PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — All you need to know about Russia’s female figure skaters is that their two-time world champion isn’t even favored here. Evgenia Medvedeva fractured her foot last fall. That’s all it took for Alina Zagitova, her 15-year-old teammate, to vault past her at last month’s European championships.
That’s how it used to be for the Americans, who always came to the Winter Games with both barrels loaded. Tenley Albright and Carol Heiss. Heiss and Barbara Roles. Kristi Yamaguchi and Nancy Kerrigan. Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan.
The United States hasn’t won gold in the Games’ glamour event since Sarah Hughes and Kwan went 1-3 in Salt Lake City in 2002 and hasn’t made the podium since 2006, when Sasha Cohen took silver. If the Americans don’t win a medal here it’ll be their longest drought in Olympic history. “You just never know what’ll happen and that’s why we’re here,” says Mirai Nagasu, who just missed a medal in Vancouver eight years ago. “That’s why we’re competing.”
For the first time since 1998, when Lipinski, Kwan, and Nicole Bobek comprised the team, all three American skaters are present or former national champions. Nagasu won her title in 2008, Karen Chen last year, and Bradie Tennell last month.
The difference is that the Nagano trio already had four global medals on their résumés and had won the previous two world titles so it was no surprise that Lipinski and Kwan collected gold and silver. This team, none of whom has made a world podium, will be fortunate to get a bronze in the competition that begins with Wednesday’s short program.
If the US expectation level is modest it’s because there’s been minimal recent accomplishment amid elite company. The Americans have managed only one world medal in the last decade (a silver by Ashley Wagner in Boston two years ago), haven’t won a Grand Prix final since 2010 (Alissa Czisny), and didn’t qualify for the last two.
The Russians, by contrast, have created a medal machine. Their women have gone from being an afterthought (they didn’t win their first Olympic medal until 1984 or their first gold until 2014) to being the Motherland’s priority. Adelina Sotnikova’s triumph in Sochi was simply the fanfare for what has followed as her countrywomen have claimed the last three world crowns and five medals, plus six of the last seven junior titles.
Making this Russian team was so difficult that Elizaveta Tuktamysheva and Elena Radionova, who took gold and bronze at the 2015 worlds, finished seventh and 10th at nationals where the top six finishers averaged under 16 years old.
Nobody else on the planet is performing at the elevated echelon that the Russians are. Their sophisticated and stylish programs are filled with challenging triple jump combinations and are backloaded to cash in on bonus points.
“The reason why the Russians can do it is because they were brought up to be technically sound,” said Lipinski. “If we’re comparing it to the US, a triple flip-triple toe is still a 50-50 shot for these girls. In Russia it’s almost like walking for them. They’re backloading their programs because they can.”
The Americans, who’ve been behind the technical curve for years, finally are catching up. The 20-year-old Tennell and 18-year-old Chen both do challenging triple Lutz-triple toe combos in their short programs and Nagasu (at 24) performs the devilish triple Axel, which even the Russians won’t risk.
After being passed over for the 2014 team for Wagner, Nagasu vowed that it wouldn’t happen again. “I wasn’t going to let a decision that wasn’t mine keep me from my dreams,” she said. “It’s like getting into a university. If you don’t get in the first time, what are you going to do? Not apply again? You keep applying until you make it happen.”
The triple Axel was Nagasu’s version of a perfect score on the SATs. When she landed it both nights at last month’s nationals she earned her admission here. When she landed it again in the team event (the first American to do it at Olympus), Nagasu made herself a podium contender. “I’m definitely going for it,” she said. “No guts, no glory. If I fall, I take the fall — and get up and keep going.”
Nobody’s betting against the Russians going 1-2, with Zagitova favored based on her Euro victory by more than 5 points over the 18-year-old Medvedeva. “Nothing is proven yet,” Zagitova said. “I still need to skate well in the individual event.”
Third place, though, is up for grabs among Italy’s Carolina Kostner, the Sochi bronze medalist who has made six world podiums, Canada’s Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman, who were 2-3 last year, and whichever American can keep her legs beneath her. “I talked to Kristi Yamaguchi before I left,” said Chen, who was fourth last year. “And she said, anything is possible. It’s the Olympics.”John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.