It seems that with each new season, Russia debuts a young shooting star that dominates the junior ladies discipline. That was the case with Adelina Sotnikova, Julia Lipnitskaia, Elena Radionova, Evgenia Medvedeva, Alina Zagitova, and Alexandra Trusova over the past decade.
Last season marked the arrival of Kamila Valieva, 13, the fourth consecutive student of Eteri Tutberidze, Sergei Dudakov, and Daniil Gleikhengauz to rule the junior world.
Though Valieva only made her international debut in August 2019, she was not a complete unknown to those who avidly follow the sport at the lower levels. Figure skating fans that had watched her compete at the novice level often posted videos of her performances online.
The popularity of her final short program at the novice level — “Girl on the Ball,” inspired by Pablo Picasso’s painting of the same name — was a factor in Valieva’s coaching team deciding to keep it for the 2019-2020 season. In an interview at the Russian test skates last fall, Tutberidze said it was her favorite program of the year. Valieva said she personally loved the program from the beginning because the choreography and the music were “very unusual. There are all these accents.”
It was also noticed and appreciated by Diana Widmaier Picasso, the granddaughter of the famous Spanish artist, who was so impressed by Valieva’s performance that she invited the Russian prodigy to visit her in Paris.
The original costume Valieva wore did not work for Tutberidze, so she asked for another one to be designed, similar to that of the girl in the painting. What the designer produced was a close match. The plain grey top (with sparkles added), grey leggings and black shorts brought the painting to life.
Picasso’s painting hangs in Moscow’s Pushkin Museum. The first time Valieva went to view the work, it was at an exhibition in St. Petersburg and she had to wait for it to be returned.
The painting depicts two acrobats in sharp contrast to each other – the fragility and impetuosity of the girl in obvious opposition to the square muscular power of the man sitting on a cube. Art historians interpret the contrast between the subject and the rather dull background as a reflection of the artist’s life — colorful and cheerful on the outside, but also one with hardships.
This was also a reflection of Valieva’s life last season, with success and struggle intertwined. Following victories at her two Junior Grand Prix events in France and Chelyabinsk in the fall, she suffered a foot injury and was off the ice for many weeks. It was not known at the time if she would be able to compete at the Junior Grand Prix Final in December, for which she had qualified first.
Fortunately, Valieva recovered and though she said the hardest part of the season was “probably the preparation for that competition,” she scored a runaway victory in Italy. “The short program was the hardest because it was my first time to compete after a month. When I went back to training, the coaches said, ‘let’s recover, and if everything goes well and you get the jumps back quickly, then we’ll go to the Final.’
“I didn’t manage to get back the quad toe. I went for it in the few days before the Final but it was not consistent, so we decided to change the content of the long program,” Valieva explained, adding the quad toe was replaced with a double Axel.
“The first days of training — when I did my program and nothing worked — I was thinking maybe I shouldn’t go to the Final. Maybe I’ll focus on the World Junior Championships. But as it got closer to the competition, everything went better and the coaches were motivating me, telling me ‘let’s skate! You can do it!’ Then the jumps became consistent and I said that I’m going for sure to the Final.”
Valieva ranked fourth in the short program in Torino but finished first overall by winning the free skate with a clean performance of her “Exogenesis Symphony Part 3 ‘Redemption.’” At first, she could not believe she had won, especially since Valieva knew that her American rival, Alysa Liu, had more difficult content in her program, including a triple Axel and a quad Lutz.
“At first I didn’t understand that I had won and thought maybe there was a mistake, maybe again they didn’t call the right jump,” Valieva recalled. “I saw that before at the Grand Prix in Poland, where Alysa did a quad Lutz. They first input it as a triple Lutz and didn’t realize it, but later the score changed. So I thought there was a mistake. I was very surprised to win.”
Early in the New Year, she resumed training and began preparing for the Russian Junior nationals in February. Valieva won that competition and, with another victory to her credit, many touted her as the favorite to take the World Junior title a few weeks later in Estonia. “I tried not to think about the fact that I was the favorite, I just thought about my programs and about skating them clean. I tried not to think about anything, actually,” said Valieva. “Some things didn’t work in practice so well, but I tried to prepare myself as we got closer to the competition.”
Valieva turned in two excellent performances in Tallinn. Gleikhengauz felt the short program was “close to ideal” and also praised his student for her performance in the long program. “Kamila skated in an excellent way, if you don’t count the error on the first quad toe loop,” he said. “That made us all nervous because then the athlete herself had to make the decision: whether she changed the program and goes for other jumps or takes a risk and does the second quad toe, knowing that if there is another mistake it will get a repetition and thus a lower score. We discussed all that in practice. It was a risk that Kamila went for and she pulled herself together to do a quad toe combination, which allowed her to set a new World Junior record (152.38).”
Though Valieva appeared composed and focused throughout the season, she admitted that sometimes she is anxious because of “indifferent topics. You always prepare differently before a competition. Sometimes you are more confident in your jumps, sometimes you are confident about a certain jump or about something else. Each time, in each competition, you go out in a different way, and you do something this way or that way and the program always comes out differently.
“I enjoy competitions and to skate in front of people who are supporting me for each jump and each spin. That is nice. However, when you are skating your program, you are trying to stay more within yourself and sometimes you don’t even hear the applause — you don’t hear anything.”
Valieva is still somewhat shy and was not comfortable with all the attention she received last season. “I don’t like that very much, but I know that it is there and I try to prepare for it,” she said with a sigh. At the same time, she is grateful for the support of her Russian fans, who fulfilled a long-time wish at the end of last year when they presented her with a puppy, a Pomeranian Spitz that she named Liova.
“My mother allowed me to get a dog after the Junior Grand Prix. My fan club wrote to her and asked what gift they should get and my mom said they could get a dog for me,” Valieva said. “He is funny. Always running around, constantly. When I leave he is whining and when I come back he is happy. Maybe I’ll take him with me to competitions in the future.”
Before her skating career began, Valieva took ballet as a small child and then moved into gymnastics for a year. It was through gymnastics that she learned to stretch, which has given her an amazing flexibility. However, Valieva felt gymnastics was a bit painful and ballet bored her. “In ballet, you are doing some exercise, the slow music … I somehow fell asleep,” she said with a laugh.
Born in Kazan, Valieva and her mother, an accountant, moved to Moscow when she was 6 years old. At first, she trained in the Moskvich skating school before switching to Tutberidze in the spring of 2018. “It was my mom’s and my idea. We decided if Eteri would take us, fine. If not, it is time to stop. Or to think about what to do.”
Tutberidze accepted Valieva into her group and she progressed well in her new training environment. Just two years later, she won the World Junior title with a quad toe in her arsenal. However, Valieva does not plan to stop there. When the coaching team crafts new programs this spring, elements such as the quad Salchow, the triple Axel and other jumps will be added to her repertoire.
Valieva is also focused on improving her artistry and said she believes it is important to know what she is portraying, where she needs to improve her speed and where she needs to smooth out her skating. “I want to combine the jumps, the skating and the awareness. I am trying to feel the music and also bring that across. I set myself apart with my spins and my flexibility. When I was little I tried to follow the example of Lipnitskaia. The coaches that I used to train with before told me to do the same spins as Julia and so I tried to compare myself to her.”
The reigning World Junior champion gained valuable experience last season that she hopes will benefit her in the years ahead. One of the important things she learned was that even if something is not perfect and she is not in the best condition, she can pull herself together when it really matters at competitions.
Valieva, who turned 14 on April 26, will not be age-eligible to compete at the senior level until the 2021-2022 season. Her goal is to earn a place on the 2022 Olympic team.
(This article was originally published in the IFS June 2020 issue)