Success of Russia’s Female Figure Skaters Takes a Toll in Injuries and Stress

Evgenia Medvedeva competing at the European Figure Skating Championships in January in Moscow. She is widely expected to win a medal in women’s singles skating at the Winter Games.

MOSCOW — The figure skater Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia was already a two-time world champion and a consensus favorite to win gold at the 2018 Winter Olympics weeks before her 18th birthday last autumn.

At a competition in Moscow in October, she laughed easily. Months earlier, she had skated as the anime character Sailor Moon, dressed as a Japanese schoolgirl turned superhero. Now she performed as Tolstoy’s tragic Anna Karenina, joking, “I’m skating to show that I won’t be an old maid.”

She carried a toy cat like a security blanket but also became the assertive face of Russia’s Olympic athletes. She argued forcefully — and successfully — at a December meeting of the International Olympic Committee that all Russian athletes should not be barred from the 2018 Games because of a state-sponsored system of doping at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.

Medvedeva and her training partner, Alina Zagitova, 15, are widely expected to win two of the three available medals in women’s singles skating at the Winter Games and are expected to make Russia a gold medal favorite in the team competition. But no longer does Medvedeva appear invincible. And neither does Russian skating.

Nearly three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian women have advanced to the forefront of skating in a wave, not unlike tennis players did after the millennium. And skating officials are coming to terms with exactly what that means in terms of maturity of performance and sustainability of health.

On the ice, Medvedeva was a maturing artist and an innovative technician who performed with ruthless consistency. When she fell on a double Axel jump at the Moscow competition in October, no one was more stunned than Medvedeva herself. She called the spill “a moral weakness.”

“I let out my joy too early,” she said.

In hindsight, the fall may have resulted more from an injury to her right foot, later determined to be a broken bone, than from premature celebration.

Medvedeva is the third high-profile Russian skater to have had her career disrupted lately because of injury or an eating disorder.

Her fragile foot has raised continued questions about whether Russia’s reliance on tiny young female skaters — who best succeed with the difficult jumps required in today’s scoring system — has put some elite performers at risk of getting hurt and having their careers derailed while they are still teenagers.

Adelina Sotnikova, who in 2014 won Russia’s first Olympic gold medal for women in singles skating at age 17, has missed this entire Olympic season, citing injury.

Yulia Lipnitskaya, who won a gold medal in 2014 in the inaugural team skating competition at age 15, retired last August, saying she had struggled with anorexia.

“We didn’t have such a situation before,” said Alexander Lakernik, a Russian who is vice president of the International Skating Union, the sport’s governing body. “We must see what happens with this generation of young girls.”

In early November, Medvedeva won the NHK Trophy, a Grand Prix competition in Japan. But, after returning home, she revealed that she had needed painkillers to perform in Moscow in October and had competed in Japan with a broken metatarsal bone in her right foot.

She had risked competing with an injury, she said, because, “This is the Olympic season.”

Injuries and eating disorders are common in figure skating, affecting skaters from many countries. Gracie Gold of the United States, who finished fourth at the 2014 Olympics in singles skating and won a bronze in the team competition, is out of skating at the moment for what she described as depression, anxiety and an eating disorder.

The need to keep weight down to jump proficiently puts a lot of pressure on the sport’s athletes. “I cannot eat what I want after six in the evening like I could before,” Medvedeva said in October. “Things have changed from two or three years ago.

“The main secret is discipline. Our sport really demands that you have to control yourself anytime.”

That seems especially true under skating’s current scoring system, which attaches a numerical value to every element from jumps to spins to footwork and musical interpretation, and favors extravagant jumping.

Russia has rigorously maximized the possibilities of the points system. For instance, a 10 percent bonus is awarded for each jump in the second half of a routine, when skaters’ legs are tired. Zagitova does all of her jumps in the second half of her routine. Medvedeva performs several of her jumps with one arm above her head to increase the difficulty.

In Russia’s centralized training system, where a number of top skaters practice together and push each other daily, girls as young as 10, 11 or 12 are performing a number of challenging jumps requiring three revolutions. It is easier to jump before the body matures and fills out after puberty. Alexandra Trusova, who won the junior Grand Prix final in December, can land a quadruple salchow, even if imperfectly, at age 13.

Yet, while young bodies are flexible and resilient, they are still growing and can be susceptible to injuries to the joints and soft tissue.

Last fall, Medvedeva dismissed questions about injuries and young Russian skaters. Jumps of four revolutions, long performed by men but seldom by women, would be “the next step” in the evolution of the sport, she predicted, adding, “In a few years, it will be normal.”

Johnny Weir, a retired, two-time Olympian from the United States who trained with Russians during his career, said that while there was always danger in overtraining or attempting jumps a skater was not ready for, Russian coaches and officials were systematic and careful in their approach.

“There are far more injuries to the Americans, I find,” he said.

But the increasing difficulty of jumps for men and women has put skating in “uncharted territory” regarding health repercussions, said Tom Zakrajsek, a prominent American coach.

“In I.S.U. medical commission circles, there’s a lot of concern about that,” he said, adding that’s likely why some want to limit allowed jumps or awarded points. “It probably makes sense. As much as we’re doing this for sport, we also want to keep in mind the health of the athlete.”

In the chaotic period after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, a number of rinks closed in former Soviet republics and many coaches moved to the United States.

Now there are dozens of rinks in Moscow, some privately operated, others run by the state, coaches and officials. And a new generation of coaches has emerged, including the former Olympic champions Evgeni Plushenko and Artur Dmitriev and the latest sensation, Eteri Tutberidze, who coaches Medvedeva, Zagitova and other elite skaters in Moscow.

At 43, Tutberidze, who lived for a period in the United States, describes herself as blunt and no-nonsense. “Sometimes skaters get to an age and they start not liking it, so it’s bye-bye,” she said. “I’m not going to change.”

When Medvedeva was younger and kept falling one day in practice, Tutberidze had her roll around on the ice.

“Do you just like to fall?” the coach asked. “I can help you fall.”

“I don’t want to fall,” Medvedeva replied.

“O.K., I’m going to help you stop,” Tutberidze said.

Several top young skaters from around Russia have been directed to her skating club in Moscow in what Rafael Arutyunyan, who formerly coached there for nearly two decades, calls a “factory of production.”

That is not to say that the skaters are robotic. But by age 4 or 5, some are already training in what are essentially professional conditions, said Arutyunyan, who now coaches a number of American stars, including Nathan Chen.

Competition is fierce. Medvedeva, Arutyunyan said, “knows if she gets a little worse, someone else is coming.”

Chen, who has performed in a skating show with Medvedeva in Japan, said that she often did three triple jumps in succession in training. And sometimes, when she missed a jump, she did it over repeatedly, six times, 10 times, one right after the other.

“It’s unbelievable,” Chen said.

And it is also reminiscent of the training of Tara Lipinski of the United States, who won the 1998 Winter Olympics at age 15 but later needed hip surgery after all her obsessive and repetitive jumping.

In Medvedeva’s return from her broken foot, at the European championships in January, she appeared less than fully fit and somewhat unassured on her jumps. After finishing second to Zagitova, Medvedeva closed her eyes in disappointment in the kiss-and-cry area. It was her first defeat since November 2015.

“Silver is silver,” she told reporters. “You can’t change the value of a medal.”

But after a two-month layoff from competition, she said, “It’s not that bad.”

There was time, she hoped, to continue recovering before the Olympics.

“My main victory is that I am standing here,” she said.

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