Russian teens in Olympic figure skating showdown

Nick REEVES
AFP

A Russian teenage girl who remained nameless for the first year of her life could become a household name at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Alina Zagitova has lutzed and axeled her way into contention for Olympic women's figure skating gold after a breathtaking debut season on the senior circuit.

Born on May 18, 2002 in the Western Urals she went the first year of her life unnamed, until her parents settled on Alina, after celebrated Russian gymnast Alina Kabaeva.

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The 15-year-old Russian travels to South Korea as European champion, a title she earned at the expense of two-time world and European champion Evgenia Medvedeva.

"I could hear kids shouting and people shouting 'Go on Alina'", she said after claiming the continental crown at the Megasport Palace rink in Moscow last month.

Returning after time off to recover from a broken foot, Medvedeva was narrowly eclipsed by her training partner, close friend, and now deadly Olympic rival.

The injury had sidelined her for the Grand Prix Finals in Japan, and the Russian national championships, opening the way for Zagitova to step in and claim both titles.

Pyeongchang promises to serve up an electric rematch between the two pals.

Zagitova burst onto the scene in 2016-2017, being crowned world junior champion and becoming the first junior to break the 200 point barrier.

Turning senior she remains unbeaten this season with wins in China and France, the Grand Prix finals, the Russian national championships, and the Europeans, where she produced a personal best of 238.24 points to shade Medvedeva by less than seven points.

Dancing to Black Swan in her short program and Don Quixote in her free dance, she is unusual in that she backloads her routine with all her jumps executed in the second half, to earn extra points.

Both Zagitova and Medvedeva are among a group of Russians competing as neutrals at the 2018 Games with Russia serving a country ban for state-sponsored doping.

- Plotting revenge -

"At the Olympics we will be competing under the white flag, but we are still 'Athletes from Russia'. In our souls, we know," she said after succeeding Medvedeva as European champion.

Ominously for her rivals she added: "I think there is still room for improvement for me."

For Medvedeva, any disappointment at taking silver was dissipated by proving her fitness ahead of her Games' debut.

The Muscovite said: "My main victory is that I am standing here (after the injury).

"For all athletes, but for me too, their performances improve from competition to competition. The bigger the break in competing, the worse it is.

"There are a lot of people that made it possible for me to get back on to the ice and I think I realised that it is the treasure of my life to be able to go out and skate. It was not ideal, but first of all, I want to say thank you for the support. The support of the fans gives me strength."

She left Moscow's Megasport Palace rink plotting her revenge on Zagitova.

"Of course, I am not completely satisfied. There were many moments where I need to do better. I understand that very well so now I need to work."

Like her three-year younger compatriot, Medvedeva's' shot at Olympic glory comes against the backdrop of systematic Russian doping at the Sochi Games in 2014.

And Medvedeva deployed the agility and dexterity she is famed for on ice when delivering an emotional and eloquent plea before the IOC asking that Russia escape an Olympic ban.

With a ban subsequently imposed but with 169 'clean' Russian athletes cleared to compete, she commented: "Like everybody else I don’t know much about what is happening, but I am really glad we have the chance to represent our country at the Olympic Games."

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