Russia’s dignified golden girl who battled to Beijing glory
The women’s figure skating competition in Beijing will inevitably be remembered for the unedifying saga which unfolded around pre-tournament favorite Kamila Valieva, who was left demoralized and broken by the time she had finished her final routine in the Chinese capital.
Valieva’s name has dominated the headlines ever since the news of her positive doping sample emerged, piling immense pressure on her slender shoulders – a burden which, perhaps unsurprisingly, proved to be all too much.
Valieva’s misfortune meant she was not among the Beijing individual medalists – the ceremony for which the IOC had already said would not take place, had she finished in the top three.
Second on the podium was Alexandra Trusova, a fellow Russian teenager who also ended up seizing the spotlight for matters on and off the ice.
Completing a historic five quads in her program, Trusova still had to settle for silver. Her outburst after the event, where she was heard shouting “I hate this sport”, laid bare Trusova’s intense desire to win, but also her discontent at how things had played out in Beijing.
Amid all the drama and distraction, and when the dust had settled, it was the quiet, much more unassuming figure of Anna Shcherbakova who stood top of the pile.
With Valieva inconsolable and Trusova having a temper fit, it would be easy to overlook Shcherbakova’s achievement, buried as it is among a tsunami of headlines surrounding other skaters.
But Shcherbakova’s performance in Beijing – and her own battle against the odds – is worthy of being told far and wide, even among all the opprobrium and anger surrounding other members of the Russian team.
Shcherbakova’s path to the top of the podium was far less smooth than the majestic skating she produced on the Beijing ice.
Indeed, it is a ‘Cinderella-type’ story of a skater forced to endure trial and tribulation before being crowned an Olympic princess.
Rising through the ranks
Despite her haul of medals and titles – including the 2021 World Championship crown and now an Olympic gold – Shcherbakova has never really been considered a strong favorite to earn top accolades throughout the years.
Shcherbakova began to train under the tutelage of renowned coach Eteri Tutberidze when she was just nine years old, commencing a cooperation which would eventually bring her to global prominence, but only via a route filled with obstacles.
At the age of 13, Shcherbakova had a career-threatening injury when she broke her leg after falling on a loop jump.
Rehabilitation took several months and even the skater’s parents were not sure whether she would be able to return.
But return she did, consequently increasing the difficulty of her programs and joining the so called ‘quad club’ after she started to land quadruple jumps.
Shcherbakova won the Russian Championships at age 15, something which many still considered as an ‘accidental’ result after numerous rivals made costly mistakes.
That same year, Shcherbakova took silver at the 2019 World Junior Championships, finishing behind Trusova.
Her first season at senior level was largely unremarkable as she skated in the shadow of teammates and training partners Alena Kostornaia and Trusova, who looked more solid and stable in Tutberidze’s group.
But despite not having the most impressive technical content, Shcherbakova again claimed the national title, defending the crown she had won a year before.
Her debut at the 2020 European Championships didn’t stir many pundits despite her second place, as all eyes were on Kostornaia, who wowed with her powerful skating and tremendous triple axel, which made her score unattainable for rivals.
Kostornaia would seemingly have become world champion had it not been for the onset of the pandemic, which canceled major events including the season-ending figure skating tournament.
Overcoming more obstacles
Finally it seemed like Shcherbakova’s time to shine when she became the number one star in Tutberidze’s group after the defection of Kostornaia and Trusova, who moved on to be coached by Evgeni Plushenko.
But the pre-Olympic season turned out to be torture for Shcherbakova, who was forced to change her competitive schedule after contracting Covid.
Having barely recovered from pneumonia, the skater decided to take part in the Russian Championships in a bid to progress to the national squad.
Pale and breathing heavily, Shcherbakova gave the impression that she would collapse during her short program.
But characteristically she soldiered on, despite recommendations from her coaches to withdraw.
Shcherbakova entered the free skate enduring pain, fatigue and a high temperature, even cracking the often stern façade of coach Tutberidze, causing her to cry with the final stages of her program.
Her efforts meant that Shcherbakova had won her third straight national title, beating none other than rising young sensation Valieva.
Taking her chances
Shcherbakova entered the 2021 World Championships as a medal contender but still not the leading favorite, given that Trusova was planning a revolutionary number of quads.
But the ‘Russian Rocket’ shocked fans by ending just 12th after the first competitive day, leaving the door open for Shcherbakova and veteran Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, who needed no second invitation to capitalize.
Shcherbakova won the tournament confidently, adding a maiden world title to her name. A month later, she helped Russia to celebrate gold at the Team World Championships in Japan.
Just as things were on the up, Shcherbakova was afflicted by another streak of bad luck at the beginning of the Olympic season as she broke her toe – an injury which would keep her out of training for several weeks.
Shaky and unstable during Grand Prix stages, Shcherbakova gave ammunition to critics who speculated over her unreadiness to enter the Russian squad for the 2022 Beijing Games.
She was on the verge of missing her ticket to Beijing after falling from the sole quad in her free skate at the national championships, but the score was high enough to finish in the top three, behind Valieva and Trusova.
Questions about the fairness of her inclusion to the team intensified after Shcherbakova faltered in her short program at the European Championships as recently as January, falling on her signature triple lutz-triple loop combo.
But she recovered quickly, delivering a flawless performance in the free skate to rise to second position in the final standings, behind Valieva.
Despite making the Olympic team, the obstacles continued to mount for Shcherbakova upon arrival in Beijing, where her skates broke, forcing her to make an urgent change just days before the biggest competition of her life.
It might seem trivial, but anyone familiar with figure skating will know that new skates ahead of a major competition is no small upheaval, given that athletes often need weeks to adjust to new equipment.
Shcherbakova didn’t have that time, but there were no complaints, just grit and determination.
Indeed, while the primary turmoil engulfed the unfortunate Valieva after her doping row erupted, it could easily have unbalanced the entire Russian team in Beijing, such was its magnitude.
Shcherbakova remained calm, however, placing second behind Valieva after a flawless short program in Beijing.
Ahead of her free skate routine on Thursday, Shcherbakova had been forced to contend with Trusova’s historic skate just moments earlier, as the flame-hair star landed a remarkable five quads.
The pressure was on again, and anything less than her best – even with the under-pressure Valieva to follow – would not have been enough for Shcherbakova to triumph.
In the end, Shcherbakova pulled off the performance of her life to the music from the movie ‘Master and Margarita’, rising to the occasion and flowing over the ice.
Even though her free skate score was behind quad queen Trusova, it embodied the steadfast elegance which typified Shcherbakova’s showing in Beijing, and when combined with her short skate points tally, it was enough to make the 17-year-old fully deserving of the gold medal hung around her neck – something even her most ardent of fans would not have dared to believe just a month ago.
To her immense credit, Shcherbakova was dignified and elegant in victory as a distraught Valieva was consoled and Trusova let out her disappointment in front of the cameras.
She was not the Russian figure skater that many had expected to stand on top of the podium in Beijing, but Anna Shcherbakova is every bit a worthy Olympic champion.
By Elena Dilber