At nationals, only one female skater broke out the quad: four revolutions in the air, the hardest jump in figure skating. It was 13-year-old Mia Kalin who landed two quads in her free skate in the junior ladies competition, a quad toe loop–double toe loop combo and another quad toe. No senior-level women even attempted one.
Kalin didn’t receive full credit for either quad jump—the first was under-rotated and the second was downgraded—but the Nashville crowd appreciated the effort. They knew what was coming at the start of her free skate set to music from Clash of the Titans and Game of Thrones, and they cheered loudly when the skater in the red dress and black tights landed both her attempts.
After her free skate, Kalin sat on a stool in front of a microphone and shrugged off a question about being the only American woman with a quad jump. “I think that there are a lot of other people that do quads, so it’s not a big deal,” she said.
“It was just one of the elements that she usually does, as any other Russian skaters [do],” said her coach Vadim Shebeco, who stood at her side. “It wasn’t really a question, should we keep it away or put it in, it was just there because she does it on a daily basis and it wasn’t a big deal.”
At Russian nationals, held just a couple weeks before the American edition, eight Russian women between the ages of 14 and 17 combined to attempt 18 quads and land 11 of them. The top five skaters all attempted at least one.
Also at Russian nationals, five women combined to attempt nine triple axels, the most difficult triple jump because its forward entry makes it really three-and-a-half rotations. They earned positive grade-of-execution scores on six of those jumps. Only two American senior women attempted triple axels in Nashville, and both fell. Women’s figure skating is evolving in a clear direction, and at least for the time being, the U.S. isn’t keeping up.
If you only watch figure skating once every four years, you’ll barely recognize the women’s competition you’ll see at these Beijing games, which will almost certainly be the first to see a woman land a quad jump. (The first Olympic attempt was by Surya Bonaly in Albertville in 1992.)
“It has become more apparent now that if you do want to win major international events, it is kind of a requirement to have those more prestigious elements,” 14-year-old American skater Isabeau Levito told Defector. Levito placed third at nationals and is training a triple axel and quad jumps, also called “Ultra C” elements, but has yet to try either in major competition.
Four years ago, Russian skater Alina Zagitova won gold by backloading her free skate with all her jumps, to get the 10-percent bonus for jumping on tired legs (which then prompted a rule change limiting that sort of thing). No women attempted a quad jump in that competition, and only one, American Mirai Nagasu, attempted a triple axel. Barring a whole lot of COVID-19 interference, the Russians will win gold again, likely with record-setting 15-year-old Kamila Valieva. And this time, Russia has a very good chance at a podium sweep with Valieva, 17-year-old Alexandra Trusova, and 17-year-old Anna Shcherbakova, who combine for eight quads and three triple axels in their programs.
At Pyeongchang in 2018, the American women had their worst finish ever for a top U.S skater, when Bradie Tennell wound up in ninth place. Karen Chen finished in 10th and Nagasu 11th. The results will probably look similar this year, as the U.S. has fallen even further behind on the technical side of things. According to skatingscores.com, four different Russian skaters—the three Olympians and the top alternate—collectively own the top 10 total competition scores in major senior international competition this season. Alysa Liu has the highest American placement with the 17th-best event score this season.
“Two Olympics ago, I went with Ashley Wagner, who got [seventh],” veteran U.S. figure skating coach Rafael Arutyunyan told Defector. “And it was for us, like we lost it. Today, if our girls would be [seventh] it would be a success.”
If you were to search for the highest-scoring jumps or jump combinations this season you’d have to scroll all the way down to No. 35 to find an American woman (Liu’s triple lutz–triple toe combo). Just five of the top 35 jump scores were earned by skaters from a country other than Russia. Every one of the top 10 single-element scores include a quad.
One month after the 2018 Olympic games, Trusova, then 13 years old, landed a quad salchow at the junior world championships and became the second woman to land a quad jump in international competition, 16 years after Japan’s Miki Ando landed the first. Ando was ahead of her time; it was Trusova’s quad that kicked off a new era in women’s skating and earned her the nickname of the Quad Queen.
Since then, nine more women have landed quad jumps in international competition, but just two of those 10 skaters are American: Kalin, this past season, and Liu, who landed her first in 2019, but hasn’t gone for a quad jump in competition since March 2020.
“We don’t have it, it’s not happening,” said Arutyunyan, who coaches first-time Olympian Mariah Bell and men’s gold medal favorite Nathan Chen. “We don’t have any girls.”
After Karen Chen was named to her second Olympic team, she told reporters she wanted to get back to working on her triple axel in the month or so before the Olympics. She said that landing the jump would be a “total dream come true,” though it’s unlikely she’ll be able to “whip it out at the Olympics,” as she put it, since she’s never attempted one in competition before.
Chen is 22 years old, and fully aware that she’s most likely missed her moment to join the ranks of the teenage mutant quad machines.
“It’s definitely intimidating, I’m not gonna lie,” she said. “But also it’s absolutely amazing what these women are doing on the ice, truly extraordinary stuff and I wish that I was able to do that. … Old dogs can’t learn new tricks? Not like that’s true, I don’t want to lose hope on that dream of mine, but at the same time I need to focus on what is in front of me and what is realistic.”
Chen’s coach, Tammy Gambill, said that she’s changed to adapt to the technical revolution by starting to work with her skaters on triple axels on the floor at a younger age than she used to. “We have to get these kids going and get them in the mindset that it is not just a triple lutz anymore, or a triple-triple,” she said. “Like no, you have to do a triple axel and you need to do a quad and you need to do multiple quads.”
Four years ago, triple-triple combos were still the elite skill necessary for senior-level women, but neither Chen nor her Olympic teammate Bell landed one in their free skates at this year’s nationals. Bell had not landed a clean triple-triple combo in four competitions this season until nailing one in her short program at nationals, and Chen still hasn’t done a triple-triple that earned a positive grade of execution.
Drew Meekins, who coaches Liu, pointed to a larger culture of women’s skating in the U.S that needs to change to catch up. “I think they’ll have to open their minds to that possibility,” he told Defector. “Even like when the men started doing quads, right? At first we thought that only a really special male skater could do a quad. Now you look at it and it’s like, I don’t even know how many hundreds of men can do quads. … It’s just about reaching that point here, that boiling point, so to speak.”
So how do you change an entire culture? Rafael Arutyunyan has ideas.
Before coming to the U.S., Arutyunyan coached for 25 years in Moscow. He knows the ins and outs of the way rinks function there and the resources and power available to coaches. Since he moved to the U.S., he’s coached skaters to 11 national titles, and under his tutelage, Nathan Chen has won three world titles. But even with Arutyunyan’s success, he says the U.S. will never match Russia (or Japan or South Korea) in women’s skating without a complete overhaul of the current structure. “We have everything in this country,” he said. “Everything, more than anyone else. Money, ice rinks, energy, population. What we don’t have? We don’t have proper management of what we have. We don’t have a system.”
Arutyunyan says he isn’t talking about U.S. Figure Skating, which he thinks does a good job providing skaters with plenty of opportunities to compete. To Arutyunyan, the problem instead is that coaches are all freelancers, each doing whatever they think is best for their skaters using different methods. He also says that coaches aren’t given enough decision-making power. In most cases they report to the rink manager, who isn’t always a figure skating expert.
“If [the coach] creates great skaters, management should help him to do it instead of being the boss and saying not this, not that,” he said. “I need more and I ask for more, because I want to win.”
The 65-year-old says he “knows what he knows” and he dreams of a system where he could create an academy to not only train skaters, but to train coaches (in his coaching style) to streamline the process. Many times, when a skater comes to him for help, it’s too late in their career to make meaningful changes. “You should get ready for war before war started,” he said. “My problem is I am coaching women, not [junior] ladies skaters, because until they get to the point to come to me, they become women and then it’s too late. The system should be created when a child comes to you from 4 or 5 years old and you give them the shortest way to get more than anybody else.”
Arutyunyan says that everything Nathan Chen does today was planned 10 years ago when Nathan first came to him for coaching. “Maybe there would be another Nathan, but consistent producing, I don’t think it will happen [here],” Arutyunyan said. “That’s why you say, oh, there is some [American] girl that was trying [a quad] and there are eight or 10 Russians who try, because they are a mass production.”
U.S. Figure Skating did not make high performance director Mitch Moyer available to the media after the Olympic team selection. His job title suggests that he is uniquely qualified to discuss how the U.S. women stack up internationally and why they’ve fallen so far behind in skating’s technical evolution, but when I requested to speak with him, the public relations director informed me that Moyer has turned down every request to discuss this topic.
While talking about her struggle in training her triple axel, Karen Chen said she wished she’d focused more on building the right basics when she was a younger skater learning all her jumps. “I think what is truly important when it comes to these women doing quads, is they have really, really amazing, like perfect technique when it comes to their triples. What’s been a struggle for me, I am going to be perfectly honest, is breaking bad habits that I have developed over the years as I skated. From juvenile, I had a really bad wrap [leg position in the air] and I actually rotated like this [she held one arm up like a goal post and one arm down]. I didn’t know what was right and what was wrong and I didn’t have that guidance.”
Eight years ago, Arutyunyan said, he “really, really tried” to create a system to develop American skaters, to make sure the talented young skaters learned the correct basics to prepare them for the technical revolution he saw coming. “I talked to people in the U.S. Olympic Committee, I talked to the best people in U.S. Figure Skating, I talked to the best people from the Professional Skaters Association, and everybody said yes, we agree. Nothing happening yet.”
If Arutyunyan sounds defeated, he’s also found some acceptance in that defeat. “I was frustrated eight years ago. Now I am not … I feel I am getting old and that it will not happen during my life.”
All three women on the Russian Olympic team have the same coach: Eteri Tutberidze. Tutberidze has dominated the last decade of women’s skating, and her intimidating visage, designer coats, and icy blonde hair would seem to give her the stereotypical role of skating’s lead villain. (She even compared herself to Cruella de Vil, in this MatchTV interview from 2016.)
Tutberidze coached the 2018 Olympic gold and silver medalists, Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva, while also readying a trio of talented juniors (Trusova, Shcherbakova and Alena Kostornaia, who was injured this season and removed from Olympic contention) who won nearly every junior competition in the following 18–19 season.
Valieva, the favorite for gold in Beijing, is two years younger than the Tutberidze trio, and is the best Tutberidze skater yet. In her first year as a senior this season, she set world records in short program, free skate, and event total.
“I’m sure the general public that doesn’t know skating that much [will] see these Russian girls—I mean we all are like, What are they doing over there?” said New Jersey–based coach Steven Rice, whose junior skater Ava Ziegler competed against some talented Russian juniors this season. “What’s going on? Why do they keep producing, season after season, you know?”
“In Russia, they are training differently,” said Kalin’s coach, Shebeco, who grew up skating in Russia. “It is a different process, how much they train and how many programs they do, how they apply their specific off-ice, vs. over here. It is just a different structure of training.”
Sometimes in this sport, “different” can be hard to discern from “abusive.”
Medvedeva told FameTimeTV in August that she ran her full free skate four times a week while training with Tutberidze, and didn’t realize that was more intensive than average until she talked to another skater with a different coach, who said they ran their full program only once a week. (For this and other Russian-languages videos cited, quotes are from the English subtitles provided by the Youtube uploader.)
“Before the  Olympics, my leg hurt so much that I was actually screaming,” Medvedeva told FametimeTV. “And only [Tutberidze’s] toughness worked then. ‘Either you go and do it or you are nothing.’ And somehow you manage to overcome yourself and you go and do it.”
In interviews over the last decade, Tutberidze has been brutally honest about her training methods and her controversial reputation. Here are some things she said in a December interview with Russia’s Channel One, translated by extraFS on Youtube:
Interviewer: “You never refuse a skater if they want to return to you [after leaving]?”
Tutberidze: “Of course not, if it was a mistake really. A while ago, Polina Shelepen ran away because I took her meatballs away at lunch. She should’ve come back and she would’ve become a world champion in 2015. She would have, no question about it.”
Interviewer: “Can you tell at first sight if you are seeing a potential champion?”
Tutberidze: “Well I can tell if the physique isn’t really suitable. I may say no in that case.”
Interviewer: “Do you keep an eye on their eating?”
Tutberidze: “No I don’t. But I do weigh them regularly. I don’t even do it myself, I just ask it to be sent to me. I recommend weighing yourself every day because it’s much easier to correct a problem at an early stage as opposed to when we already have two to three extra kilos and need to take urgent action. Much simpler when it’s only 200–300 grams.”
Interviewer: “Well, 200 grams is the weight of your iPhone.”
Tutberidze: “OK, today 200 grams, tomorrow 220 grams, and so on, and in 10 days what are we going to have?”
Medvedeva said she struggled with binge eating during her skating career, and another Tutberidze skater, 2014 Olympian Yulia Lipnitskaya, retired from skating at age 19 after undergoing a three-month treatment for anorexia.
In an interview that aired before the 2018 Olympics on RT, a Russian television station, a cameraman follows Medvedeva and Zagitova into the locker room after a practice. The two girls walk towards the scale in the corner.
“Don’t film the weight!” Medvedeva warns the cameraman.
“I won’t,” he says.
“Don’t look!” Zagitova says as she stands on the scale.
“I’m blocking it,” says Medvedeva.
“I actually lost 500 grams,” Zagitova says.
The camera then cuts to Medvedeva. “People say eat what you want, there’s nothing on you,” she said. “The thing is, we’re slim because we watch our diets. In our sport every 200–300 grams matter because we jump. To put it in a fancy way, we might ruin our aerodynamics. Any large weight gain or loss is bad.”
In the next scene, Medvedeva falls on a jump attempt, and Tutberidze yells at her, “Evgenia, you looked heavy!” Medvedeva skates over to the boards, where Tutberdize informs her she isn’t working hard enough. She wipes away tears and starts again.
It’s not like figure skating in the U.S. is free of scandals with eating disorders or abusive coaching. Here, it’s just less visible until the damage is done.
“Well first of all, if we did that, we would probably be suspended for SafeSport, especially nowadays,” Rice said. “I think in the U.S., it’s such a free country really, that if coaches scold their skaters, sometimes they are afraid of their parents or their clients leaving because you are too mean or too nice, so I do feel like maybe coaches hold back a little bit. In Russia they can get away with those kinds of things. They pick their children when they are little and it’s all about finding the right body types, it’s just done differently over there.”
Tutberidze told Channel One that she has had parents pull their kids from her group and write complaints, but her winning results continue to make her the most sought-after coach in Russia. She won the International Skating Union’s coach of the year award in 2020, beating out Arutyunyan and Canada’s Brian Orser, and she has indisputably ushered in this new era of women’s skating.
Philosophies have changed, too. In a December interview on the skating podcast Santee on Skates, Nancy Kerrigan said that her late coach Evy Scotvold only allowed her to train quads and triple axels during one week each summer, because he thought the stress on the body and the joints would shorten her career. “And I did one every time, every week during that one week,” she said. “I’m like, imagine if I got to practice it more, but he was like, ‘You’re going to ruin your knees, it’s not worth it at that point.’”
It remains to be seen how long the skating careers will be for this first generation of women consistently training quads. Liu lost her quads when she hit puberty because she already had shaky jump technique. Elizabet Tursynbaeva and Rika Kihira are the oldest women to land quad jumps, both at age 18.
“Why isn’t it sustainable, why shouldn’t it be?” Meekins told Defector. “I think the natural evolution, as technique and resources evolve, the sport should evolve, right?”
Levito, who will be 18 during the 2026 Olympics, competed against several skaters doing those Ultra C elements in international competition this season, but she said it didn’t intimidate her because she expects to be doing her own before long. “Yeah, I have goals to do these in time, regardless.”