What we learned at Rostelecom Cup 2021 as Valieva rewrites record books
Kamila Valieva showed she'll be hard to stop at Beijing 2022 as the men's singles favourites failed to fire, and world champion pairs and ice dance duos took contrasting paths to victory.
There was one big headline from Rostelecom Cup 2021, the final regular stop of this season's ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating series.
Kamila Valieva was simply irresistible in Sochi's Iceberg Skating Palace, the venue for figure skating at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, and a repeat would almost certainly secure her Olympic gold at Beijing 2022 in February.
The 15-year-old was more than 40 points clear of her rivals with Elizaveta Tuktamysheva and Maiia Khromykh making it a Russian podium sweep.
The men's singles produced a surprise winner in Morisi Kvitelashvili who, like Valieva and Khromykh, trains at Moscow's Sambo-70 club under Eteri Tutberidze, Sergei Dudakov, and Daniil Gleikehngauz.
The Georgian was only third in the free skate, but that was enough to secure him a first Grand Prix triumph from Russian Mikhail Kolyada and Japan's Tomono Kazuki, who almost certainly would have won but for jumping issues.
Ice dance world champions Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov took a comfortable win with Katsalapov showing little sign of the back injury that ruled him out of a Russian Cup event last month.
Meanwhile, Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov put short program struggles behind them to take their second Grand Prix pairs win of the season and set them up nicely for Osaka.
Women: Who can beat Valieva?
Olympic medals are never awarded in November, but Kamila Valieva looks in a different class in the women's singles at present.
The reigning junior world champion - there was no event in 2021 due to the pandemic - only made her senior debut last month in the Finlandia Trophy where she eclipsed Alexandra Trusova's free skate world record to take victory.
At Skate Canada, she broke that mark again and took Alena Kostornaia's combined record in the process.
In Sochi, she achieved the full set.
On Friday, she beat Kostornaia's short program world record by almost two points with 87.42. Then on Saturday, she added four points to her own free skate best (185.29) to set a combined world record of 272.71.
Shcherbakova's career high is 241.65 and even Kostornaia at her best could only manage 247.59, fully 25 points behind Valieva's mark this weekend.
It bears repeating that she is only 15.
The high program component scores (PCS) Valieva received for her skate to Bolero on Saturday - six points more than Tuktamysheva and Mariah Bell - prompted some raised eyebrows.
But what is beyond doubt is that the quality of her jumping - in terms of execution and difficulty - is of a standard not seen before in women's figure skating.
Valieva landed three quads and a triple Axel on Saturday, and only had to readjust on her quad toe loop-Euler-double Salchow combination as she came close to the boards.
Only Trusova has the range of jumps to come close but she would need to hugely improve on her execution to challenge her younger training partner.
Simply put, if Valieva performs to anything like this level in Beijing, she will be Olympic champion.
But first, there is Osaka with the youngster looking forward to sampling the city's culinary delights.
She said, "I would like to try sushi because I like it a lot. When Sasha (Trusova), Alena and Anna were in Japan they always brought us some marmalade, sweets and gums. It was very good. I understand that it's coronavirus and the bubble, so I will just watch Japan from the window."
Competition for the ROC Winter Olympic team is fierce with Tuktamysheva and Khromykh laying down markers in Sochi.
Khromykh was only fifth after a nervous short program, but two quads in her free skate helped her bounce back to make the podium.
Another 15-year-old, Khromykh hopes to build on her weekend, saying, "I think, of course, I can perform better both in short and free program. There were small mistakes, but for myself I think I managed quite well."
Crowd favourite Tuktamysheva had a solid weekend with second place behind Valieva in both the short program and the free skate.
All three will be in Osaka although they will all probably have one eye on the Russian nationals later in December which will go a long way to deciding who makes the cut for Beijing.
For Mariah Bell, this was a welcome return to form after disappointment at last week's Internationaux de France in Grenoble.
The 25-year-old was third after the short program, but her lack of high-tariff jumping elements allowed Khromykh to displace her from the podium.
However, her total score of 210.35 - just two and a half points shy of her career-high mark - was the best of any American in this year's Grand Prix and shows she is in good shape ahead of the U.S. Championships early in January.
After her historic podium finish at the Gran Premio D'Italia, it was back to earth in some respects for Belgium's Loena Hendrickx.
She was down on her best in both programs - despite adding a triple loop to her free skate from Turin - but the 22-year-old has plenty of time to iron out errors ahead of what would be her second Games in Beijing.
Madeline Schizas further enhanced her claims to be Canada's sole representative in the women's singles with sixth place courtesy of a personal best total of 192.14.
Men: Kvitelashvili wins tight contest as Tomono fails to convert
It was certainly a case of what might have been for Tomono Kazuki.
Leading after a career-best 95.81 in the short program, the Japanese had a great chance to complete his first Grand Prix win.
But his jumping let him down in the free skate with under-rotations and falls marring what was a vibrant skate to the La La Land soundtrack.
In the end, he came up just over two points short with Morisi Kvitelashvili taking first place ahead of Mikhail Kolyada who had easily the best free skate on the day.
The Georgian also erred with his jumping but, surprisingly, attracted one point more in PCS than Tomono.
Kolyada could also say he squandered a chance of top spot as he fell on his opening quad Salchow, but he did qualify for the Grand Prix Final by matching his second place from Turin.
In truth, no one really hit the heights they could in the free skate and it is unlikely any of these skaters will be challenging for medals in Beijing.
Tomono did set personal bests in both programs, but there is plenty of scope for technical improvement alongside his already excellent interpretation and choreography.
His total of 264.19 looks to be about 20 points short of the level he will need to contend for an Olympic berth with Uno Shoma and Kagiyama Yumo both exceeding 285 points in the Grand Prix this season.
One assumes reigning double Olympic champion Hanyu Yuzuru, even if he was ruled out of December's Japan nationals through injury, would make the team were he able to prove his fitness at the last minute so that leaves Tomono fighting Uno, Kagiyama and Sato Shun for the remaining two spots.
Roman Sadovksy showed he is probably Canada's best male singles' skater at present with a solid fourth place, while Matteo Rizzo's fine free skate - good enough for second on the day - saw him rise from ninth to fifth overall.
Evgeni Semenenko was something of a disappointment in sixth place, as was Czech veteran Michal Brezina who slipped from sixth to 10th after more jumping problems in the free skate.
Brezina, who trains alongside three-time world champion Nathan Chen under Rafael Arutiunian, talked about how using a mental coach and a professional physical therapist this year has helped him, although he wishes he had found that kind of support sooner.
He said, "Everything that I have available while I’m in California with Rafael, because of his connection... because Mariah (Bell), Nathan, they go to these people as well so I can go there as well. When I was their age, I just wish that I had the same because I think that my career might have looked differently."
Now 31, Brezina hopes to be able to translate his form in practice to competition in time for what would be his fourth Olympic Games in Beijing.
Ice Dance: Sinitsina and Katsalapov on top
The two pairings are a little way clear of the rest of the world with two Grand Prix wins apiece this season.
In Sochi, Sinitsina and Katsalapov impressed with their rhythm dance just weeks after pulling out of a Russian Cup event due to Katsalapov's bad back.
Their free dance was not quite as good with Katsalapov almost falling on the exit to a stationary lift, but they still managed to come out on top in both skates.
In their 12th season as a partnership, they will go to a third consecutive Grand Prix Final before what they hope will be a third Olympic Games in Beijing.
The fight for the last spot on the podium was a tight one with Canada's Laurence Fournier Beaudry and Nikolaj Sørensen, who feature in the new Olympics.com series On Edge, taking it by less than two points from Spain's Sara Hurtado and Kirill Khaliavin.
With three Canadian teams going to Beijing, Fournier Beaudry and Sørensen - who were unable to compete for Denmark at PyeongChang 2018 due to Fournier Beaudry's citizenship issues - should make it while Hurtado and Khaliavin face a battle for the sole Spanish place with Skate Canada bronze medallists Olivia Smart and Adrian Diaz.
Hurtado and Diaz were the first Spanish ice dance team to compete at the Winter Olympics at Sochi 2014, with Hurtado and Khaliavin representing Spain at PyeongChang.
Pairs: Mishina and Galliamov overcome short program errors
The reigning world champions also came out on top in pairs, but it was far from plain sailing for Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov.
They were below par on their elements throughout the short program with high PCS leaving them just behind fellow Russians Daria Pavliuchenko and Denis Khodykin.
Mishina said afterwards that "skating at home is always harder", but they got their act together in the free skate.
Some spectacular throw jumps stood out in a strong routine to The Snowstorm by Georgi Sviridov, and they were a fraction shy of their free skate personal best.
Pavliuchenko and Khodykin made it four Russian pairings in the Grand Prix Final after a career-best free skate left them in second place overall.
As with the women's singles, Russia swept the podium with Iasmina Kadyrova and Ivan Balchenko taking third.
Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov of the United States had a career-best short program but were just below their best in the free skate.
Their scores are competitive but with just two spots up for the grabs for Beijing, they will almost certainly have to have to perform to their maximum with Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier looking the strongest American pairing so far.
Grand Prix Final: Who's in and who's not
The big-name absentees from the Grand Prix Final are Hanyu Yuzuru (ankle injury) and Alexandra Trusova who missed the NHK Trophy to allow a stress fracture of a metatarsal bone to heal completely (she had won Skate America skating with it).
Beijing 2022 home hope Jin Boyang is also missing after finishing seventh at the Gran Premio D'Italia.
Despite his win in Sochi, Kvitelashvili's previous sixth place at Skate Canada meant he could not qualify for the event in Osaka from 9-12 December.
Anna Shcherbakova (RUS), Kamila Valieva (RUS), Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (RUS), Sakamoto Kaori (JPN), Maiia Khromykh (RUS), Alena Kostornaia (RUS).
Vincent Zhou (USA), Uno Shoma (JPN), Nathan Chen (USA), Kagiyama Yuma (JPN), Mikhail Kolyada (RUS), Jason Brown (USA).
Victoria Sinitsina/Nikita Katsalapov (RUS), Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA), Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue (USA), Piper Gilles/Paul Poirier (CAN), Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA), Charlene Guignard/Marco Fabbri (ITA).
Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov (RUS), Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN), Evgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov (RUS), Aleksandra Boikova/Dmitri Kozlovskii (RUS), Daria Pavliuchenko/Denis Khodykin (RUS), Miura Riku/Kihara Ryuichi (JPN).