As predicted, the fight for gold in women’s figure skating will come down to two Russian teenagers. During the first night of the women’s competition, 18-year-old Evegenia Medvedeva skated her short program, set to Chopin, to a world record, beating her own previous mark by a tenth of a point. Then, two skaters later, 15-year-old Alina Zagitova, who skated as the Black Swan, performed with just a little more grace and ineffable oomph. She broke the world record Medvedeva had just set.
I previewed the rivalry between these two adolescents earlier this week, comparing it to a familiar figure skating narrative, the one between Michelle Kwan and her various gold-medal vanquishers, with Medvedeva playing the part of Kwan and Zagitova filling the role of Kwan’s gold-medal spoilers Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes. If this very analogy was not enough to expose my bias—I don’t know what you were doing during Kwan’s go-for-the-gold skates, but I was running around the room shrieking, too stressed out by the possibility of her disappointment to look directly at the television—I’ll say outright that I’m rooting for Medvedeva.
She’s older, she dances in malls, and I have an extreme soft spot for the overdog who becomes the underdog, and so can perform neither with abandon nor overconfidence as she tries desperately to fend off her own fast-approaching obsolescence.
I might be projecting, but Zagitova and Medvedeva’s shared coach, Eteri Tutberidze, may feel the same way: Upon seeing Zagitova’s score, she smiled wanly and appeared a little out of sorts. She looked a little like a coach who should have been more careful what she wished for. The New York Times said Medvedeva sounded wistful as she talked about watching younger skaters do more difficult moves: “You just feel inside so strange. You are older, and you must be stronger than them. It really forces you.” Girl, wait till they start texting you acronyms you can’t decipher.
Watching Medvedeva’s and Zagitova’s performances Tuesday night, I made peace with the way this gold medal duel will likely unfold. (That’s a nice thing about Olympic fandoms, which are born and die in a fortnight: They’re easy to let go.) Simply, Zagitova crushed. Medvedeva was very good, but she wasn’t that good. Zagitova’s skating is just an iota more precise. She jumps a little higher, she spins a little faster, she lands a little smoother. So much about figure skating is about making that which is hard look effortless, and Zagitova’s skating looks supremely effortless, physically and mentally. It’s beautiful and it’s clean and if it doesn’t have a hugely distinct personality, that’s because youth and perfection rarely do. If she skates her best, Zagitova will probably win on Thursday night, and she will deserve to.