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Conveyor belt of champions: Why is Russian coach Tutberidze being criticized for the incredible success of her teen skating stars?

Conveyor belt of champions: Why is Russian coach Tutberidze being criticized for the incredible success of her teen skating stars?
Raising a figure skating champion is a task requiring saintly patience and painstaking devotion. Raising several champions is a feat sometimes met with strong criticism. But what price do Russian skaters pay for being unbeatable?

The competition inside the Russian national team is more than fierce, with dozens of skaters fighting for just three spots up for grabs. But what happens if practically all the world-leading athletes are the charges of just one coach?

READ MORE: ‘I don’t like disposable champions’: Figure skating coach compares new generation skaters to single-use plastic cups

The name of Eteri Tutberidze was unfamiliar to figure skating fans several years ago, with other coaches setting the pace in women’s skating.

Everything changed in 2014 with the emergence of Russian talent Yulia Lipnitskaya, who marked the beginning of a new era in ladies single skating – the era of Eteri Tutberidze.

Having the flexibility of an artistic gymnast, the lithe Lipnitskaya mesmerized the world with her stunning free program routine where she portrayed the iconic little girl in a red coat from the acclaimed movie ‘Schindler's List’.

Her flawless performance in the 2014 Winter Olympics team event led pundits to gush about the birth of a new star discovered by Tutberidze.

Lipnitskaya’s Olympic run was not as glorious as had been expected, as she failed to win an individual medal following her sensational skating in the team event. However, despite a unexpected failure in the singles, the youngster and her coach were lauded for the phenomenal work they had done.

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Lipnistkaya followed her Olympic success with world championship silver, but just as a star was born, it quickly faded. The victorious tandem split up after the skater sensationally left the Tutberidze team. Her efforts to retain her leading positions under a new coach fell short, causing the skater to retire at the age of 19.

Tutberidze, however, was soon to bring the world another bright star – Evgenia Medvedeva – a girl who remained unbeaten for two seasons in a row.

The 2018 winter Olympics in PyeongChang were Tutberidze’s shot at glory with two of her skaters, Alina Zagitova and Medvedeva, claiming gold and silver respectively.

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But the triumph was overshadowed by a huge scandal after pre-tournament favorite Medvedeva took her teammate Zagitova’s victory as an insulting betrayal by her long-time coach.

She asked me why I couldn’t hold Alina for one more year at a junior level,” Tutberidze later said, adding fuel to the fire of a conflict widely discussed in Russia.

The two-time world champion Medvedeva followed in the footsteps of Lipnitskaya, parting ways with Tutberidze. She instead turned to prominent Canadian specialist Brian Orser, with whom she has been cooperating since 2018.

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Without Tutberidze’s control and intense training, Medvedeva’s results nosedived with a bronze medal at the 2019 world championship being her highest achievement so far.

Meanwhile, Tutberidze, whose expertise has become in high demand, extended her winning streak in women’s skating with Zagitova becoming the world champion in 2019.

Along with taking gold-medal positions, the coach made revolutionary changes in ladies skating by raising a new quad-generation who displayed some phenomenal elements, including triple axels and various quad jumps.

However, along with praise and admiration, the coach has faced an avalanche of criticism for bringing the sport to a completely new level. Several top coaches have accused Tutberidze of exploiting young talents and pushing girls’ bodies to the limit.

She was also lambasted for her inability to work with adult skaters who have already gone through puberty, instead replacing one young champion with another teen sensation.

The chorus of criticism has only intensified with new victories, with many pundits suggesting raising the age limit in women’s skating to make athletes’ careers longer.

The row involving Tutberidze took a new twist after Russian prodigies Alexandra Trusova, Alena Kostornaia and Anna Shcherbakova were allowed to compete at senior level, leaving Zagitova and Medvedeva out of the national team.

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Reigning world and Olympic champion Zagitova announced a break in her competitive career on the verge of the Russian nationals, igniting a scandal in Russia with fans and pundits suggesting that Zagitova was forced to retire – despite the skater’s vows that she would return.

Tutberidze came under fire again with strong accusations being hurled against the coach, who was said to have a conveyor belt of champions.

Russian figure-skating legend Tatiana Tarasova regretted that Zagitova’s career had lasted just three seasons joining the group of specialists who spoke in favor of raising the age limit in women’s event.

Also on rt.com 'It's a shame the career of an Olympic champion lasts just 3 seasons' – coaching legend Tarasova on Zagitova 'pause' decision

The 45-year-old Tutberidze has strongly withstood all condemnation and disapproval, continuing to forge quad-jumping stars out of her skaters.

When once asked about the short-lived success of Lipnitskaya, Tutberidze said she didn’t regret anything and was proud of helping the champion to Olympic prominence.

Yulia received her portion of love from fans. I think she was happy to stay on top of the podium. The whole world had admired her,” she said.

Tutberidze’s approach of having a bright but short professional career has sparked heated debates in the figure-skating world, which has split into two camps.

Those supporting the coach claim that raising the age limit will ruin the incredible breakthroughs created by Tutberidze.

Critics insist that progress should not be put before athletes’ health and make them retire at a young age with talented teenagers snapping at their heels.

Where is the truth? The International Skating Union (ISU) hasn’t yet announced any changes regarding the age limit in women’s skating, but the controversy is steadily becoming one of the most burning issues in the sport.

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