What's the secret to the Russian women's figure skating success?
GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva might as well have been skating in a different competition. The two Russians finished in first and second place in the women's short program on Wednesday as Medvedeva broke her own world record score minutes before Zagitova broke it again. Their dominance, along with a poor showing from the U.S. women, raises the question of why the Russians are so far ahead of the field. The answer lies in both how they train and what they train.
That's not to undersell the athletes. Medvedeva, 18, and Zagitova, 15, are both wonderful skaters. Medvedeva, who was undefeated in international competition for over two years until this January, is the more artistic of the two, her expressive face conveying both the agony and ecstasy of her routines. Zagitova, who ended her older teammate's winning streak at the European Championships in January, is a skilled technician, a prodigious jumper who rarely falls.
But part of the Russian dominance comes from understanding exactly how the judging system works and planning their programs accordingly. Most skaters spread their jumps out throughout their routines. The Russians maximize their scoring potential by placing their jumps in the second half of their programs, when they receive bonus points because their legs are more tired. All three Russian skaters who competed on Wednesday -- Zagitova, Medvedeva and Maria Sotskova -- also jump with one or both arms above their heads, which garners an additional bonus.
"It's a great strategy. It's allowable with the rules," said Tom Zakrajsek, who coaches American Mirai Nagasu, currently in ninth place. "If you're trying to win, you should go for every single point."
If it's such an effective plan, why don't more skaters adopt it? The simple answer: It's really, really difficult.
"Back-end loading is wicked hard," Zakrajsek explained, "because your heart rate maxes out ... you've got lactic acid in your muscles from that point on. To jump and jump well when you're fatigued is wicked hard."
The Russians can do it because they've tailored their practices with this specific goal in mind. "This particular coach trained to it," said American Paul Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist. "They're moving through the jumps and doing them at very moderate speed, but one after another after another. They're getting used to that rapid-fire repetition that would be necessary to do everything after the halfway mark."
Like the Canadian and French ice dancers who won gold and silver earlier this week, Zagitova and Medvedeva also train together in Moscow, under coach Eteri Tutberidze, an environment that breeds competition and contributes to their dominance. Every day, they vie for perfection with each other and with other younger skaters. If they slip up or slack off, there are more skaters to take their place.
"In our group [there are] really so, so, so many young skaters, some of them doing [such] difficult elements, [such] difficult jumps," Medvedeva said. "It just forces you to be stronger. When you see the younger skater who is doing [something] more difficult, you feel so strange inside because you are older and you want to be stronger than them."
Their coach actually showed Zagitova the door a few years ago because she wasn't working hard enough. It turned out to be an exercise in tough love, which the 15-year-old credits for her current success.
"The breaking point happened when my coach told me that I needed to leave," she said. "I cried a lot. For three or four days, I did not practice and it made me realize how much I love this sport. I went back to my coach and said I'm going back to my hometown. That's it, I'm quitting figure skating. But my coach told me, let's try it again. And I was very happy. I had butterflies in my stomach. [If] it wasn't for that moment, maybe I wouldn't be here today."
Medvedeva and Zagitova say they are friends off the ice, but they understand it's a dog-eat-dog situation. "We are friends. We are young girls. We can talk about everything to each other," Medvedeva said. "When we take the ice, this is sport. We must fight. Every competition is a little war."
Zagitova echoed her teammate's sentiment: "During practice, during competitions, I get this feeling of rivalry," she said. "But it's not a negative or malicious feeling of rivalry."
Whoever wins on Friday will earn the Olympic Athletes from Russia's first gold medal of the Pyeongchang Games, a symbolic victory for a country that many feel should not have been allowed to compete at all. Although their athletes can't wear the flag or the uniform, Russian figure skating fans have been among the most consistently vocal and spirited of the Olympics. They fill the stands every day waving flags, chanting their athletes' names and holding signs spelling out "Russian in my heart." Such a dominant victory in their most beloved marquee event would be a way of thumbing their nose at the international community.
Medvedeva and Zagitova aren't worrying about that. "I'm trying not to think about medals," Medvedeva said. "My main goal is just to show a clean free skate and to be satisfied with my performance inside."