Six things we learned from Russian nationals

Anna Shcherbakova is the first woman to three-peat at Russian nationals in nearly 20 years. That and other takeaways from a dramatic event in Chelyabinsk. 

By Nick McCarvel

All eyes were not on Anna Shcherbakova heading into the Russian figure skating championships this last week in Chelyabinsk.

They should have been.

As she had done at the previous two nationals, the 16-year-old quadruple-jumping Shcherbakova cut through a competitive field of Russian skaters to rise to the top, becoming the first woman to claim back-to-back-to-back singles titles in nearly 20 years, since two-time Olympic medallist Irina Slutskaya did so from 2000-02.

Shcherbakova was just one of many must-see moments from the annual event, which featured particularly strong ladies’ and pairs fields.

Here, six takeaways from three days of outright competitive skating. The World Championships teams won’t be named just yet... but these nationals did give us a strong indication as to who we’ll see in Stockholm come March.

Shcherbakova’s thrilling three-peat

The final group of skaters in the ladies’ event was jaw-dropping, going from strength to strength to strength as Alexandra Trusova, Kamila Valieva, Shcherbakova and Daria Usacheva delivered 40 minutes of spellbinding performances to remember for skating fans.

Valieva placed second and Trusova third with the one-two punch of Shcherbakova and Valieva bringing normally unflappable coach Eteri Tutberidze literally to tears.

Trusova, now coached by Evgeni Plushenko, was the first of the three to skate and started with two quads.

But it was her former training partner Shcherbakova who was clearly the best despite not being 100 percent after a recent bout of pneumonia.

After her victory, it was reported by R-Sport that she had a fever before the short program but decided to compete.

Shcherbakova told the Russian media after her winning free skate, “I was sure that I wanted to go out and show what I could do." And that she did.

Combining her quad-jumping ways with a more mature artistic connection to her music and to the ice, she was the only skater to perform two different quads – Lutz and flip.

With a free skate-best 77.09 program component (artistic) score, she secured a comfortable 10-point win overall.

What’s next for... Tuktamysheva, Kostornaia?

The Russian Worlds team is up in the air for a couple reasons: Valieva is still only 14 years old making her too young to compete at a major international event.

That means the Russian Cup Final, a domestic event set for late February, will almost certainly decide who will take the last of the three spots in Sweden alongside Shcherbakova and probably Trusova.

Will Elizaveta Tuktamysheva or reigning European champion Alena Kostornaia be a part of that conversation? Kostornaia sat out nationals due to COVID symptoms, although she looked strong at Rostelecom where she finished second.

It was 2015 world champion Tuktamysheva who won Rostelecom in November, but she looked physically spent in both her programs in Chelyabinsk having been diagnosed with coronavirus in early December.

The 24-year-old finished a disappointing seventh and she'll need her triple Axel – and perhaps quad toe loop – to have a fighting chance.

Another name to consider: Elizaveta Nugumanova, 18, who finished sixth at nationals.

And what to make of Evgenia Medvedeva, the PyeongChang 2018 silver medallist, who watched the ladies’ free skate from inside the arena? More on her below.

Men: Kolyada on a comeback

It’s been a comeback season in full for 25-year-old Mikhail Kolyada, who won his third national title with two superb skates in Chelyabinsk under new coach Alexei Mishin.

Kolyada is the perfect combination of technical and artistic skating, and the Russian is making up for lost time after missing all of the 2019-20 season with sinusitis and subsequent surgery. He added to his Rostelecom Cup gold last month with another national title, outpacing the men’s field by some 30 points.

It will be interesting to see who joins him in Stockholm: Makar Ignatov and Mark Kondratiuk were second and third respectively, but reigning Euro champ Dmitri Aliev was out due to COVID with reigning world junior champion Andrei Mozalev finishing fourth in Chelyabinsk.

What’s clear though: Kolyada is the leader of the pack and hunting another medal at Worlds after his bronze in 2018.

Pairs: Tarasova and Morozov show renewed resolve

It’s not just about the young guns in Russian skating. Kolyada showed that in the men’s event and three-time world medallists in pairs, Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, did so too, beating out a field of rising teams to claim their third national title.

Since switching coaches to Marina Zueva in Florida last season, it’s been a roller coaster for the duo that was fourth at the 2018 Winter Games, but Tarasova and Morozov skated with a kind of resolve and precision not seen from them in a while.

A fall on their final throw element in the free skate was unfortunate, but it did not detract from the message they conveyed this weekend: that they're back and willing to fight.

Fight they will have to in what remains a vastly competitive pairs discipline with Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii taking silver ahead of Daria Pavliuchenko and Denis Khodykin.

Throw in Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov as well as Apollinariia Panfilova and Dmitry Rylov, and you have one seriously fierce race for places in Stockholm.

Dance: Stepanova/Bukin win gold – finally

The seventh time is a charm, isn’t it? After six podium finishes – two bronze and four silver – Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin are finally Russian ice dance champions, turning in two strong performances to seal their victory.

It comes with a small asterisk: Chief rivals Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov – champs at Rostelecom Cup in November – were not in attendance in Chelyabinsk, out themselves with lingering COVID symptoms. When both teams are fully fit and healthy – perhaps at Worlds – it will be intriguing to see who bubbles to the top.

A pleasing event too for Tiffany Zagorski and Jonathan Guerreiro, who won their first silver medal at nationals after five previous top-five finishes.

Watch out for... Anastasia Skoptcova and Kirill Aleshin, the bronze medallists at nationals who may not have had a standout weekend of skating, but are surely on the rise when it comes to ice dance in Russia.

When will we see Medvedeva again?

Zhenya, as her fans call her, was in Chelyabinsk, first watching from the stands and then performing in the exhibition gala on Sunday for fans, jumping only one triple in an otherwise delightful show program.

It’s been a tough few months for her: she made a coaching change as the pandemic hit, opting to work again with Tutberidze as she could not travel back to her training base in Toronto with Brian Orser, but then was felled with back issues and diagnosed with COVID-19, putting her out of both Rostelecom and nationals.

She has never competed with a quad or triple Axel, making it mathematically challenging for her to contend domestically, though she’s always welcomed a challenge.

The coming months will be revealing as to how she’ll try and approach making the Olympic team for Beijing 2022.

And while the possibility remains of a return to competitive ice for Medvedeva in the coming months, that appears unlikely for reigning Olympic champion, Alina Zagitova, who has explored off-ice interests in the past few months including hosting a skating reality show on Russian TV.