Olympics figure skating preview: the women

Women’s – I refuse to call it “ladies’” – figure skating is the marquee event at the Winter Olympics, similar to women’s gymnastics at the Summer Games. Soon after I started skating in 1996, I tracked the rivalry between Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski. As I’ve mentioned before, the 1998 Winter Olympics had a big impact on me. Since I was just a nine-year-old kid, I rooted for Lipinski, the 15-year-old jumping bean. Kwan, a worldly (at least to me) 17 year old, was the artistic veteran. Lipinski ended up with the gold in Nagano, while Kwan got the silver. Although Lipinski retired soon after her Olympic victory, Kwan continued to compete for years, becoming the most decorated American skater in history. She became hugely important role model to me, especially as a fellow Asian American.

While I’m more excited about the men’s and ice dance fields now, I’ll always take time to watch the women. This Olympics, the gold and silver are virtually guaranteed to go to two Russians (Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva, in either order). However, the battle for bronze should be interesting, with at least five skaters having a legitimate shot for the last spot on the podium.

For the other disciplines, check out posts about men, pairs, and ice dance.

Alina Zagitova (Russia)

This is Zagitova’s first season as a senior skater, and she’s won every competition she’s entered. Zagitova, who’s just 15 years old, knows how to rack up points. All her jumps are in the second half of her programs, which means each jump gets a 10% bonus. I’m not the biggest fan of her programs since they look unbalanced, but I don’t blame her for trying to get as many points as possible.

I think Zagitova’s skating is still “junior-ish”: it often looks like she’s simply going through the motions and checking each element off her list rather than skating a cohesive program. However, she’s unquestionably talented, and she has a smart team that knows how to maximize her scoring potential.

Do I think Zagitova can win the gold? Absolutely. Do I think she should get the gold if she has the best performances at the Olympics? Of course. Do I prefer other skaters to Zagitova? Yes. I like to reward skaters with longevity, especially if they’ve been around for more than one Olympic cycle. But the Olympic gold isn’t about rewarding a skater’s body of work. In theory, at least, it’s about rewarding the skater who has the best performances on Olympic ice. Zagitova has built a lot of momentum, so it’s easy to see her capturing the gold in PyeongChang.

Zagitova’s long program has carried her through this season. She had a trend of performing flawed short programs but then jumping to the top of the podium with clean long programs. At a competition just a few weeks ago, she skated both a clean short and a flawless long program. These performances sent a clear message: she’s ready for the Olympics.

Watch the video if you like: rookie athletes with a lot of momentum, technical precision, balletic grace

Evgenia Medvedeva (Russia)

At the end of last season, I would have said Medvedeva was almost a sure bet for the gold, unless she broke her leg on Olympic ice. In her first two seasons as a senior skater, she won almost every competition she entered, broke world records, and claimed two world championships. She was amazingly consistent and literally unbeatable. Fans gasped when she made a mistake since it was so uncharacteristic.

However, Medvedeva’s been injured for a good portion of this season and just got back onto the ice a few weeks ago. I still don’t think anyone can beat a clean Medvedeva, but she looks more vulnerable post-injury. Zagitova will be ready to sweep up the gold if Medvedeva falters. I’m pulling for Medvedeva though. Although she isn’t my favorite skater, I think she deserves the gold the most due to her consistency, dominance, hard work, and positive attitude.

When I saw Medvedeva in her first senior season in 2015, I thought she was fantastic. However, when I later heard her skating described as “miming,” it lost a bit of its magic. I can’t unsee the miming now. Regardless, Medvedeva is a true competitor with nerves of steel. In her debut season in 2015 to 2016, she was under so much pressure to win the world championship since she had been undefeated. The pressure didn’t faze her: she skated a flawless long program to capture the title.

Watch the video if you like: a blend of athleticism and artistry, reliable athletes who can deliver under pressure, expressive skating

Kaetlyn Osmond (Canada)

When Osmond is on, she has qualities that every other skater would envy: soaring jumps, fast spins, and mature interpretation skills. However, Osmond has trouble pulling off two clean programs in a competition. She wasn’t perfect at last year’s world championships, but she managed to have two solid performances and skated away with the silver. If she keeps her nerves in check at the Olympics, she has an excellent shot at the podium.

Osmond has a confident and dramatic style that I admire. I especially like her short program to an Edith Piaf medley, which she’s used for the past couple of seasons. It’s bold and unique, and Osmond is appropriately showy.

Watch the video if you like: confident skating, big jumps, French music

Carolina Kostner (Italy)

I remember Kostner when she was a gangly, slightly awkward skater at the start of her career. At 30, she’s become mature and elegant, with enchanting performance ability. After winning the bronze at the 2014 Olympics, she took a two-year break from competitive skating (part of this was a suspension due to lying about her ex-boyfriend’s doping offenses). She returned to competition last season, noting that she wasn’t interested in more medals; she just wanted to skate.

Kostner may not have the most technically difficult programs, but she gains ground with her program component score (the “artistic” mark). Compared to other medal contenders, most of whom are in their late teens, Kostner stands out – in a good way. She has the life experience to pull off programs that a skater more than ten years her junior wouldn’t be able to execute successfully.

I’d normally roll my eyes at “Ne me quitte pas,” but Kostner makes it work for her short program. Let me rephrase that: she doesn’t just make it work; she immerses herself into the music. It’s a beautiful, seamless program. There’s no checklist of elements here.

Watch the video if you like: skating that transcends jumping ability, a committed and heartfelt performance, veteran athletes

Maria Sotskova (Russia)

Sotskova isn’t my favorite skater, as no single aspect of her skating stands out to me. That said, she’s consistent and solid. She debuted as a senior skater last season, and she’s picked up several medals. She also knows how to earn points. Most notably, she lifts one arm above her head when she jumps. I can talk endlessly about how unappealing her arm position is, but it doesn’t matter: she still gains points.

Sotskova is skating to Swan Lake for her short program, which is a pretty tired choice for figure skating. In the future, I hope she considers less conventional music, as it might help make her more distinguishable. Since I don’t have much to say about Sotskova’s skating, I’ll note that she wears (literally) dazzling costumes. Girl knows how to bling a dress.

If you want an example of Sotskova’s arm position while she jumps, check out 0:49 of the video below.

Watch if the video if you like: effective skating, traditional music, bejeweled costumes

Kaori Sakamoto (Japan)

The future of women’s skating is in Japan (and Russia), and Sakamoto is a prime example of that. This is Sakamoto’s first season as a senior, and she’s already beaten skaters who have been on the international circuit for years. She wasn’t a frontrunner to make the Japanese Olympic team, but two energetic and clean performances at Nationals clinched her spot. I originally thought the 2022 Olympics would be her time to shine, but who knows what will happen in PyeongChang?

Sakamoto mimes like Medvedeva, but she also wears her heart on her sleeve. At the end of her performances, you know how she feels: she’ll be devastated at the end of a mistake-riddled program, and she’ll jump for joy with a clean performance. She still skates “young,” which is fun to watch. Her long program to Amelie perfectly captures her spirit.

Watch the video if you like: fearless skating, boundless energy, emotion-filled programs

Satoko Miyahara (Japan)

Don’t be fooled by her petite size: Miyahara is a warrior. She was out for the second half of last season due to hip and foot injuries, but she’s gotten back on track this year. She’s a consistent and graceful skater, and I love her posture. However, her jumps are small, and she sometimes gets fewer points for under-rotating them.

Miyahara’s short program this season is one of the standouts in the women’s field. The music is from Memoirs of a Geisha, which happens to be one of my favorite movie soundtracks. The choreography is magical. Arm movements aren’t necessarily the biggest focus in skating, but Miyahara’s matter in this short. Every motion has a purpose.

Watch the video if you like: elegant posture, delicate but strong skating, exquisite arm movements

While I focused on the more serious medal contenders, here are a few other skaters to look out for:

  • Gabrielle Daleman (Canada)
    • Daleman, the bronze medalist at last year’s World Championships, has struggled with her long program this season. However, she reverted to last season’s long program a few weeks before the Olympics and beat Kaetlyn Osmond at Canadian Nationals. This might give her the confidence to skate well at the Olympics.
  • The American women (Bradie Tennell, Mirai Nagasu, Karen Chen)
    • To be honest, I don’t expect much from the American women at the Olympics and would be shocked if any of them placed in the top five. That said, I think it’s very possible for at least two of them to break into the top ten.
      • Nineteen-year-old Bradie Tennell has had a breakthrough season and won this year’s Nationals. While she’s not the most polished skater, she has technically packed programs that – on paper – are on par with the top international skaters.
      • Mirai Nagasu is returning to the Olympics eight years after she competed in the 2010 Olympics as a 16 year old. Nagasu is heading to PyeongChang with guns blazing as she plans to include a triple axel in her programs.
      • Karen Chen, who came in fourth at last year’s world championships, tends to have lackluster results toward the beginning of the season. She’s had issues with her programs this season and has made a couple of changes. However, she usually ends each season on a strong note, so she could be close to the podium at the Olympics.

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