Skaters from the former Soviet Union and Russia had been a dominant force in the men’s, pairs and ice dance fields for decades. Over the years, skaters in those disciplines claimed 51 Olympic medals and countless other international titles.
But this has not been the case with the ladies. Maria Butyrskaya won the first World title for her nation in 1999. She and Irina Slutskaya were part of a wave that swept the European podium four times (1999-02), and saw two Russian women land on three consecutive World podiums (1998-2000).
That reign abruptly ended in 2005 when that generation of skaters retired, and there was no one waiting in the wings to fill the gap.
Russia is now experiencing a resurgence in the ladies discipline. A number of talented young skaters have risen in the junior ranks, and more are on the horizon.
Last season, Polina Agafonova, Polina Shelepen and Anna Ovcharova ranked third, fourth and fifth at Junior Worlds.
Adelina Sotnikova and Liza Tuktamysheva finished one-two at the Junior Grand Prix Final last December and will be top podium contenders at this year’s Junior Worlds.
Behind them is a new generation getting ready to hit the junior ranks, spearheaded by Julia Lipnitskaya, Elena Radionova and Alexandra Deeva.
What happened? The Russian coaches have no explanation for this turn of events.
“Everything in nature oscillates,” said Tuktamysheva’s coach, Alexei Mishin. “For a long time we didn’t have girls and now we do. It is an oscillating moment in Russian figure skating because now we have many girls but no boys, and we always had only boys.”
Sotnikova’s coach, Elena Vodorezova, is equally perplexed. “The girls are growing like mushrooms now,” she said. “We, the coaches, are also laughing at this development. New girls are coming up, but the boys are not. We are surprised about that.
“Maybe the time has come to make up for the fact that there were always a lot of boys. But the more we have the better it is, no matter if they are boys or girls. The most important thing is that there is someone.”
Eteri Tutberidze, who coaches both Shelepen and Lipnitskaya, believes that the rivalry between the girls themselves is the reason. “The competition is very tough now,” Tutberidze said.
It bodes well for Russian skating that most of these young ladies not only jump, but also have beautiful spins and solid presentation skills.
“There are many skaters who can either only jump or skate well,” Sotnikova’s coach explained. “Adelina can jump, spin and skate. These are rare qualities.
“Women‘s figure skating goes into a feminine direction, and although she is little, you can already see the femininity developing,” Vodorezova added.
Sotnikova, 14, started skating at age 4 after going to a rink with her mother. “We never planned a career in figure skating,” she said. “The coach found a pair of skates for me that day and I put them on and went out on the ice. I started to run, fell, stood up, not crying, fell and got up again. Others were falling and crying but I took off like a meteor.”
Tuktamysheva,14, who discovered the sport after attending a vacation camp where others told her about skating, has landed a triple Axel in practice.
She still trains in Glazov with her first coach, Svetlana Veretennikova, but spends about 10 days a month in St. Petersburg where she is coached by Mishin. “The train ride from Glazov to St. Petersburg takes 27 hours,” Tuktamysheva said. “It was hard at the beginning, but now I’m used to it and I can relax on the train.”
The talented young athlete takes a realistic approach to her skating. “I don’t see myself as a wunderkind,” she explained. “I have excellent coaches who do everything to bring me to the highest performance level but there are other girls in Russia and I’m not that much better than they are.”
Fourteen-year-old Agafanova from St. Petersburg is the new Russian spin queen. Her layback is likely the best in the world right now and she consistently lands triple Lutz-triple toe combinations.
So does Shelepen. “When Polina first showed up everyone was surprised that an 11-year-old girl could do all the triples, but nobody is surprised anymore,” Tutberidze explained. “The 11-year-olds don’t just do triples, they do triple-triple combinations. I believe that the new judging system has pushed this development.”
While Agafonova, Shelepen and Ovcharova (who is out this season recovering from a foot injury) will be eligible to compete at the senior level next season, Sotnikova (who missed the deadline by one day) and Tuktamysheva will have to wait another year.
Lipnitskaya, just 12, who relocated from Ekaterinenburg to train in Moscow in the spring of 2009, stands out because of her flexibility. “As a child she practiced rhythmic gymnastics, and that’s where that comes from,” her coach explained.
She will be eligible to compete in the junior ranks next season, but Moscow’s Radionova, the youngest of the prodigies who turned 12 in January, will have to wait another year.
Although Sotnikova and her peers are still too young to compete in the senior ranks, they know they would be competitive at that level.
“We could have done well on the Junior Grand Prix circuit two years ago, but we were too young,” Tuktamysheva said. “But this time has passed quickly. Maybe it was good for us that we had these two years to improve our skating. For the senior level, we still need to work on our components.”
Sotnikova agreed. “The most important thing for us is that we don’t lose any of our abilities in the next two years and we need to learn more difficult elements.”
All of these ladies have their eyes set on the 2014 Olympic Games. Tutberidze said that Lipnitskaya is planning to be first in Sochi.
Competing at the 2014 Games in her home country is Sotnikova’s dream. “I want to go to the Olympic Games,” she said. “I need to grow as a skater and I still have to work a lot in order to make it, but I really want it.”
Originally published in April 2011