There are only so many superlatives you can use to describe Kamila Valieva.
Shining, brilliant, ethereal, superb, elegant, graceful – the Russian figure skater was all that and more on Friday (26 November) in the women's short program at the Rostelecom Cup in Sochi.
Valieva nailed all her elements and was at one with her choreography as she achieved a new ISU high score of 87.42 points for the short program, nearly two full points ahead of the old world record (85.45) set by her training mate Alena Kostornaia in 2019.
The 2015 world champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, keen to remind the young crop of Russian skaters that she is still around and in the mix for an ROC Olympic berth, was second; American Mariah Bell bounced back strongly from a disappointing outing last week at the Internationaux de France to place third.
The Rostelecom Cup, being held at the Iceberg Skating Palace – a Sochi 2014 venue –, is the sixth and final regular-season stop on this year's ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating series. Following this weekend, the top six skaters in each discipline will qualify for the Grand Prix Final in Osaka, Japan, in two weeks.
Meanwhile, Daria Pavliuchenko and Denis Khodykin narrowly lead the pairs after a short program in which the first group all skated clean and the second group all made errors, with world champions Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov finding themselves only in second place. More on pairs below.
Valieva stars, Khromykh falters
The sky is the limit for Valieva, who must now surely be considered the runaway favourite for Olympic gold at Beijing 2022.
She now holds the world record scores for the short program (87.42 here), free skate (180.89, 2021 Skate Canada), and total (265.08, 2021 Skate Canada) – with a very real possibility of breaking the latter two on Saturday.
A triple Axel, triple flip, and triple Lutz-triple toe combination – women skaters are not allowed to attempt quad jumps in the short program – made up her three jumping passes today, with coaches Eteri Tutberidze, Sergei Dudakov, and Daniil Gleikehngauz all looking at each other and nodding in approval at the end of her routine.
Valieva added more than three points to her previous short program personal best with the skate, set to Kirill Richter's In Memoriam, which she later dedicated to her late grandmother, who passed away in 2019.
"Today I am satisfied with my skate, happy that coaches said good words to me. I enjoyed my skate and there is always something [more] to aspire to," she reflected. "Today I did my absolute maximum, [but] there is always room to grow."
For Valieva's training mate Maiia Khromykh, the silver medallist at the Gran Premio d'Italia earlier this season, there was a skate to forget as she fell on triple Lutz and was unable to complete her jump combination.
"Today I was nervous. During previous competitions I wasn't nervous at all, I think this is what influenced my skate," she admitted in the mixed zone afterwards.
She is down in fifth place after the short program on 64.72 points.
Tuktamysheva thrills fans, Bell rebounds
Tuktamysheva may be nearly 25 now, relatively old when you consider the average age of the current crop of Russian women, but she is still a fan favourite – and for good reason.
Her patented triple Axel was on show again in Sochi as the 2015 world and European champ – and current world silver medallist – laid out her credentials for an Olympic selection once more.
She followed the triple Axel with a triple Lutz-triple toe combination, and while the landing on her final triple flip looked suspect, she still received a strong 80.10 points.
"I am very satisfied with my performance and I think it's the positive audience that gave me this energy," Tuktamysheva said.
Meanwhile, there was joy for USA's Bell, who struggled just a week ago in Grenoble at the French Grand Prix event.
There, she was unhappy with some of the judges' scoring as well as some of the levels on her spins.
There were none of those issues in Sochi, although she will perhaps be disappointed to have doubled her toe loop on the end of what should have been a triple flip-triple toe combination.
"I managed to get points on a level which I missed in France," Bell acknowledged. "This program is very enjoyable, it still feels very new to me."
Pairs: Pavliuchenko / Khodykin in surprise lead after top group struggles
It was a pairs short program that will be remembered for all sorts of different reasons.
The first group of four teams, the pairs with the lower world rankings, all skated cleanly while the four in the second, top group all struggled.
That resulted in a shock lead for Russia's Pavliuchenko and Khodykin (73.91) over the world champions Mishina and Galliamov (73.64), with a third Russian pair, Iasmina Kadyrova and Ivan Balchenko (69.39), and USA's Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov (64.97) completing the top four.
The other skaters in the second group – Nicole Della Monica and Matteo Guarise, Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro, and Miriam Ziegler and Severin Kiefer – all suffered falls.
Top-three finishes in the short program for Pavliuchenko / Khodykin and Kadyrova / Balchenko only serve to emphasise the strength in depth of Russian pairs skating.
The ROC team has three spots at the upcoming Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 and two other pairs – Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii as well as Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov – are world medallists in their own right.
Pavliuchenko / Khodykin were clean on their elements, as were Kadyrova and Balchenko. However, the world champs – who seemed to be set for the top spot – stumbled on their side-by-side jump, the triple Salchow, as Mishina had to turn out of her jump which was downgraded.
"We are very happy that we skated [well] today; we managed to enjoy it today," Khodykin said. Asked about whether he and Pavliuchenko could make it to Beijing, he responded: "First of all we need to do our job, to skate well and to skate better, and the judges [at Russian nationals] will decide who will go to the Olympics, we'll see. All that depends on us is our performance."
Mishina and Galliamov still received the highest program components – artistry – score, which kept them in touch with Pavliuchenko and Khodykin.
"We didn't skate very well maybe because it was a home skate and skating at home is always harder. You want to skate better, but it goes different to what you expect sometimes," Mishina noted.
"There is long way to go [to the Olympics]," Galliamov added. "We have different goals and different competitions. So far our preparation is in a different regime, so it's too early to think about it."