Grand Prix Final 2018: Ladies Preview

I’m calling it now: the Ladies competition will be the highlight of the Grand Prix Final. An Olympic champion will have to fend off a resurgent former World Champion, three Japanese stars, and just to make things interesting, another Russian. This is going to be so good. 


Q1. Alina Zagitova – RUS – 30 – 215.29/222.95
Q2. Rika Kihira – JPN – 30 – 224.31/205.92
Q3. Satoko Miyahara – JPN – 28 – 219.71/219.47
Q4. Elizaveta Tuktamysheva – RUS – 26 – 203.32/219.02
Q5. Kaori Sakamoto – JPN – 24 – 213.90/197.42
Q6. Sofia Samodurova – RUS – 24 – 198.70/198.01

If you had shown this list of skaters to me back in September I would have thrown popcorn in your face. Tuktamysheva can’t be at the final–she hasn’t won anything in years. Samodurova–isn’t she a junior? Where’s Medvedeva? Is Rika Kihira still landing triple axels? Did Sakamoto’s Mime Game win over the judges?

And yet, here we are. 

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The Alina Zagitova of 2018 is very different from the girl who crushed the competition at the 2017 Grand Prix Final en route to an Olympic gold medal. Last season was a glorious and improbable run of success that strikes teenage female skaters once in a generation: Tara Lipinski in ’97-’98; Sarah Hughes at the 2002 Olympics; Yulia Lipnitskaya and Adelina Sotnikova at the 2014 Olympics. This year, however, the programs have been a struggle. Zagitova is winning, but the quality of her skating is stagnant.  

When I watch Zagitova skate I can see that she’s capable of more than a two-bit Phantom of the Opera program. Becoming a complete skater, however, takes time, and long-term athlete development has never been a strength of the Tutberidze training centre. Evgenia Medvedeva saw the writing on the wall as her jump technique eroded under the strain of a growth spurt last season. Now Zagitova’s technique is slowly coming undone. The pop into the air isn’t effortless and her landings aren’t as confident as they were in February. That was less than a year ago, but 9 months might as well be a lifetime in the development of a 16 year old elite athlete. 

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The bad news for Zagitova is that she’s not the only 16 year old wunderkind at the Grand Prix Final this year. Fellow Russian Sofia Samodurova scored a surprise sixth place in the overall standings, securing a spot at her first Final in her senior debut. Samodurova is a classic Alexei Mishin student: solid jump technique (no carrot cake here!) with a hint of cheese in the program composition. She’s not the most sophisticated skater–yet–but she’s composed and consistent, and those qualities served her well in her Series events. Samodurova is unlikely to break into the medals this year, but just making it to the final is valuable experience. 

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Also making her senior Grand Prix Final debut is 16 year old Rika Kihira. You may remember her as the lone non-Russian entry in last year’s Junior Grand Prix Final. Or maybe you’ve heard something about the beautiful triple axels she’s been landing in competition. Those axels earned her the highest overall score of all the ladies who qualified for the final. Kihira’s 1.36 points over Zagitova may seem modest, but remember that the difference between the gold and silver medals for the ladies in Pyeongchang was 1.31 points. Even without the massive boost in the TES from her planned triple axels, Kihira’s PCS should top Zagitova. Kihira has beautiful, musical programs that flatter her skating style and are lovely to watch. I hope we see them skated at their best in Vancouver.

So, how do the Elder Ladies counter the whippersnappers moving up the ranks? One option:

The resurgence of Elizaveta Tuktamysheva is already my highlight of this season. Tuktamysheva won the World Championships in 2015, only to produce middling results ever since. So many female figure skaters simply disappear in twilight of their teenage years, burned out from training triples since they were pre-teens and unable to cope with the physical changes that hamper technical proficiency. Now, at the ripe old age of 21, Tuktamysheva is refusing to go gently into that good night. 

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And why should Tuktamysheva simply step aside to let the next generation of Russian girls pass her by? Barely over the threshold of her 20s, there’s so much more she should be able to accomplish. Think of the difference in your own personality when you were 16 and then at 20, and then again at 25. Most of us will be given the space to mature and develop. Figure skaters, particularly female ones, rarely get the chance to grow up into full creative athletes. This is why I think so many fans have rallied behind Tuktamysheva this season, using her success as an example of How It Can Be Done: it is still possible, even in this era of IJS and Russian spinning tops, to be relevant beyond your teen years. 

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And then we have Satoko Miyahara, making her fourth Grand Prix Final and attempting to win a gold medal that has twice eluded her at this event. While most skaters have a few soft spots in their early season competitions, Miyahara stepped out looking ferociously prepared and committed to skating the hell out of her programs. And those programs are beautiful: musical, intricately choreographed, and an absolute joy to watch. Miyahara has struggled with under rotation calls throughout her career–she’s a tiny, tight jumper, a by-product of re-learning how to rotate counter-clockwise when she naturally rotates clockwise. UR calls have chipped away at the base value of her TES, making her less competitive than her peers. She committed to fixing that this summer, and the results have been obvious: squeaky-clean protocols and podium placements. 

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Finally, my favourite ray of sunshine Kaori Sakamoto rounds out the finalists.  I love her free program to The Piano, but what I love even more is that she is embracing the angular, challenging choreography of Benoît Richaud. Sakamoto is growing enormously as a performer, and she’s skates with so much joy and enthusiasm you can’t help but smile. That joy powered her through Grand Prix Helsinki onto the podium after a disastrous short program, securing just enough points to qualify her for the final. If you haven’t watched that free skate, do it now. I’ll even forgive her the miss on the choreographic sequence at the end because she’s such a delight.

Just one preview to go, and I’m saving the best for last. Coming up next: the men’s event at the Grand Prix Final!

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