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Olympics

Let’s Meet These Figure Skating Women

BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 15: Alexandra Trusova of Team ROC skates during the Women Single Skating Short Program on day eleven of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Capital Indoor Stadium on February 15, 2022 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Spoiler alert: There’s a non-Russian skater in the top three! Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto landed in third place after a brilliant short program Tuesday night in Beijing (Tuesday morning in the U.S.). Perhaps a future spoiler alert: It probably won’t last.

We’ve already talked a lot about the big mess that is Kamila Valieva’s doping saga, so it’s now time to get to know the other women (this is the first Olympics to stop calling them “ladies”) in this competition. Sasha Trusova will do five quads or go down in flames, Wakaba Higuchi will have you all in your feelings, and Kaori Sakamoto looks to deny a Russian podium sweep (except there won’t be a podium, on account of the cheating).

The short program re-airs tonight in primetime, and the free skate will be live on Thursday, starting at 5 a.m. ET. Here are the current standings.

1. Kamila Valieva, ROC (82.61)

If you don’t know who Valieva is by now, that’s probably for the best. Enjoy her effortlessly graceful jumps, unreal extension (seriously, how do her legs look so long?!), flexibility, and balletic expression without wondering how much of her success is due to “accidentally” taking her grandpa’s heart medication. A fun fact that I recently learned about Valieva is that two years ago, her short program was inspired by this Picasso painting, Young Acrobat on a Ball, and she did it so well that Picasso’s granddaughter invited her to visit her in Paris. I love a program that creates a specific mood, and this one that brings a painting to life is so cool.

Valieva has a two-point lead even though she was off-axis and messed up her triple axel in her short program. With three quads planned in her free skate, she’s in perfect position to hold that lead. We’ll likely have to wait for many months and multiple hearings to find out if that is the same thing as winning gold.

2. Anna Shcherbakova, ROC (80.20)

Shcherbakova, 17, is the reigning world champion and another student of Eteri Tutberidze, who coaches all three Russian women. Shcherbakova does not have a triple axel or as many quads as her training partners, but she makes up for it with gorgeous skating skills. She scores big in the component scores, which measures a skater’s transitions, performance, edge quality, and musical interpretation. Her Olympic short program score was her season-best. She finished second to Valieva at Europeans in January and third at Russian nationals, behind Valieva and Trusova.

Last year, she won her third Russian nationals after skating through a bout of pneumonia that was so bad that “everyone advised [her] to withdraw.” She did withdraw from the Rostelecom Cup in late November because of it, but refused to miss Russian nationals the next month. Just before her short program at nationals, cameras captured her Turberdize and another coach Daniil Gleikhengauz giving her what appeared to be smelling salts.

Also, two years ago, Shcherbakova had an incredible costume change in her free skate. Please enjoy:

3. Kaori Sakamoto, Japan (79.84)

Upset alert! Sakamoto’s Gladiator-themed short program landed her in third place, just above Alexandra Trusova and unexpectedly breaking up the ROC hold in the top three. Her Olympic short program score is her personal best, and her reaction afterwards was so adorable.

Sakamoto, 21, does not compete triple axels or quad jumps, but her speed sets her apart from the rest. She uses fewer crossovers to make her away across the ice than most skaters and she doesn’t slow down at all before going into her jumps. This is Sakamoto’s second Olympic Games; she finished sixth in Pyeongchang.

Sakamoto is also known for an epic free skate from the 2019 season set to the Matrix, where she did a spiral dangerously close to the judges. I love this energy!

4. Alexandra Trusova, ROC (74.60)

Sasha Trusova, 17, is known as the Quad Queen because she was the first Tutberidze skater to debut quad jumps in the junior ranks, and she’s done the most quads (five!) of any woman ever in her free skate. Trusova is always going for broke instead of playing it safe and I truly love that about her. She is all in on the quads. Sometimes her gambles pay off and sometimes they don’t, and because her component scores aren’t as strong as her competitors, she’s no stranger to being in a big hole after the short program, where quads are not allowed for women. (And speaking of component scores, hers were suspiciously high in her Olympic short program).

At last year’s World Championships, Trusova sat in 12th place after she bombed her short program but attempted five quads in her free skate (she fell on two of them) and jumped up all the way up to the bronze.

She has a totally chaotic energy (even more now that she has dyed her hair bright red) that I admire. If Trusova were an NFL coach, she’s be going for it on fourth down and going for two EVERY DAMN TIME. There’s no punting in Trusova’s skating.

Her free skate this year is to Florence + The Machine’s “Call me Cruella” from the Cruella movie soundtrack, and I think it fits her energy perfectly.

Cruella De Vil, Cruella De Vil
The fear on your face
It gives me a thrill
Who wants to be nice?
Who wants to be tame?

Not Trusova!

She battled through an injury this season to make her way onto this Olympic team, so hasn’t done her five-quad free skate yet this season in competition. (She did five cleanly at the Russian test skates in September, which is not a competition, and four at Europeans and at Russian Nationals.) If I know Trusova, she will stop at nothing and since this is the Olympics I fully expect to see her go for five quads Thursday.

Call me crazy, call me insane
But you’re stuck in the past
And I’m ahead of the game

5. Wakaba Higuchi, Japan (73.51)

Higuchi, 21, is probably the most likable skater in the top five. She just missed out on making Japan’s last Olympic team, and she’s skating this season with incredible focus to make up for it. Since then, she’s developed a triple axel and landed a clean one in her Olympic short program, though her score Tuesday seemed very low considering it was six points off her season-best where she also landed a triple axel, and one point lower than her short program in the team event last week, where she did a double axel instead of a triple. Wakaba deserves better!

She has another triple axel planned for her free skate, which is a very moving Lion King-themed program. Try to watch this and not feel something, I dare you!

All right, Russia and Japan are dominating this competition, but what about the Americans?

Sixteen-year-old Alysa Liu did well, and she’s in eighth place after deciding to play it safe and do a double axel instead of a triple axel, with which she’s been struggling all season. (She’ll go for a triple axel in the free skate). Liu looked genuinely happy out there, which was nice to see because she had a stressful coaching change in November and didn’t look like she was having much fun at nationals in January before she withdrew because of a positive COVID-19 test.

Mariah Bell is in 11th and Karen Chen is in 13th. Both skaters fell on jumps in their short program and lack the technical components in their free skate to make up the deficit. Chen fell in her last Olympics in 2018 and finished 11th. She was hoping to have a better performance in Beijing and was visibly disappointed when she left the ice.

The women’s free skate begins Thursday at 5 a.m. ET, and here’s the start order.