How Russian figure skaters overtook the United States for the top spot

As Kamila Valieva slid across the ice, a rain of camera shutters echoed through the Olympic figure skating arena. She was the skater to watch on day two of the team event and she delivered the performance that many people had come to see.

Wearing a flowing purple dress that made her look like a Disney princess, Valieva, 15, easily won the short program on Sunday, landing softly with each of her jumps, as if trying not to wake a sleeping baby, and floating through his program without showing even a hint of effort. She received seven perfect marks for artistry (and none of them came from a Russian judge).

Valieva’s score of 90.18 surpassed her nearest challenger, Wakaba Higuchi of Japan, who scored 74.73. Her final score was just short of her world record for the short program, 90.45, which she set last month at the European Championships.

Most important for his Russian team, however, was that his commanding performance lifted the Russian team above the United States and into the top spot in the team standings.

“I’m happy that I was able to bring the maximum points to my team,” Valieva said through a Russian translator. “I did everything I could have done today.”

Hugging a cuddly stuffed bunny in her arms, she added, “I felt very nervous, but also calm.”

After the women’s short program, only five of the 10 teams qualified for the final phase of the competition: the Russian Olympic Committee, the United States, Japan, Canada and China. The Russian team remained in the lead after the end of the men’s free program on Sunday afternoon. The last day of competition is scheduled for Monday.

The United States is in second place and Japan in third. With the standings and points as they are now, the Russian and American teams are already guaranteed to win medals.

Yet Americans ended the day lamenting what might have been. Disappointing performances from Karen Chen and Vincent Zhou, two two-time Olympians who admitted feeling nervous before hitting the ice on Sunday, severely damaged the Americans’ chance of winning the gold medal. Team USA has won bronze in the team event at the past two Winter Games.

On Sunday, Chen finished fifth in the short program after falling on a triple jump and underpinning another jump.

I’m definitely disappointed with the loop because I should have hit it and I know I can hit it,” Chen said. “If I had the chance to go out there and do it again, I know I can.”

She will have that chance on Monday: On Sunday, the United States Figure Skating announced that Chen would skate the women’s long program in this event. Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier will compete in the pairs free skate, but three-time national champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates will make their team debuts in the free dance, replacing Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue.

Zhou, the only person since March 2018 to win gold over three-time world champion Nathan Chen, planned to perform five quadruple jumps but only landed two cleanly. He missed one in total, spinning only once in the air instead of four.

Zhou gave himself a B-minus grade for his effort but said he would easily get back into place for the men’s individual competition, which begins on Tuesday.

“Things will start to fall into place better,” he said.

Friday, the first day of the team competition, the American skaters had a much better performance.

Nathan Chen, the favorite for gold in men’s singles, finished first, as did ice dancers Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue. Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier finished third in pairs.

When competition resumes on Monday, it’s more than likely that Russia will still be in the lead for the gold medal, if only because their women are so far ahead of their competition. The Russian women swept the podium at the 2021 World Championships – and Valieva wasn’t even there. She hadn’t even competed in her first senior event yet.

When asked if she was unbeatable on Sunday, Valieva hugged her stuffed bunny closer and laughed.

She refused to answer the question.

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