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The Strength of Russian Figure Skating in the Crazy Corona Season

by Tatjana Flade

The Strength of Russian Figure Skating in the Crazy Corona Season

(17 December 2020) Figure skating in Russia has been affected by the pandemic as sports have been worldwide. However, Russian skaters get more opportunities to compete at high level as national events are held and they might come out of the crisis even stronger than before. While many international and national competitions have been cancelled, Russia managed to conduct the traditional test skates in September as well as the five events of the national Cup of Russia series and the Grand Prix Rostelecom Cup. All this gives a good overview of Russian skating before the Russian Championships December 24-27 in Tcheliabinsk in the Ural mountains.

The Ladies: Quad Queens and More

The Russian ladies have been dominating since 2014 – Adelina Sotnikova claimed gold at the Sochi Olympic Winter Games in 2014, Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva took gold and silver at the PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games four years later. The Russians claimed four of six World titles in the past six years. Currently, Zagitova has taken a break from competing and it is uncertain whether she will return and Medvedeva has struggled with injuries and illness. However, the new generation is ready: The trio of Alena Kostornaia, Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova swept the podiums at the 2020 European Championships and the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final. Behind them, a strong group consisting of 2015 World Champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, 2019 European Champion Sofia Samodurova and current juniors such as World Junior Champion Kamila Valieva that will be age-eligible for the Olympic Games next season are challenging for spots on the team.

“Quad queen” Trusova, 16, and two-time Russian Champion Shcherbakova, 16, won their two Russian Cup events and landed quadruple jumps. Trusova has changed coaches from Eteri Tutberidze to Evgeni Plushenko in spring and showed a lot of improvement in her presentation skills. At the same time, she did not lose her jumps, although she has grown in the spring. However, hampered by an injury, Trusova was far from her best at the Rostelecom Cup and came only fourth after missing three of her quads. According to coach Plushenko, she is preparing for Nationals.

Kostornaia, 17, who changed coaches unexpectedly in July and now, like Trusova, works with Plushenko and his team, has not yet her triple Axel back, but still impressed with the quality of her skating when she came second to Trusova in Kazan earlier in November. She placed also second at Rostelecom Cup but then caught the Corona virus and missed the fifth Russian Cup event. Kostornaia is back in training and hopes to be ready for Nationals.

Tuktamysheva, 23, on the other hand, still has her triple Axel and landed it in her competitions in Sochi at the third event of the national series (she placed third) and Rostelecom Cup. In Moscow she claimed gold with an extraordinary performance in the Free Skating. The 2015 World Champion came down with Covid-19 like Kostornaia and others, but was able to resume training in the second week of December and went with coach Alexei Mishin and other skaters of her training group to Novogorsk for a pre-Nationals camp. Tuktamysheva hoped to have the quad toe ready for Nationals, but with the unforeseen break it is uncertain whether she can get that jump consistent enough to include it into her program.

Shcherbakova looked strong in her Russian Cup events, but then missed the Rostelecom Cup as she was diagnosed with pneumonia. She is expected to have recovered and to compete in Tcheliabinsk.

Samodurova is still working on getting her amazing consistency back that took her to the top of the podium at the European Championships in 2019. There have been some ups and downs for the 18-year-old this season with some better and some worse performances. However, Samodurova won the St. Petersburg City Championship with two solid performances which should give her confidence. Another student of Mishin, Anastasia Guliakova, earned the bronze medal at Rostelecom Cup and has shown consistency, but lost points with under-rotations.

Medvedeva made headlines when she switched back to former coach Eteri Tutberidze and her team in September. She had left Tutberidze in 2018 following the Olympic season for Brian Orser and moved to Toronto. Then the pandemic made it impossible for her to return to Canada and long-distance coaching via internet did not really work out. However, the two-time World Champion had no chance to show any results of the coaching change as she been plagued by injuries, then got sick with Covid-19 and was even hospitalized. The 20-year-old was unable to compete yet this season and has withdrawn from Nationals. She resumed light practice on December 8.

Valieva, World Junior silver medalist Daria Usacheva and Maia Khromykh are competing at the senior level nationally and showed impressive performances. Although she had a growth spurt, Valieva hit her quadruple toe loop in competition at the second Russian Cup event in Moscow and then landed her triple Axel for the first time at the fifth Russian Cup in the Short Program. Usacheva shone without a quad, Khromykh is showing a lot of promise as well.

While the current generation of Russian Ladies is incredible, more is to come: 14-year-old Sofia Akatieva, another student of Team Tutberidze, landed two quadruple toe loops and a triple Axel in Kazan and Sofia Samodelkina,13, coached by Sergei Davydov, impressed with a triple Axel and quad Salchow in Moscow at the fifth Russian Cup. Another prodigy is Veronika Zhilina, 12, now coached by Plushenko, who has performed the triple Axel and quad toe as well.

These youngsters won’t be at senior Nationals, but even without them the competition will be extremely tough with Shcherbakova, Valieva, Trusova, Tuktamysheva, Kostornaia and Usacheva as the top medal contenders.

The Men: Catching Up

The Russian men have fallen behind the women and the last time a Russian man was on an Olympic podium in the individual event was Plushenko in 2010. But Russia does have very talented men. Mikhail Kolyada won the bronze medal at the World Championships 2018, the first Russian man in seven years to do so. However, inconsistency and health problems hindered his progress and the now 25-year-old even missed the past season completely as he recovered from sinusitis and nose surgery. Written off by many, Kolyada came back with a bang this season. He made a long expected coaching change to the legendary Alexei Mishin, coach of Plushenko and many others, and impressed at the test skates in September. The two-time Russian Champion went on to win his first competitions in Sochi and the international event Ice Star Minsk as well as the Rostelecom Cup, combining technical difficulty and excellent artistry especially in his free program to “Nureyev”, inspired by the famous ballet dancer. Kolyada hopes to bring back soon the quad Lutz and quad Salchow that he has been landing in practice.

Dmitri Aliev became the first Russian European Men’s Champion since – you guess it, Plushenko – when he won the title in Graz, Austria, earlier this year. The 21-year-old, who has the quad Lutz and quad toe in his arsenal as well as strong presentation skills missed the test skates due to injury problems and was not yet at his best when he ranked third in Sochi and fifth at Rostelecom Cup. Aliev contracted Covid-19 after the Grand Prix and it seems uncertain whether he will be ready for Nationals.

Petr Gumennik, 18, claimed the bronze at his senior Grand Prix debut in Moscow and shone especially in the Short Program. At the fifth Russian Cup event, the 2020 World Junior bronze medalist landed a quad Lutz for the first time in competition, but made other mistakes. His Free Skating was much better and so he won the competition.

World Junior Champion Andrei Mozalev, 17, had a successful start into his senior-level career as well. He has mastered the quad flip and finished second in Sochi and in Kazan in the National series. At the Grand Prix in Moscow the skater from St. Petersburg placed a respectable fourth. However, in his events he made errors in the Short Program and came back strong in the Free Skating.

2019 European silver medalist Alexander Samarin, 22, is mostly known as a strong jumper, but back problems have stopped him from performing his best this season so far and he has withdrawn from Rostelecom Cup. He is entered for Nationals. Makar Ignatov, 20, has added the quad loop to his arsenal, but a lack of consistency is holding him back.
2020 European silver medalist Artur Danielian, who just turned 17, has been sidelined with an ankle injury for several months. At the beginning of December, he was not yet back on to the ice, but was working off the ice and he was not entered for Nationals, obviously.

Some of the younger men drew attention at events leading up to Nationals: Evgeni Semenenko, 17, from Mishin’s school claimed victory at the fourth event of the Russian Cup and landed three quads – loop, toe and Salchow – at the St. Petersburg Championship. Artem Kovalev, 17, a student of Alexander Volkov and Plushenko, won the first and second stage of the Russian Cup, but wasn’t that impressive at the Grand Prix. They are still more juniors than senior-level skaters, but they do have potential as have some others such as Ilia Yablokov.

Kolyada has shown the best results of the Russian men this season so far and is more consistent than in the past, but he needs to deliver and has to watch out for the “boy group” of Mozalev, Gumennik, Semenenko. Aliev and Samarin are certainly top contenders as well, but it remains to be seen if they return to form in time.

The Pairs: Young and Beautiful

Russian Pair skating is on the way to former dominance. The country boasts a deep field of young and talented teams that are ready to challenge for the top prize at any competition. Three of these couples competed in Kazan and the results were somewhat surprising but fair: 2019 ISU Grand Prix Final bronze medalists Anastasia Mishina & Alexander Galliamov had failed to make the team for Europeans in the past season but now they proved that they can beat anybody. Mishina & Galliamov switched coaches to Tamara Moskvina and Artur Minchuk in March and train now with 2020 European Champions Aleksandra Boikova & Dmitrii Kozlovskii. They won in Kazan with two flawless performances. Boikova & Kozlovskii made some smaller errors and had to settle for third place this time. Sandwiched in between these two teams from St. Petersburg were two-time World silver medalists Evgenia Tarasova & Vladimir Morozov, who also made some mistakes but overall looked stronger than they had in the past season. At the Grand Prix, Boikova & Kozlovskii came out on top with an excellent Free Skating while Mishina & Galliamov settled for the silver. Tarasova & Morozov did not compete at the Grand Prix as she fell sick with pneumonia after the Russian Cup in Kazan.

2020 European bronze medalists Daria Pavliuchenko & Denis Khodykin won the second and third event of the Russian Cup series without much competition. Khodykin suffered an injury in Sochi which prevented the team to skate to their full potential there and then caught a cold, so they withdrew from Rostelecom Cup. He should be recovered for Nationals.

2020 World Junior Champions Appollinaria Panfilova & Dmitry Rylov missed the Russian Cup series, but claimed the bronze at Rostelecom Cup. They have been working on getting a consistent side-by-side triple jump that they were missing last season. It didn’t work yet at the Grand Prix, but the Pair elements were of excellent quality.

Behind the top five are several other up and coming teams: Iasmina Kadyrova & Ivan Balchenko from Perm, 2020 World Junior silver medalists Ksenia Akhanteva & Valeri Kolesov, 2020 World Junior bronze medalists Iuliia Artemeva & Mikhail Nazarychev and others.

Ice Dance: The Question Mark

Russia has a very long, successful Ice Dance tradition. Then there was decline in the years following the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games. While Elena Ilinykh & Nikita Katsalapov won the bronze medal at the Sochi Games, no Russian dance team won a World medal from 2014 to 2018. The medal draught ended in 2019 when Nikita Katsalapov with his new partner Victoria Sinitsina took the silver medal at Worlds. They went on to take the European title in 2020. However, due to injury they have not yet done a full competition this season – they withdrew during the free dance at the Russian Cup event in Moscow as Sinitsina had pain in her knee. At Rostelecom Cup, the couple won clearly, but missed a lift in the Free Dance. Multiple European medalists Alexandra Stepanova & Ivan Bukin have not yet competed either. At first, Stepanova had back problems and then they and other in their training group were sick with Covid-19 and the skaters had to quarantine.

Tiffani Zagorski & Jonathan Guerreiro expectedly earned the silver medal at the Grand Prix in Moscow. The 2018 Olympians showed strong performances and also won the Russian Cup event in Sochi. 2018 World Junior Champions Anastasia Skoptcova & Kirill Aleshin seem on the rise this seaon, taking the bronze medal at Rostelecom Cup and claiming victory in their Russian Cup events.  The new team of Elizaveta Khudaiberdieva & Egor Bazin has drawn attention as well with strong showings at the Russian Cup and their debut at the Grand Prix where they finished fourth.
Annabelle Morozov & Andrei Bagin have shown promise as well. While Sinitsina & Katsalapov and Stepanova & Bukin can challenge the top teams in the world and Zagorski & Guerreiro are closing the gap, the other Russian ice dancers still have to catch up.

Illness and Injuries

The Covid-19 pandemic took its toll on Russian skaters as well. Quite many contracted the virus, luckily most of them got over it quickly. However, some fell really sick and developed pneumonia. Others were also diagnosed with pneumonia and it is unclear whether this was related to a Covid-19 infection. There has been criticism that health and safety measures were not observed thoroughly enough at the events, but they were held according to the rules of the Russian health authorities which for example allowed skaters and coaches to sit in the Kiss & Cry without a mask. By the time Rostelecom Cup came around, most people were wearing masks properly and paid attention to hygienic and social distancing rules, but this was not visible on TV. There have been many reports on Covid-19 cases in the Russian skating community as skating is very much in the public eye. However, there also have been many cases in Canada, France, Germany and other countries that just were not made public.

Many skaters were affected by injuries. Nikita Katsalapov and other said that this was likely a result of the lack of preparation time due to the quarantine that lasted from spring to early summer.