Elizaveta Tuktamysheva is nearing the end. The brilliant Russian figure skater, known as “The Empress,” first made a name for herself on the international skating scene over 10 years ago. She’s won the senior grand prix title, a World Championship, and a European Championship, but she’s never made the Russian Olympic team. She missed out on Sochi and Pyeongchang, and now at 25 years old, she’s still fighting for that elusive Olympic spot—this time against a swarm of teens who can do quad jumps, the hardest jumps in skating. She’s been skating so long that she’s outlasted the competitive careers of both Adelina Sotnikova (25 years old) and Alina Zagitova (19) who won golds at the 2014 and 2018 Olympics, respectively.
I’ll admit that I was late to hop on the Tuktamysheva bandwagon. I discovered her last season while watching the Rostelecom Cup because I wanted to see Alexandra Trusova, the “Quad Queen” who was 16 years old at the time. But then I noticed the skater in the scary black dress, with the dark eyeliner and the been-there-done-that expression. Her knowing gaze hooked me. Who was she? Her whole vibe was so different from the other skaters, most of whom were in their mid to late teen years. She had that je ne sais quoi that made her performance so captivating. I felt like I could somehow relate to her.
Then I started following her on social media and started loving her more and more. Unlike her younger competitors, who can seem very controlled and at times robotic, Tuktamysheva does whatever she wants whenever she wants. She once did an iconic performance number in a bedazzled flight attendant uniform to Britney Spears’s “Toxic” (and then zipped off her top at the end!), she posed for Russian Maxim, and she’s found a way to stay competitive with the best skaters without having a quad jump in her programs. The Empress is the adult in the room in women’s figure skating, with a confidence and self-assurance that is unmatched. She regularly gets standing ovations when she skates.
The other thing to love about Tuktamysheva is that she’s not coached by Eteri Tutberidze, which makes her a bit of a rebel outsider. Eteri is the Queen of Russian figure skating coaches, the woman who has trained most of the quad machines. Eteri has established herself as the top coach in Russian skating, and since her skaters have dominated international competitions since the last Olympic cycle (she coached Olympic champion Zagitova and silver medalist Evgenia Medvedeva), that makes her skating’s “it” coach. I love watching any of Eteri’s skaters compete because the camera always flashes to her for some kind of reaction shot, except … her expression never actually changes.
Last weekend, Tuktamysheva was the oldest skater in the field at Russian nationals. The next oldest competitor at nationals was 19 years old. Russia doesn’t handle their Olympic selection exactly the way we do. Here, U.S. Figure Skating will pick the three skaters who will make up the women’s team shortly after U.S. Nationals results are in. It can be based off the top three skaters at nationals, but like gymnastics, there’s flexibility for the USFS to choose who they want. In Russia, the selection process is similar, but after Russian nationals, the Russian federation chooses three skaters to send to the European Championships in January, and then they will finalize the Olympic team, based on those results and prior competition results.
Our dear Liza was in good standing entering Russian nationals. She won the silver medal at Worlds last spring (her first appearance at Worlds since winning it in 2015), behind countrywoman Anna Shcherbakova (17 years old) and ahead of Trusova. And this season, she qualified her way to the Grand Prix Final (an international competition with the top skater’s from the season, the results are usually a good predictor of Olympic results), but the event was canceled because of COVID-19 precautions. At nationals, Liza needed to nail both of her programs and hit all three of her triple axels (an extremely difficult jump, 3.5 rotations) to stake her claim for the Olympic team.
But in the short program, Liza fell on her opening triple axel, and then didn’t really have her spark for the rest of the program. She wound up in seventh place after the short, nine points behind the third place skater, a hole too big to dig out of when high-scoring quad jumps would be part of the free skates of five of the six skaters sitting ahead of her in the standings (quads aren’t allowed in the short program).
When she took the ice for the free skate, The Empress was possessed with a new energy and delivered the fight of her life when it counted. She hit her two triple axels (one in combination with a double toe) and brought the crowd to their feet. I love this program because she almost comes to a complete stop on the ice in two different moments, to do a fun little body roll and fist pump and invite the audience to clap and come along on the ride with her. Her choreography certainly isn’t the most creative or artistic in skating, but it is definitely the most fun! The music changes to sound like something you would hear at 1:00 a.m. at a club. Out with the boring classical music, take me dancing! I am here for this!
As she skated off the ice, her coach presented her with a giant portrait, complete with an expensive-looking crown, one only an Empress could pull off.
Tuktamysheva ended up in seventh place, and fourth among the Olympic age-eligible skaters, just behind the top three who are all Eteri’s skaters: Kamila Valieva, Trusova, and Shcherbakova. This result was a bit controversial because Shcherbakova did not attempt a triple axel and fell on the only quad jump she attempted, yet scored five points higher in her free skate than Tuktamysheva, who landed two triple axels.
The top three skaters were named to Russia’s team for the European Championships, but Russia did not announce an Olympic team yet, so there is still a small ray of hope for The Empress. Valieva has set scorings records all season, and is a lock for the Olympic gold medal, but both Trusova and Shcherbakova made mistakes at nationals and have been struggling with injuries and errors all season. They are not bulletproof. If one of them has a bad showing at Europeans, Tuktamysheva could get the call-up.
If she doesn’t make the Olympic team, and this really is the beginning of the end for her, I will take comfort in knowing that she went out on her terms. Tuktamysheva is a true original in a sport that doesn’t always welcome such spirit, and figure skating will be worse off when she’s gone.