GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) – Friends, rivals, and soon, medalists.
The only question is: Which Russian teen figure skating star will end the nation’s gold medal drought?
Alina Zagitova or Yevgenia Medvedeva will almost certainly take gold in one of the Winter Games marquee events after they went 1-2 in the women’s short program Wednesday with the highest scores ever. The 15-year-old Zagitova and the 18-year-old Medvedeva train with the same coach, hang out together and set world records just minutes apart.
With a dominating lead over the field, their friendly competition is the main drama left when the women compete in the free skate Friday. With all of Russia waiting for the first gold medal of the Pyeongchang Olympics, you’d think their relationship could become frayed, but only on the ice.
“We can talk about anything to each other,” the 18-year-old Medvedeva said, “and when we take the ice it’s sport and we must fight. Every competition I feel like (is) a little war.”
Added Zagitova, 15: “We are friends first and rivals second, because you have to have competitiveness in sport.”
Medvedeva had not lost a competition in two years until she was beaten by Zagitova at the European Championships in Moscow. That set the stage for a showdown with a glaring spotlight – as the Russian fans are hoping for a high-profile success at this Olympics where the nation is officially banned because of a doping scandal.
The youngsters responded with world records. Yet neither thought they had done their best.
“I’m satisfied with my performance today. It was not my best, but it was OK,” said Medvedeva, who held the record for a few minutes with a score of 81.61. “All the battle is still ahead.”
A group of Russian fans swayed together in the stands and chanted her name when that number was posted.
Three skaters later came her training comrade, who put down a more difficult program, including a triple lutz-triple loop combination that outdid Medvedeva’s flip-toe loop combo.
So, another world record, 82.92.
And again the Russian fans rocked back and forth, this time chanting Zagitova’s name.
“Well done to her,” Medvedeva said. “She did everything she could.”
Not exactly, Zagitova said.
“A few imperfections,” she explained.
“I’m happy I was able to cope with my nerves and skate well, set a world record,” she added, “but I’ve still got something to work towards and I can’t afford to relax.”
Medvedeva had set the previous record for a short program in the team event last week, when her team won silver. Zagitova handled the free skate.
Russia had never won Olympic gold for women until Adelina Sotnikova took home the medal in Sochi. The nation could have two straight after the free skate.
Canada’s Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman, second and third respectively at last year’s worlds, had varying success.
Osmond, in her best performance of the season, nailed everything with speed and precision to wind up third with 78.87 points. Daleman looked confused and made a gesture with her hands as if to say “What happened?” after going down on the second half of a combination jump. She was seventh Wednesday.
“I left nothing out on the table and I’m really glad I could do that,” said Osmond, the 2017 world silver medalist.
Italy’s Carolina Kostner, the bronze medalist at Sochi and, at 31 the veteran in this field, struggled and wound up just ahead of Daleman.
It was not a strong showing for the Americans, each of whom had a major mistake.
Nine days after becoming the first U.S. woman and third overall to land a triple axel in the Olympics, Mirai Nagasu came down on two feet on the jump, then fell to the ice. While the rest of her program was clean, Nagasu’s chances for an individual medal to go with her team bronze were damaged. Nagasu, 24 and the fourth-place finisher at the Vancouver Games, earned 66.93 points, a season’s best, but was ninth.
“Sometimes it isn’t the right day, and today was one of those days,” Nagasu said. “This isn’t a sport where mistakes are forgiven. You only get one shot.”
U.S. champion Bradie Tennell went first among the 30 skaters, hardly an advantageous position. She led for 2 hours, 40 minutes until the upper echelon began skating and Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto passed Tennell. A fall on the back end of a combination jump – Tennell had been virtually perfect with her jumps in her breakthrough season – was costly.
“It was definitely unexpected. I don’t remember the last time I made a mistake in my short program, especially on the jumps,” Tennell said. “But things happen. We’re all human. We all make mistakes. You just have to get up a keep going. I’m definitely a fighter. I do not give up.”
Tennell ended up 11th, one spot behind Karen Chen, the 2017 American champ. Chen put a hand down on her triple lutz and couldn’t finish a combination jump.
“I’ve been nailing that every day in practice and I expected myself to, and to not be able to do that was a huge disappointment,” she said. “For sure, I was a little flustered after that. But I sold my program the best I could, got the most points I could and I’m proud of that.”
The United States’ worst top placement in a women’s Olympic event since the games resumed in 1948 after World War II is sixth. Getting that high will be a huge challenge.