How did three Russian teens – and training partners – become the world’s best figure skaters?

Anna Shcherbakova, Kamila Valiyeva and Aleksandra Trusova at the 2022 ISU European Figure Skating Championships.
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In what’s expected to be a groundbreaking display of technical ability, a young but mighty trio of Russian figure skaters are set to light up the ice at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Led by 15-year-old Kamila Valiyeva, 17-year-old reigning world champion Anna Shcherbakova and “Quad Queen” Alexandra Trusova, also 17, the Russian skaters are favored to sweep the podium in Beijing – just as they did at the 2021 World Championships – and continue a trend that began in 2014 when fellow Russian Adelina Sotnikova, then 17, captured gold in Sochi.

Since then, Russian teenagers have dominated the event, with two teens from the same Moscow rink – then-15-year-old Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva, then 17 – winning gold and silver in PyeongChang. And heading to China, that same rink is home to all three skaters representing the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC). Also in common is their coach, Eteri Tutberidze, who is guiding Russian contenders in a third consecutive Games.

But it’s their jumping power that has elevated these skaters into the next stratosphere and iteration of the sport.

All three have the elusive “quad” in their arsenal. The quad – a four-revolution jump – was once considered a nearly impossible feat for women skaters and is only allowed in the free skate. Valiyeva is expected to do three in her free skate, while Trusova landed five clean quads at a national event in September.

While such feats ultimately pit these teammates and training partners against each other in competition, Valiyeva expressed a seasoned-competitor’s view after winning the Russian Championships in December: “Rivalry is always good, in all sports, and it probably pushes you forward.”

As the success of Tutberidze’s young students has skyrocketed, concerns have been raised about disordered eating within the Russian camp, especially after Yulia Lipnitskaya, a former student of Tutberidze who won team gold in 2014, opened up in 2017 about dealing with chronic anorexia.

How did Valiyeva, Shcherbakova and Trusova rise to the top?

Born in Kazan, Russia, Valiyeva began skating at 3 years old and taking ballet at age 5, and by kindergarten she said she knew she was destined to compete in the Olympics. Her love of ballet and other visual arts – especially painting – has influenced her skating, and she’s known as much for her artistry as her technical prowess.

Moscow-born Shcherbakova has also been skating singe age 3, when she followed older sister Inna to the ice rink. She burst onto the scene with a surprise win at the 2019 Russian Championships, but her last two seasons have been a mix of triumphs and health battles. Last year she recorded an impressive third consecutive win at Russian nationals, but a bout of pneumonia during the 2020-21 season and a fractured toe in June caused her to miss extended periods of training.

“You want to keep up with that level [of others] and continue staying in shape,” Shcherbakova said in December at nationals, flashing her determination to make up for lost time. “I will dedicate the maximum amount of training time for quad jumps and at the future competitions I will try to complete all the combination of jumps, making them more advanced.”

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: 2022 Winter Olympics Schedule – How to watch every women’s event

Trusova, who was born in Ryazan, Russia, first started skating at age 4, but she says it was watching fellow Russian skaters Sotnikova and Lipnitskaya compete at the 2014 Sochi Games that inspired her goal of competing in the Olympics. She’s blazed several “firsts” since then, becoming the first female skater to land a quad Lutz and a quad toe in competition as a junior, as well as the first to do two quads in one program. In her first senior season, Trusova became the first female skater to land three quads in a single program and the first to land a quad flip in competition.

Off the ice, this quad squad shares a common love of animals: Trusova is a dog mom to chihuahua Tina and miniature poodles Lana, Alita and Cruella – named after the movie soundtrack that serves as the music for her Olympic free skate; Shcherbakova says her cat Mafia rules the roost; and Valiyeva’s Pomeranian Spitz named Liova was a gift from her fan club.

Which Russian figure skater is favored to win gold in Beijing?

Leading into the Olympics, Valiyeva is undefeated in her first senior international season and won two of the toughest competitions – Russian nationals and European Championships in January – by record margins. She landed three quadruple jumps in the free skate in Tallinn, Estonia, totaling 259.06 points and setting a new record margin of victory. Valiyeva won by 21.64, besting the previous women’s record set by Medvedeva in 2017 (18.32 points).

This past fall, Trusova became the first woman ever to land five quads in a program, while Shcherbakova has the quad flip and quad Lutz in her repertoire.

“Without quads, you don’t have any chances to win competitions now,” said Shcherbakova last month via Olympics.com. “So I know that for me, it’s really important [to add more]. … My goal is to do not one quad [but] to work more on it and to show more quads in my program.”

MORE OLYMPIC FIGURE SKATING: Kamila Valiyeva becomes first woman to land quad at Olympics

Prior to the arrival of the powerhouse Russian trio, only a handful of names had even attempted the quad jump, with France’s Surya Bonaly leading the way 30 years ago at the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics. Bonaly landed an under-rotated quad attempt, which was not ratified, and no other woman has tried one at an Olympics since.

Expect that to change when the Olympic figure skating competition kicks off.

“It is going to be very difficult for female skaters who don’t have these quads to compete for a medal,” said NBC analyst and 1998 Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski. “No one inherently likes change, and this is going to be such a drastic change. I wonder, how are you going to balance what figure skating is — the balance between technical and artistic, which has been a problem in our sport forever. This a period of change.”

2022 Winter Olympics: Women’s Figure Skating Schedule

Following the team event at the start of the Olympics, the women’s figure skating competition gets underway Feb. 15.

Event  Date/Time (U.S. Eastern Time) Date/Time (Beijing, China)
Women’s Short Program 2/15/22 5:00 AM 2/15/22 6:00 PM
Women’s Free Skate 2/17/22 5:00 AM 2/17/22 6:00 PM

NBC Olympics researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.