World plays catch-up as Russian women rule figure skating

Pyeongchang Olympics Figure Skating Women_552010

Evgenia Medvedeva of the Olympic Athletes of Russia performs during the women’s free figure skating final in the Gangneung Ice Arena at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) Kaetlyn Osmond was all smiles after a magnificent free skate at the Pyeongchang Olympics, and a memorable month that began with a gold medal in the team event and ended with individual bronze.

It was, the Canadian figure skater said, the best she could have done.

Especially the way the Russians have come to dominate women’s figure skating.

Alina Zagitova won individual gold with 239.57 points Friday, beating her training partner and close friend Evgenia Medvedeva by less than two points. That they would stand on the top two steps of the podium at Gangneung Ice Arena was about as predictable as the sun rising over the nearby Sea of Japan, the only question left being what order they would finish.

Osmond put together two clean programs for what she claimed was the first time ever, and she still only managed 231.02 points, leaving her a distant – but quite happy – third.

”I’m trying to close the gap,” she said with a smile, ”as little as I can.”

It’s going to take a lot more than one skater from one nation.

The Russian federation has poured vast resources into supporting its women skaters, identifying the top talent as soon they step on the ice. They are squirreled away in the top schools with some of the best coaches, pushed to attempt the hardest jumps and most advanced combinations at the youngest ages, then unleashed on their unprepared rivals in major events.

There appears no end in sight, either.

Zagitova is only 15, so she could certainly be around for at least another Olympic cycle. At the prestigious Junior Grand Prix Final in December, Russian women took the top three spots and five of the top six, the only skater to break the flood was Rika Kihira of Japan.

Indeed, Canada and Japan may be the closest to challenging Russian superiority. The United States? Not so much.

Like their rivals, the Canadians and Japanese tweaked the new scoring system put in place by the International Skating Union several years ago to challenge their young skaters. The result has been an influx of talented athletes capable of putting up the monster technical numbers required to succeed.

Satoko Miyahara finished fourth at the Pyeongchang Games. Kaori Sakamoto was sixth. And along with Mai Mihara, the trio swept the podium at the important Four Continents event this season – an event not involving European skaters.

The Canadians have likewise poured resources into their figure skating program, and the result was evident in their haul in South Korea. They opened the games by convincingly winning team gold, ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir likewise won gold, and the pairs team of Meagan Duhamel and Scott Radford added another bronze to give the Canadians a nation-leading four medals overall.

”To catch the Russians, it’s just going to take doing what we can, pushing as hard as we can, and keep doing it,” Osmond said. ”The Russian girls are impressive, they’re consistent, they do everything the sport is asking for, and that’s just something everyone else has to keep up with.”

Five-time European champion Carolina Kostner, who has spent more than a decade competing at the highest levels, thinks the Russian dominance is cyclical. Young girls became interested in figure skating when the 2014 Winter Games were awarded to Sochi, and that has had a cascading effect to this day.

”There are generations that come strong, but they come and go,” Kostner said. ”Right now it’s Russia that has amazing coaches, amazing schools, and there’s a lot of motivation to see their skaters accomplish so much. For sure, they’ve been working very well.”

Meanwhile, the Americans who once dominated the sport have been forced to play catch-up, just like the rest of the world. That was evident in their showing in South Korea, where Bradie Tennell finished ninth with teammates Mirai Nagasu and Karen Chen right behind her.

It was the worst performance by the U.S. contingent at the Winter Games.

”I can’t speak for everybody, but for me, I’m sticking around and I’m going to work as hard as I possibly can to bring us up in the ranking,” Tennell said. ”I think anything is possible with hard work and determination, and you know, the rest of the world just has to catch up.”

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