15-year-old figure skater makes Olympics history
BEIJING (AP) — Kamila Valieva walked almost tentatively through Capital Indoor Stadium, juggling her pink-cased cellphone, her ice skates with the fuzzy pink blade guards and the stuffed mascot of the Beijing Games, Bing Dwen Dwen.
Then they all fell in a pile on the floor.
She managed to keep it together better on the ice, where the 15-year-old Russian sensation became the first woman to land a quad in the Olympics — two, in fact. They came during Valieva’s historic free skate inside a historic arena and helped the Russians cap a dominant run to the gold medal in the team event to open the figure skating program.
“I do feel this burden a bit, this pressure, because this is my first season among adult skaters,” Valieva said. “I believe that I’m coping with this pressure, and sometimes it even pushes me forward. It helps me.”
How much farther can she go?
Valieva opened with a huge quad salchow and followed with the difficult triple axel before landing another quad, this time a toe loop in combination with a triple toe loop. The only blemish on her program came when she fell on her quad toe loop late in the program, but by that point, her first gold medal in Beijing was assured.
Another one could come shortly in the individual event, where the Russians are favored to sweep the podium.
“I’m very happy that the most part of my planned program worked out well,” she said.
The Russians finished with 74 points in the team event to win their second gold medal in three editions of it. The U.S. earned the silver after back-to-back bronze medals at the past two Olympics, thanks largely to a winning dance program from Madison Chock and Evan Bates, while Japan climbed onto the team podium for the first time.
The celebration by Team USA was tempered by word shortly before the awards ceremony that Vincent Zhou had tested positive for COVID-19 after his free skate Sunday. Zhou was being tested again Monday and needed to return a negative result or he would miss the start of the men’s competition.
The news was especially stressful for Olympic teammate Nathan Chen, whose highly anticipated quest for individual gold begins with Tuesday’s short program. The two have been part of the same practice group in Beijing.
“We basically said: ‘Vincent, we’re sorry to hear the news. We miss you. We wish you were here because you’re a big part of this team. You helped earn the silver medal,” Bates said after filming a video for him. “And we’re just hoping for the best and that he’ll be all cleared and be able to take part in his individual event.”
The Americans were the talk of Capital Indoor Stadium after Day 1, when Chen won the men’s short program, ice dancers Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue earned the highest score in their discipline and the pairs duo of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier finished third with one of their best short programs.
Valieva wiped out their hard-earned lead all by herself Sunday, then the Russian team began pulling away.
Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov, the reigning world champs, took maximum points in pairs to begin the final day of the team event, even though they inexplicably collapsed to the ice on their final lift. And their ice dancers, Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, finished second to Chock and Bates to clinch the gold medal.
That left no pressure on Valieva to unload the first quad — and the second — by a woman in Olympic competition.
“Everyone accomplished our programs in the best way possible,” Katsalapov said, “so what can I say?”
The only controversy, both in Russia and abroad, was the team’s decision to use the same lineup throughout the event. Two substitutions are allowed and only those who skate earn a medal, leaving some to suggest that Russian teammates Anna Shcherbakova or Alexandra Trusova deserved an opportunity to perform their free skate.
Then again, that would have kept Valieva from being the one to make quad history in the arena in the heart of Beijing known for being the home of “ping-pong diplomacy” in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, the Americans began their day watching a shaky program from Knierim and Frazier leave their team tied with upstart Japan for the silver medal with only the free dance and women’s free skate remaining on the program.
Sinitsina and Katsalapov’s performance to a Rachmaninov piano concerto was timeless and elegant, but they lost a point for an overly long lift sequence to score 128.17 points, giving Chock and Bates the opening they needed.
Performing their avant-garde alien-astronaut love story, the U.S. champions skated with the kind of emotion and precision that could land on them on the dance podium before the Beijing Games are done. Their score of 129.07 was their highest in international competition and, more importantly, edged the Russians by less than a point.
“I honestly had no expectations,” said Chock, who along with Bates captained the American team. “I heard the Russians’ (score) right before we skated and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s such a hefty score.’ And then it was like: ‘All right, focus.’”
With maximum points from their dance, the only way the Americans could squander their long-sought silver medal would be for Kaori Sakamoto of Japan to win the women’s free skate and Karen Chen to finish last for their team.
Chen made sure that wouldn’t happen, following her disappointing short program with a redemptive free skate.
The 2018 Olympian landed all five of her triple jumps, including the same triple loop — paired with a double loop — that sent her spilling to the ice Sunday. As the Cornell student wrapped up her program, set to a piano concerto by Japanese violinist Takako Nishizaki, she had to cover her face in a failed attempt to hold back tears.
“Just coming back from yesterday is a huge thing for me,” Chen said. “I knew I could have landed that loop. I knew that I’ve been training so well and I’m just waiting for that moment. And for today, to go out there and to do that, was just such an incredible feeling. I know it’s the team event, but still it’s an incredible feeling.”
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