall on a triple jump midway through. Orser took some blame for that, having told Medvedeva not to do all the jumps in her final practice, then realizing that change from her past routine may have disrupted her preparation.
Medvedeva shrugged and laughed in answering the question of whether the choreographic brain cramp ever had happened before. “Sometimes, yes,” she said. “It wasn’t nerves (at the test skates). Maybe I was a little confused. I think it was a good experience for me to keep my mind (focused) more.”
Her competitive season began two weeks later at a Challenger Series event, Autumn Classic International, at a small rink 30 miles from Toronto. Dressed in costumes this time, she had obvious flaws in both programs, including a fall on her final jump in the free skate, allowing reigning U.S. champion Bradie Tennell to upset her for the title.
It was Medvedeva’s third straight runner-up finish after having won 13 straight competitions dating to the fall of 2015. During part of that streak, she had executed 282 straight jumps without a fall.
“It’s that first pancake,” Orser said of Medvedeva’s skating at Autumn Classic, drawing on the adage that each successive pancake usually comes out better. “(It was) putting everything out for real and seeing what changes we need to make. It’s important to keep our eyes on the big picture throughout the season.”
If she felt any disappointment, she did not express it publicly. She already was looking forward to cleaning up the mistakes before her Grand Prix Series debut at Skate Canada Oct. 25-28 in Laval, Quebec (NBC, Oct. 28, 4-6 EDT; complete coverage, NBC Sports Gold “Figure Skating Pass.”)
Before the Autumn Classic, a competition one level below the Grand Prix, Medvedeva was very clear about the amount of work yet to be done in the planned four-year effort.
“We did a lot of work already,” she said. “It’s one percent of the work (we will do).”
Orser noted that the home screen of her mobile phone says, “Beijing 2022.” It is both motivation and a reminder that the ultimate goal still is well down the road, so patience is important.
“She has such determination,” Tracy Wilson said. “It’s like the Canadian women’s hockey team – first or nothing. We’re training for the next four years but, let’s not kid ourselves, there is one result, in her opinion.”
That would be the gold medal that eluded her in 2018 by 1.31 points, 239.57 to 238.26, after she had utterly dominated the sport in the 2016 and 2017 seasons, with the two world titles, two European titles, two Grand Prix Final titles and two national titles. Medvedeva began last season as the most overwhelming women’s Olympic singles favorite in the four Winter Games since skating began using the International Judging System, which has made results less predictable.
But doubt and a lingering injury and the startling rise of Zagitova combined to turn Medvedeva into an underdog by the time the 2018 Winter Games began in South Korea.
Early last season, Medvedeva’s coaches decided to switch the music of her free skate from relative abstractions to something that told a story, in this case that of Anna Karenina. With her expressive face, Medvedeva had been a master storyteller in free skates the previous two seasons, but the change back to her apparent comfort zone proved unsettling to her.
So was the decision to lighten the load technically. She opened the season at the Nepela Trophy Challenger Series event by doing all seven triple jumps in the second half of the free skate, where they earned a 10 percent bonus. By her next competition – and at the Olympics – she would do just four of seven triple jumps in the second half.
“I understood it (fewer possible points) could be bad for my results in the future, but I trusted my coaches,” Medvedeva said. “My coaches cared about my health because they thought I was not strong enough to keep it clean.”
Medvedeva’s training had been affected before the season began by pain in the right foot, the takeoff foot for the two most difficult pick jumps (lutz, flip) and the landing foot for all her jumps. In mid-November, after she had managed to win both her Grand Prix events, the federation announced she had a stress fracture. Soon after that, she withdrew from the Grand Prix Final in early December and the Russian Championships in late December. She had won those events decisively the previous two seasons.
In her absence, the precocious Zagitova won both. Her triumphs set off a seismic shift in the pecking order for the rest of the season that was underscored at January’s European Championships. Medvedeva sensed it.
“It’s impossible not to feel that when you know that all those competitions you didn’t compete, you lost your priority,” Medvedeva said. “European Championships was very hard for both my mind and my body because my body wasn’t ready ready.”
It was only two weeks before Europeans that she began to practice at nearly full strength after what she called, “two months on the sofa,” interrupted occasionally by fruitless and usually painful attempts to jump. She had lost conditioning and muscle tone. She was second in both the short program and free skate to Zagitova at Europeans, the only time she has lost both programs in her three full seasons on the senior level.
A month later came the Olympics, when Medvedeva felt her overall fitness was much better than what it had been at Europeans, even if still was less than 100 percent. She said to herself, “All or nothing.” She was not nervous. She would even take a moment during her step sequence in the free skate to realize how special it felt to be competing at the Olympics.
“I can’t say I was weak,” she said. “I was strong. Strong enough.”
That seemed apparent in the short program, when Medvedeva got a world best score, a mark that stood 10 minutes before Zagitova topped it. They tied in the free skate, with Medvedeva taking first in that phase because of her higher component scores. The difference in the overall result would amount to the higher base value of Zagitova’s combination and solo triple jumps in the short program. Neither had a single negative grade of execution on the 19 elements each performed.
Only once before at an Olympics, when Kwan won the short but Tara Lipinski won the free and the title (under the old 6.0 scoring system) in 1998, had the top two women skated so brilliantly. And there was another similarity. Like Zagitova, who went from ninth in the 2016 Russian junior championships to Olympic champion in 2018, the 15-year-old Lipinski was an ingénue whose rise was meteoric: from 15th at the senior world championships in 1996 to the youngest Olympic skating gold medalist in history two years later. Zagitova, one month older than Lipinski had been in 1998, became the second youngest.
The result left Medvedeva crestfallen, heartbroken, disconsolate – pick one or all. She bravely smiled through a TV interview after getting the silver. “Inside, that was so difficult,” Medvedeva said.
It was likely the best chance at a gold Medvedeva will have. It was so close.
“She carries that pain deep inside her,” said Olympic pairs skater and longtime TV commentator Sandra Bezic, who helped choreograph Medvedeva’s current short program. “It has given her such determination and such depth. I think she has something to prove to herself. Otherwise, why do this?”
I asked Medvedeva how much disappointment she still felt. After all, she had lost to someone with whom she had trained every day for a few seasons, the lady-in-waiting who suddenly had become the sport’s queen.
“Now, when I sit here in the Cricket Club and talk with you in English language, I am not disappointed at all,” she said. “But that was so hard a time for me, and I think everybody knows that.
“I feel sad about the result sometimes. If I skated good and got second, that means I have to improve myself.”
Earlier in the interview, she had answered a question about Zagitova’s ascendancy by asking, “Can we please not talk about Alina?” But later, there was something she wanted to say about Alina, to debunk any suggestions or reports that she was critical of the judging in South Korea.
“Just not to allow any discussion about my words: I just want to say the judging was really justice. The judging was correct,” Medvedeva said. “I saw how Alina worked all the time, and she worked really hard. I don’t know why a lot of people decided I think the judging was incorrect.”
There has been so much discussion about words, so much parsing of them – and so many dyspeptic reactions on social media - since Medvedeva, through the Russian federation, announced May 7 she was leaving Tutberidze’s team to work with Orser.
Medvedeva had been a Russian sports icon, eliciting national pride even among those of her compatriots who liked other skaters more. The Russian Olympic Committee brought her to an International Olympic Committee meeting last fall to have her help make the case for Russian athletes’ inclusion in the 2018 Winter Olympics despite the country’s longstanding doping problems.
“Maybe I’m living in Canada, but I’m staying Russian,” Medvedeva said. “I feel comfortable here, but in Russia I feel like I am at home.”
In choosing that middle ground, in seeing herself as a Russian woman of the world, she has taken the higher ground. But some denounced her as a turncoat, no matter that she does not intend to compete for any other country but Mother Russia. On social media, there is no middle ground. People either loved her or hated her.
“Fifty percent really supported me, said ‘We believe in you, you can do anything.’ The other 50 percent say that I’m a horrible person,” Medvedeva said. “I wasn’t surprised about the hate, but I was so surprised and happy about the support I had.”
There now is such tension in the situation that Medvedeva and the Cricket Club coaching team choose their words carefully, partly because of things potentially getting misconstrued in translation.
An interview Orser gave to a Russian journalist upon arriving in Moscow for the test skates, in which he talked in English of “training Medvedeva as an adult,” lost some nuance in Russian and angered Tutberidze.
When Orser was quoted about Trusova’s possibly being a “short-lived phenomenon” in an icenetwork story last May about age limits, Tutberidze was offended. “I have a feeling that Orser challenged me,” she told Russian television.
“She (Tutberidze) is obviously doing amazing work with these young girls,” Orser told me last week.
Tutberidze, whose demanding approach with her students came through loud and clear in a 2017 Russian TV documentary that no longer is available on YouTube, plainly seems sensitive to any suggestions she can coach only young girls, whose pre-pubescent bodies make extraordinary jumping easier and who are more likely to do everything a coach tells them. Such criticism began when Yulia Lipnitskaya, the 15-year-old darling of the 2014 Olympics, split with Tutberidze the following year and officially retired at 19, citing long-term struggles with anorexia.
In her reaction to Medvedeva’s departure, Tutberidze would say one thing that utterly changed the dynamic, creating the usual bonfire of the insanities on social media.
After the Olympics, Medvedeva knew her foot needed more time to heal, so she withdrew from the world championships in late March. That gave her time to think about her future as a competitive skater.
“It took hours alone just closed in my room – hours, hours, hours,” she said.
“I really wanted to continue. I didn’t think about retiring. I’m only 18, come on. But I thought if I will not change something for myself, I might retire.”
On April 2, she sent Orser a text message asking if they could meet three weeks later in South Korea, where she was skating in a show he helped organize. At that meeting, Orser said, Medvedeva told him of her need for change and earned his respect by promising she would say nothing bad about her coaching situation in Moscow.
“I grew up in front of Eteri. . .She made an invaluable contribution to the development of me not only as an athlete, but also as a person,” Medvedeva said in a statement when the change was made public. “From her I got many life lessons. I will remember them all my life. On the rink ‘Crystal,’ my childhood passed; I will remember with gratitude the time of hard but fruitful work.”
Four days before that, Russian media had begun reporting the split was imminent. A day before the announcement, Tutberidze told a Russian TV network that her messages to Medvedeva had gone unanswered for several weeks and that she learned the skater was leaving from a news report. The coach then dropped the bombshell, recounting a conversation at the 2018 Olympics, with Tutberidze saying a plaintive Medvedeva allegedly had asked why Zagitova couldn’t have been kept out of those Winter Games.
“There was this really childish phrase: ‘Couldn’t you have kept Alina in the juniors for one more year?’” Tutberidze recalled Medvedeva asking, according to the Associated Press. “I said…we have to give everyone the same chance.”
Medvedeva said she did not recall precisely what she might have said to the coach in the emotional maelstrom after the Olympic event ended with her finishing second. “I didn’t say that. I don’t remember exactly, but even if I say something, I didn’t mean it like this,” she said. Asked if Tutberidze’s public recounting of what the coach had remembered made her angry, Medvedeva said, “That made me confused. I started to think, ‘When (did) I say this?’ and I don’t remember.”
She did not want to say anything else about her relationship with the ex-coach or what it was like to see Tutberidze again at the test skates. Medvedeva has kept her promise not to speak negatively about her previous coaching situation.
“It’s awkward,” Orser said. “I think she (Yevgenia) is fine with the awkwardness. We all go through it.”
Orser remembers his first encounter with Yuna Kim after the South Korean, whom he had coached to 2010 Olympic gold, had severed their professional relationship a few months later. It was a breakup that included public sniping on both sides but no nationalistic implications.
They met each other unexpectedly in a narrow hallway at the 2013 World Championships. With nearly three years’ time since the split to heal the hurt, they exchanged hugs.
It remains hard to understand what prompted Tutberidze to impugn Medvedeva by bringing up the “really childish phrase” – or what the coach would gain from saying it. Through a Russian Figure Skating Federation spokesperson, Tutberidze has declined multiple requests for an interview in the weeks following the split and again last week.
Tracy Wilson feels lucky to be given the chance to continue the coaching of a skater whose skills already had been developed to a world-beating level.
“We don’t for a minute take for granted the fantastic training Yevgenia had in Russia to get to this point,” Tracy Wilson said. “For me, it’s an honor to work with someone of Yevgenia’s quality.”
Medvedeva and her mother, Zhanna Devyatova, arrived in Toronto June 16 and were set up for the first few months in an apartment within easy walking distance of the Cricket Club. (They recently moved into another nearby apartment.) Brown, as nice a person as one could ever find, smoothed the arrival by picking them up at the airport, getting them settled in the apartment, taking them to the grocery store, setting Yevgenia up with a new cell phone, Internet and TV and driving her to the rink every day for a few weeks.
By then, Orser had spent a lot of time looking at video of areas of Medvedeva’s skating he wanted to address. One was her double Axel. Another was her much-decried “flutz,” a takeoff for her triple lutz that usually came from the wrong (inside) edge but had gone uncorrected because it rarely drew any penalty from judges. At the Autumn Classic, both her triple lutzes received “not clear edge” warnings, which carry a deduction in the Grade of Execution score.
“I want to fix it; she wants to fix it,” Orser said. “We’re getting there. She has done a lot of lutzes on the outside edge in practice. But it’s typical for athletes learning new technique to fall back on old habits when they are under pressure.”
Orser does not harp on mistakes or point out every one. Said Medvedeva, with a laugh: “I can punish myself.” But there are times, he said, when she asks the coaches to be harder on her.
Orser had gained her trust at the end of that initial meeting in South Korea when he asked if she had been thinking of music for next season. She answered, “I want to skate to (Astor Piazzola’s) Libertango and nothing else.” Orser replied, “Okay, let’s do a tango.”
So David Wilson made part of Libertango the concluding section of her tango free skate.
“She’s ready to have that input and take that responsibility now,” Orser said. “Maybe she wasn’t two years ago.”
Medvedeva explained music choices had been made differently in Russia. If she mentioned a piece she liked, the coaches would reply they had a better idea for her programs. If she did not like their choice at first, the answer was she needed more time to understand it. In the end, Medvedeva said, she came to understand and like all the programs, including the 2017 free skate with the jarring score from “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” a film about the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“I can’t say I didn’t have any opportunity for choice,” she said. “But that was more controlled by the whole (coaching) team and less controlled by me. Here, my skating is more half and half, half controlled by Tracy, by Brian, by David, by Paige (Aistrop, the spin coach) and half controlled by me.
“If I will decide to change something in the free program, nobody will say something to me. Brian and Tracy (might) say, ‘Maybe (the way it had been) is better for you.’ But if I say, ‘No, I want this,’ they will not say something.”
Choreographers Wilson and Bezic gave her the short program music, “Orange Colored Sky,” Natalie Cole’s version of a 1930 song made famous by her father, Nat King Cole. They wanted her to interpret it with an attitude, which Bezic described as “a little sexy, a little sassy, a little naughty.”
To help her understand the concept, Bezic showed Medvedeva photos of the Petty and Vargas pin-up girl drawings frequently used for ice skating show program covers in the 1950s. The costume she wore to skate it at Autumn Classic had a bit of a Flapper Era vibe.
“This is a new image for me – absolutely, totally,” Medvedeva said, “so I was surprised I really feel comfy with this image. I’m happy I understood so fast the image and the movements.”
It will take more time, of course, for her to make those movements a convincing interpretation while she does the four jumps, three spins and footwork sequence in the short program. At this point, cleaning up the flaws in the triple lutz and double Axel is more important to her. They also have been working on her spins and step sequence. And, at her request, there will be different costumes for Skate Canada.
All this – and the rest of the process – may take longer than she hopes, and critics may rush to judgment about her future based only on minimal evidence from the present. Then Medvedeva need only remember how comfortable she already was in her coach’s office chair at the Cricket Club and with the choice that got her there.
“I think I did the right decision,” she said.
She paused, and then rephrased that thought.
“No,” she said, “I’m sure I did the right decision.”
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating
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