GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) A true figure skating rivalry requires surpassing skills, intriguing back stories, and significant rewards on the line. Throw in a friendship, and Russians Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova hit all the marks – just as they do on the ice.
The teenagers stood 1-2 after the women’s short program at the Pyeongchang Olympics. Barring a collapse by one of them, something that would be tantamount to the New England Patriots going winless, they will finish with gold and silver after Friday’s free skate.
Indeed, this could be a skating showdown for the ages, better even than the Battle of the Brians in 1988, or Lipinski-Kwan in 1998. Or the ice-melting classic in the free dance earlier this week.
Don’t expect the 15-year-old Zagitova or the 18-year-old Medvedeva to back off an inch.
”We are friends first and rivals second, because you have to have competitiveness in sport,” says Zagitova, who has called Medvedeva an inspiration for her career. So much of an inspiration, apparently, that Zagitova handed ”Zhenya” her first defeat in two years at the European Championships.
”Zhenya and I are friends, there’s no ill-feeling there, but there is a competitiveness in our training sessions which spurs us on.”
Seriously. In Thursday’s practice session, Zagitova did more jumps than the other four skaters on the ice combined. At one point, just fooling around perhaps, she nailed a triple lutz-triple loop-triple loop-triple loop-triple loop series. Nonstop.
Medvedeva wasn’t quite so energetic – or over-the-top flashy. Then again, she has some catching up to do.
”We have a real human relationship, we talk a lot, and we spend almost the whole day together,” she says. ”I see how much she works and it makes me want to work harder.”
Working hard might be Zagitova’s forte now, but a few years ago she nearly was thrown out of her training group by coach Eteri Tutberidze, who also works with Medvedeva.
The daughter of a hockey coach in Izhevsk, a Russian city best known for its weapons industry, Zagitova was 11 when Adelina Sotnikova won Russia’s first ever women’s gold at the Sochi Games in 2014. Later that year, she joined up with Tutberidze, but things didn’t go well initially.
”I was very disappointed and I cried and I was going to travel home. I spent three or four days exercising on the ice and really understood how much I love figure skating. But it seemed too late to change anything,” Zagitova said.
”We went to Eteri Georgievna to say that we were going back to Izhevsk and I’m going to quit figure skating and Eteri Georgievna told me, `Let’s try it one more time,’ and I was so, so happy, really butterflies in my stomach. If that moment hadn’t happened, then nothing else would have happened. I wouldn’t be here at the Olympics.”
Zagitova has also had to deal with a broken arm and foot she sustained in separate accidents three years ago. And, as one of the younger athletes in Tutberidze’s group, she was once required to skate in a costume that Medvedeva had rejected as uncomfortable.
Medvedeva is more outgoing. Then again, she’s 3 years older than Zagitova.
Medvedeva enjoys making videos of herself dancing to South Korean pop band Exo during her time off.
She was nearly unbeatable in the previous two seasons, winning two world titles and pushing aside more established skaters such as Sotnikova and 2015 world champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, neither of whom came close to making the 2018 Olympic team.
Now Medvedeva risks being pushed aside by a younger Russian talent. And a friend.
Indeed, when she talks about her training group back home, Medvedeva says: ”There’s really so, so many young skaters and some of them are doing such difficult elements.”
She didn’t mention Zagitova by name.
”It just forces you to be stronger and when you see the younger skater who’s doing more difficult, you’re just feeling inside so strange because you’re older and you must be stronger than them.”
The world will find out Friday night which of the two Russian rivals is stronger.
More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org