Before any talk of triple Axels or quads or such, 15-year-old Kamila Valieva stepped out onto the ice at the start of her short program at Skate Canada and did something seemingly quite simple. But astonishing nonetheless.
Dressed in rose froth, the 15-year-old Russian stretched out a leg far, far up and behind her, up past her head, to the heavens. The leg extension seemed impossible. Down it came, as if she were a butterfly flexing her wings.
And then she let loose with a triple Axel, with both hands above her head. This thing, done in a frame of soft music, was absurdly remarkable.
This kid, the world junior champion only a year ago, now seems to be in the mix to make a Russian Olympic team, perhaps even win a medal, perhaps even win gold.
Every year, there are scores of young Russian women prodigies who suddenly bloom and then fade away. Elizaveta Tuktamysheva was one of them, except that she hasn’t faded away. It’s hard to believe she is 24 years old now, and still a contender, the opposite side of the coin to Valieva. Perhaps Valieva won’t fade away. We don’t know.
Tuktamysheva was born in far-flung Glazov in Russia when master coach Alexei Mishin discovered her. She would travel 27 hours by rail from Glazov to St. Petersburg for instruction. Mishin was so impressed with her jumping abilities that he entered her in the senior national championships when she was only 11. He was criticized for it.
When she was 12, she was practicing triple Axels, but didn’t actually do one in competition until 2015, the year she won a world title. Last year, she was a world silver medal, against all odds.
Tuktamysheva is always going against the grain, beating the odds.
So Friday at Skate Canada, both faced the starting gate in an epic women’s event: the new face, the ever-coming face and then there was Alena Kostornaia, who is a troubled mix of anything and everything in Russia. She was undefeated internationally at the senior level during 2019,2020, won the European title, but championing her triple Axel, didn’t get a chance to compete at worlds, which she might have won. She’s athletic and artistic.
Many woes happened later. She got COVID, switched coaches to Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko for a year, then returned to Eteri Tutberidize. She lost her triple Axel. She kept switching programs. She suffered a back injury, a stress fracture in a leg. She was excluded from the Russian national team for this season, although she’s a first alternate.
Kostornaia found her way to Skate Canada, but not easily. She and others got their passport and Visas to travel to Canada only on October 25, four days before Skate Canada started. And she changed her programs again just before she came to Canada. Her “New York, New York” short program didn’t have many miles on it when she performed it Friday.
Despite all of this uncertainty, in the short program, she finished third, short a quarter of a rotation on her triple Axel.
Triple Axels were coming out of nowhere at this event. Four women did them: Kostornaia, Tuktamysheva, Valieva and American Alysa Liu (hers was underrotated). Stayed tuned for Korean Haein Lee to try one today. She was seen practicing a successful one in Vancouver. She’s currently eighth, with nothing to lose.
All three Russian women suffered from jet lag, and the required quarantine, which made them remain in their rooms for 24 hours, except for practice.
“My body wasn’t so happy to do something because I had jet lag,” Tuktamysheva said. “I am a little bit want to sleep. That’s why I am so happy I can skate in these conditions.” She’s hoping for more energy today.
Valieva was happy that she remained calm. Kostornaia admitted she felt a “little crazy’ sitting in the room. “You start talking to yourself,” she said. “We managed.”
Of course, they are all after a spot on the Olympic team. There are too many talented skaters and only three spots. Tuktamysheva wants a spot, but she doesn’t want to think about it. “I think that was part of the problem in Sochi,” she said.
She’s not afraid to compete against the youngsters. She always tries to improve. “It’s why I compete, I feel I can do better.” She has a lot of experience on her side. And nothing fazes her. “I’m not scared,” she said. “It’s life.”
She said she uses personal words before she competes. She discovered these words a couple of years ago, and they seem to work.
The bar is as high as Valieva goes. She also did her triple flip with her arms above her head, and also a spiral into a triple Lutz (arms above head) triple toe loop (arms above head.)
Her Bielmann spin was usual: with her leg so straight up, she grasped her ankle with both hands, rather than the skate blade. It was another astonishing moment. People were left saying: “Wow.”
All of that got her 48.04 points for technique, while Tuktamysheva and all of her level fours and the same elements, got 45.73.
The top two had near world record scores: 84.19 for Valieva, 81.24 for Tuktamysheva. Kostornaia was far back at 75.58.
Alysa Liu, the American star, was fourth at 73.63 after underrotating her Axel, her triple flip being on a wrong edge. She got exactly the same marks Valieva got for a triple Lutz – triple toe loop combo.
Wakaba Higuchi of Japan, sitting fifth, did a beautiful program to Elton John’s “Your Song,” with choreography done by Shae-Lynn Bourne. Her face was glorious throughout. Worth the price of admission.
Madeline Schizas finished the best of three Canadian women, landing ninth, while doing a double Lutz – triple toe loop, instead of a triple-triple. With a score of 62.61 points, she finished only two-hundredths of a point behind Haein Lee.
The 2020 Canadian champion Emily Bausback finished tenth and Alison Schumacher 11th of 12.