Update at 12:50 a.m. ET Friday
Alina Zagitova narrowly beat her teammate Evgenia Medvedeva in the women’s singles figure skating competition at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, winning the first gold medal for the Olympic Athlete from Russia team.
“I haven’t fully realized yet that I’ve won,” said Zagitova, who is just 15. “I think I need some time to understand that I won the Olympic Games.”
It would begin to sink in, she said, when she gets her medal in tonight’s ceremony in Pyeongchang.
In addition to her jaw-dropping talent, Zagitova has drawn scrutiny for the composition of her program, in which she saves all the most complicated moves for the second half, to maximize their scoring potential.
But Zagitova also uses the first half of the program to show her artistry and dramatic flair. She did that in her free skate here in South Korea – and when it was time to hit her jumps, she nailed them in spinning, smooth precision.
As she finished, the crowd, including a large and vocal Russian contingent, cheered loudly. Coming off the ice, Zagitova was beaming.
Of her score, Zagitova said, “I was surprised and it was a nice surprise. I am glad that I was able to deal with my nervousness, go out there and skate my program calmly.”
She added that she would have given herself “a 4 with a little plus [out of 5] for my performance, because I didn’t do the first jump combination [triple Lutz-triple loop], but I did it later. I proved one more time to myself that I can change my jump elements during the program.”
The three Americans in the field — Mirai Nagasu, Karen Chen, and Bradie Tennell — needed to turn in eye-popping performances today to even approach the podium. None of them had scored above 70 points in their short program, as six other skaters had. In the final rankings, they held onto their spots, all in a group, with Tennell vaulting from 11th, last in the group, to 9th.
An updated version of our original story, recapping the event:
Zagitova’s score in the free program of 156.65 points staked her claim to the gold medal.
Canada’s Kaetlyn Osmond, 22, followed with a graceful and smooth skate, with elements flowing into one another. One highlight: a triple salchow – double toeloop – double loop combination that drew loud cheers.
For Osmond, there was at least one stumble on a landing. But when she spun into her finish, the packed arena (with many Canadian fans) was already roaring its approval. Osmond put her hands on the ice, smiling and laughing — and clearly trying to catch her breath: These elite skaters only make these routines SEEM easy.
“I was so excited, I was so ready for this program,” Osmond said later. “All day I was terrified, I was so nervous, but it is a program I feel super comfortable with in practice, and I was so ready to show it in competition — that’s exactly what I felt.”
Osmond’s score: 152.15, putting her into second place overall — a bump up from third and assuring her of a medal.
But then it was all up to Medvedeva, skating in the final slot of the day to “Anna Karenina” by Dario Marianelli. The question in the arena was: Would the reigning world champion take gold, or silver?
Medvedeva’s fluid technique and ability to express herself on the ice — while pulling off jumps with technical skill and grace — are captivating. The crowd cheered her dramatic program with appreciation, but it wasn’t the loudest we heard today.
Finishing her program, Medvedeva immediately started weeping on the ice, covering her face with her hands. As she skated off and hugged her coach, she began crying openly.
Medvedeva’s score: 156.65 points — a tie in the free skate with Zagitova, who had come into the final skate leading her by less than two points: 82.92 to 81.06. That sealed the gold medal for Zagitova, with 239.57 total points.
“I felt today in my program really like Anna Karenina in the movie,” Medvedeva said, discussing her performance and likely mortifying Russian literature professors. “I put everything out there that I had, I left everything on the ice. I have no regrets.”
She skated “in a fog,” Medvedeva said, saying she was in the moment and aware that for four minutes she could express herself to the world.
“My soul thrives on that feeling, the body and the brain did their job,” she said.
When Medvedeva left the scoring area, she and Zagitova shared a big and long hug.
Of her bronze medal, Osmond said, “Not long after the last Olympics, I didn’t even know that I would be competing at this one. It means so much, and to know that I fought so hard in the last four years.”
She added, “My main goal was to place higher than 13th, which I did, and I improved that by 10 placements. I am so excited.”
Among the U.S. trio, Tennell led the way in this final, after trailing on Wednesday. She and Chen turned in solid, but far from perfect, performances that left them behind Russian athlete Maria Sotskova. Nagasu, who made history earlier in Pyeongchang by landing the first triple axel at an Olympics, pulled out of her jumps today and didn’t seem as steady as she was during the team event. She finished between Tennell and Chen.
“I’m ready to go home,” Nagasu said afterwards, according to NPR’s Tom Goldman.
The start times for the final six women in the free skate on Friday in South Korea (Thursday night in the U.S.) had Medvedeva going last:
Satoko Miyahara (Japan)
Carolina Kostner (Italy)
Kaori Sakamoto (Japan)
Alina Zagitova (OAR)
Kaetlyn Osmond (Canada)
Evgenia Medvedeva (OAR)
Before the highest-ranked skaters from the short program began their programs, Chen and Tennell had come closer to skating the way many had expected them to – and the way they didn’t quite manage to in their short program (for Tennell, it included a fall, something she rarely does).
After Chen earned a 119.75 score, Tennell put down a solid program to get a 128.34 – and 192.35 total points, with nine skaters still to take the ice.
As she finished her skate and awaited her score, Tennell looked relieved, proud, and happy.
There were 24 skaters in the final — but Zagitova and Medvedeva were the only ones to score above 80 points in the short program. Zagitova had the edge with 82.92 points, partly because her program is shaped to maximize scoring: All of her big jumps come in the last section, when they’re worth more.
Medvedeva, 18, is the reigning world champion. She’s competing in South Korea after recovering from a broken foot that she suffered last October.
Zagitova, 15, won this year’s European championship in Moscow. She has risen to the heights of the world’s elite skaters just one year after winning the world junior championship.
With a Russian skater winning gold, it set off a celebration for fans of the Olympic Athletes from Russia team — who are competing under a neutral flag at these Winter Games because of doping punishments. Before today’s event — and with the final weekend of competition looming in Pyeongchang, the team hadn’t managed to win a gold medal, it has now also won five silver and eight bronze medals.
For a brief while earlier this week, Medvedeva owned the Olympic record for the highest-scoring women’s short program in history, after turning in a flawless skate at the Gangneung Ice Arena. But within moments, her score of 81.06 was eclipsed by Zagitova’s 82.92.
Both Medvedeva and Zagitova attend Sambo 70, a large sports center and school in Moscow that was founded in 1970. The school trains Olympic athletes in a variety of winter and summer sports, from judo and swimming to skiing and figure skating. Another product of Sambo 70: Julia Lipnitskaya, who was 15 when she won a gold medal as part of Russia’s figure skating team at the Sochi 2014 Olympics.