GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) – If you think Yevgenia Medvedeva will cruise to the Olympic gold medal in figure skating, think again.
Medvedeva’s 15-year-old training partner, Alina Zagitova, proved she can challenge for the gold. Zagitova won the team event free skate by 20 points on Monday, scoring only 2.38 points short of Medvedeva’s record.
That should set up a tantalizing all-Russian contest for the women’s gold on Feb. 21 and 23. Still, Zagitova swears there’s no rivalry with Medvedeva, who broke her own record in the team short on Sunday.
“Zhenya congratulated me, and I congratulated her yesterday,” Zagitova said, referring to Medvedeva by her Russian nickname. “We’ve really bonded during these competitions.”
As Zagitova finished her “Don Quixote” themed long program, Medvedeva applauded her warmly, as did American skater Adam Rippon.
Both Russians have been wide-eyed at their first Olympics, each saying they expected the Olympic Village to be, well, more of a village.
“To be honest, I thought they’d be little houses,” Zagitova said of the gray tower blocks.
Zagitova said she was nervous for Monday’s skate, but the pressure will be less for the individual competition.
“In the team you’re not just responsible for yourself, but for the whole team, the whole result. But in the individual, it’s just you,” she said. “Psychologically, you need to be calm about it, like any other competition.”
The Russians train together under coach Eteri Tutberidze, who also coached team event gold medalist Yulia Lipnitskaya – also 15 at the time – at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. On that occasion, Lipnitskaya failed to medal in the individual competition as Russian teammate Adelina Sotnikova won gold.
But both Medvedeva and Zagitova have demonstrated a level of consistency that Lipnitskaya never quite managed.
Since moving up from juniors in the summer, Zagitova has won the Grand Prix Finals, plus the Russian and European titles. Medvdeva was on an unbeaten run stretching over two years and including two world titles until Zagitova beat her at the European championships last month – though back then Medvedeva was still recovering from a foot injury which she now says is fully healed.
Potential rivals like Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada and Carolina Kostner of Italy have been far behind on scoring and would likely need major slip-ups from both Russians.
Technically, Zagitova and Medvedeva aren’t representing Russia at the Pyeongchang Games. Instead, they’re “Olympic Athletes from Russia” – part of the country’s punishment for doping at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. While skaters don’t wear national uniforms, whoever wins individual gold will accept the medal in an International Olympic Committee-approved neutral red tracksuit as the Olympic anthem plays.
“Obviously there’s not a great attitude to us, but even though they’re tracking us very carefully, we are fulfilling all the IOC demands,” Zagitova said.
The Russian duo are now heading to Japan to train away from the Olympic Village before returning to South Korea to compete against each other.
“I do everything in training well, all the elements,” Zagitova said. “So why can’t I do that in competition, too?”