Why do figures skaters under this Russian coach have short careers?

Russian figure skating coach Eteri Tutberidze
Getty Images
0 Comments

BEIJING (AP) — The coach behind Russia’s figure skating dynasty rarely speaks to the media, enhancing her mystique as a guru who produces a line of teenage stars who can land jumps no other women even attempt.

A doping furor around her star pupil has forced Eteri Tutberidze into the spotlight at the Beijing Olympics. She broke her silence on the case against Kamila Valiyeva on Saturday, telling Russian TV: “We are absolutely sure that Kamila is innocent and clean.”

Tutberidze-trained skaters have dominated competition for eight years, but critics have raised concerns about their short careers – many retire as teenagers – and propensity to suffer serious injuries.

The news that 15-year-old Valiyeva tested positive for a banned heart medication before the Olympics puts Russia’s gold medal in the team event in jeopardy and could kick her out of the women’s competition next week.

The positive drug test has been the top story out of the Olympics for days, pitting Russia against world sporting agencies again. Tutberidze and Valiyeva shared an emotional hug Saturday near the end of practice.

Valiyeva made her senior debut just five months ago, but she’s already acclaimed as a generational talent. She combines spectacular jumping power — landing the first quadruple jump by a woman in Olympic history on Monday — with elegant skills to shatter world-record scores.

When an athlete under 16 — a “protected person” in Olympic jargon — tests positive, the rules say their entourage must be investigated. That means the Russian anti-doping agency is launching an examination of Tutberidze’s world-beating, secretive training group in Moscow.

“On one hand, they are professional athletes, and they are competing at high level competitions as other adults (do) and should be ready to bear all their responsibility,” Margarita Pakhnotskaya, former deputy CEO of the Russian anti-doping agency, told The Associated Press.

“But on the other hand, we know that psychologically and mentally, they are not adults. And partly this responsibility should be shared with the senior people who are in their nearest circle.”

Russian figure skater Kamila Valiyeva and her coach Eteri Tutberidze during a training session at the 2022 Winter Olympics on February 13, 2022.
BEIJING, CHINA – Russian figure skater Kamila Valiyeva and her coach Eteri Tutberidze during a training session at the 2022 Winter Olympics on February 13, 2022. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Tutberidze’s approach to training focuses on athleticism and a fearsome work ethic. She had to work to build a coaching career from a low point as a penniless skater performing in U.S. ice shows in the 1990s. She was stuck in Oklahoma living in a YMCA when she survived the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

One person in Tutberidze’s orbit who could face questions is sports doctor Filipp Shvetsky, who accompanied Valiyeva to her first senior international competition in October. The doctor has said he was barred from working with Russia’s rowing team after a 2007 doping investigation.

At her Moscow rink, Eteri Tutberidze created a figure skating dynasty

In less than a decade, Tutberidze has gone from being one of many Russian skating coaches to the leader of a dynasty.

Her breakthrough came when Yulia Lipnitskaya helped Russia win the team event gold in Sochi in 2014, becoming the second-youngest gold medalist in the history of the sport.

Four years later, Tutberidze had the top two women, with Alina Zagitova beating Evgenia Medvedeva for the gold. In Beijing, Tutberidze coaches all three Russian women, who could sweep the podium with their high-scoring quad jumps.

Tutberidze can select the most promising young Russian skaters for her camp, which has enviable facilities and funding. At the national championships where Valiyeva tested positive in December, a Tutberidze skater won for the seventh year in a a row.

Concerns about disordered eating, injuries, and short careers

Stars trained by Tutberidze have not had long careers.

Defending Olympic champion Zagitova took a break in December 2019 at 17, saying she needed to find motivation after losing to younger Russians with quad jumps. She hasn’t skated competitively since and focuses on a TV career. Medvedeva performed at the 2018 Games with a cracked bone in her foot. Three months later, she left Tutberidze’s camp to train with Brian Orser in Canada, saying she wanted to “work together with a coach like (a) friend.”

Lipnitskaya retired at 19, revealing she had struggled with anorexia. Chronic back injuries forced retirement last year for Elizabet Tursynbaeva of Kazakhstan, the first woman to land a quad at the world championships in 2019. Another Tutberidze skater, Darya Usacheva, suffered a serious injury in November and traveled home in a wheelchair.

Rafael Arutyunyan, coach of Olympic men’s champion Nathan Chen, likened Russian skaters with short careers to single-use coffee cups in a 2020 interview with a Russian sports website, without mentioning Tutberidze by name.

How figure skating brought Eteri Tutberidze to the United States

Tutberidze’s outlook and career were shaped by spending much of the 1990s in the United States.

Born in Moscow to Georgian parents, Tutberidze never made it to the elite of Soviet figure skating. After the Soviet Union collapsed, she headed to the U.S. to skate in ice shows.

In a rare interview published on the Russian Figure Skating Federation website in 2015, Tutberidze detailed how the dream turned sour. Other skaters had visa issues and her money ran out while waiting for them to arrive in Oklahoma. Without money, she attended Baptist church services for free food.

“We had to sit through the service, and afterward they brought out water for the congregation and some little sandwiches,” she said.

Tutberidze said she was living in a YMCA just a block away from the federal building in Oklahoma City when she was caught up in one of the worst terrorist acts on U.S. soil. The April 1995 bombing by anti-government extremist Timothy McVeigh left 168 people dead.

“Glass, rubble, smashed paneling, blood, mutilated bodies,” she said. “To begin with we didn’t understand what had happened. There was a building and now it’s not there, just dust, and on the intersection lumps of rubble instead of cars.”

Tutberidze’s name is inscribed on a “survivors’ wall” on the site of the blast. She spent six years in the U.S., first as a skater, then as a coach in San Antonio. Her daughter, Diana Davis, competing in Beijing on the Russian ice dance team, was born in the U.S.

She returned to Russia and worked for more than a decade before becoming an internationally recognized coach. Tutberidze has said life’s successes require hard times — a philosophy that might also apply to her coaching style.

“It’s a very comfortable, quiet life there (in the U.S.). Great people, wonderful relationships,” she said. “But for me, there’s a lack of contrast in all that abundance. When there are no difficulties, you can’t understand what happiness is.”

Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

Nigeria v USWNT
Getty Images
0 Comments

Crystal Dunn was named to the USWNT roster for two upcoming friendlies against England and Spain, marking her first official selection since giving birth to son Marcel in May.

Dunn made her NWSL return with the Portland Thorns earlier this month and also trained with the U.S. team as a non-rostered player ahead of friendlies vs. Nigeria.

In addition to Dunn, the 24-player roster features a veteran core of Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Alex Morgan was not named to the USWNT roster due to a knee injury. While U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not provide details of the injury, he noted that “if this was a World Cup final, Alex was going to be on this trip and was going to play, no question.”

Other roster highlights include 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who becomes the first player born in 2004 to receive a USWNT call-up. Thomas, a high senior, plays club soccer for the U-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team.

“We are very excited for her, very excited about her potential and qualities and looking forward to seeing how she will turn out in our environment,” Andonovski said of Thompson. “This camp is not make it or break it. It’s a first experience for her, it’s just something that she shouldn’t even worry about.”

The USWNT also includes a handful of players who have made their USWNT breakthrough this season — thanks in part to both strong NWSL play and injuries to more veteran players. That list includes the likes of Naomi Girma (7 caps), Taylor Kornieck (5 caps), Hailie Mace (5 caps), Sam Coffey (1 cap), and Savannah DeMelo (0 caps).

Andonovski on Thursday called Coffey, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns, a candidate for NWSL MVP.


USWNT Roster for October 2022 Friendlies vs. England and Spain

Goalkeepers (3):

  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)
  • Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders(7):

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)
  • Hailie Mace (Kansas City Current)
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)

Midfielders (8):

  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA)
  • Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
  • Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
  • Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

Forwards (6):

  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Total Futbol Academy)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Getty Images
0 Comments

It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”