In the "little war" between top Russian women skaters, generation next - Alina Zagitova - wins first skirmish at Olympics

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea - Last year, the Russian television network RT did an illuminating documentary on how coach Eteri Tutberidze trains her two enormously talented skaters, Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova, and on the relationship between the two teenagers.

At one moment in the 26-minute film, Medvedeva talked about keeping up with the burgeoning technical abilities of the many younger girls whom Tutberidze and her assistants also coach at the Crystal Rink in southwest Moscow.

"I don't want to lag behind the younger generation," Medvedeva said.

Then she laughed about the irony in her words.

"I'm 17, and I'm talking about the younger generation," she added. "Isn't that terrible?"

It is even more ironic that one skater in that generation may have arrived so soon she may take the 2018 Olympic gold medal away from Medvedeva, now 18, winner of the last two world titles.

That would be Zagitova, 15, who beat Medvedeva in a game of "Can you top this?" during the ladies short program Wednesday at the Gangneung Ice Arena.

First, Medvedeva recorded a world best score of 81.61. Ten minutes later, Zagitova broke it with a score of 82.92, the margin between them coming from the greater difficulty of the younger skater's jump elements.

"I think it's normal," Medvedeva said of having a member of the younger generation as a challenger. "I think it makes us stronger. I remember myself and my first senior season. I remember feeling everything is new for me. I really was so, so, so, so happy. I hope Alina is feeling the same."

Medvedeva made it sound as if she were talking about ancient history, but her first senior season began just three years ago and ended in her first world title.

This is Zagitova's first senior season. She goes into Friday's free skate with a chance to become the second youngest Olympic champion in history, a month older than Tara Lipinski of the United States was when she won in 1998.

"Alina is so young and so fantastic," said Oleg Chikiris of the Russian newspaper, Soviet Sport. "You feel good for Alina and pity for Zhenya (Medvedeva). She could miss out on her Olympic gold medal."

If that happens, the Medvedeva-Zagitova situation will be coincidentally similar to that involving Lipinski and Michelle Kwan in 1998, when the favored Kwan, 17, lost to an upstart two years younger. The difference was Lipinski went to the Nagano Games as reigning senior world champion, and Zagitova came here as reigning junior world champion.

"I can't say I am surprised [by Zagitova's swift success]," Medvedeva said. "Every day, I see how hard she worked. I think she did her best today."

Canada's Kaetlyn Osmond could say the same after her unmatched speed and powerful, rafter-rattling jumps put her third with a personal best 78.87 points. Japan's Satoko Miyahara also scored a personal best 75.94 for fourth.

After falling on the triple axel that opened her program, Mirai Nagasu was the leader among three U.S. skaters whose flawed programs left them ninth, 10th and 11th. Not since the short program debuted at the Olympics in 1976 has the top U.S. woman finished so low in that phase of the Olympic competition.

"I'm mad, I'm upset," Nagasu said of the fall. "I hit it when it counted in the team competition."

Karen Chen scored 65.90 after putting her hand down on the triple lutz jump that was to open a combination on her first jumping pass. Reigning U.S. champion Bradie Tennell, who had the bad luck to draw first in the short program skating order, fell on the jump that was to finish her triple lutz-triple toe combination and had 64.01.

"Going first in the entire group is not ideal," Tennell said. "The energy is a little more dead. Nobody likes to be the first one out there, right?"

Tennell could not remember the last time she had fallen in a competition. She had flawlessly landed 33 of 34 triple jumps this season before the fall, with the one outlier still getting full base value but a slightly negative Grade of Execution.

The toughest women's competition in the world apparently goes on every day at the former sambo wrestling club facility in Moscow where the demanding Tutberidze teaches. The RT documentary shows the coach coming down hard on every mistake.

Zagitova moved 800 miles from her home in Izhevsk to join the training group after the Sochi Olympics. When she could not meet the coach's relentless insistence for excellence, Tutberidze told Zagitova she needed to leave.

"I wanted to go back to my hometown," Zagitova said. "I cried a lot. I didn't practice for three or four days."

Zagitova and her parents met with Tutberidze. They told the coach Zagitova was quitting the sport. Tutberidze said, "Let's give it another try."

"I was very happy," Zagitova said. "I had butterflies in my stomach. If it wasn't for that moment, maybe I wouldn't be here at the Olympic Games."

At that moment, at age 14, Zagitova came to understand the problem was she wasn't working hard enough, that she wasn't taking the sport seriously enough. "No one forces you to train," Zagitova said.

She and Medvedeva speak of themselves as friends off the ice but rivals on it, whether at practice or competition.

"It's not a bad or negative, like malicious feeling of rivalry, but it is there," Zagitova said.

"Every competition, I feel like a little war," Medvedeva added. "When you take the ice, you are alone. Your friend is competing here, but you must fight."

After Medvedeva broke her foot this season, forcing her to skip the Grand Prix Final and her national championships, Zagitova won both those events. At last month's European Championships, she ended a Medvedeva unbeaten streak that began in the fall of 2015 and covered 13 competitions.

"I think Alina is awesome," said Ravi Walia, who coaches Osmond. "Her jumps look so solid, and they are so consistent. She does really difficult elements. All the Russian girls are just consistent, and you have to respect that for sure."

Both Zagitova and Medvedeva piled up bonus points Wednesday with all their jumps in the second half of the short program.

Zagitova started with a potential 1.87-point advantage because her triple lutz-triple loop combination and her individual triple, a flip, had higher base values than Medvedeva's triple flip-triple toe and individual triple loop. She won by 1.31 points.

"From the score, this is the best performance of my life," Zagitova said, "but there is still room to grow. I could have more speed going into the jumps, the landings of the jumps could have been smoother, there could have been more emotions."

Expressing emotions in a performance calls for a maturity Zagitova does not yet have. With artful packaging and choreography, she has been cleverly provided a veneer of polish.

"She is a star," said legendary Russian coach Tatiana Tarasova, a TV commentator here.

Wearing a stunning, silvery tutu, Zagitova began her short program to the Black Swanmusic from Tchaikovsky's ballet, "Swan Lake," in a striking pose. With her left knee on the ice and arms stretching past the end of her extended right leg, she gave an eye-catching evocation of the protagonist even before the music began and she started to skate.

When she finished, when the scores came up, Zagitova was unruffled, a hint of a smile revealing her satisfaction.

"I really don't show my emotions," she said. "I don't splash them around, as it were."

Medvedeva is naturally more expressive, using her mouth and eyes to convey awe, bewilderment and pain. In the four minutes of a free skate, which is 1 minute, 10 seconds more than a short program, it helps her connect better with the audience and judges. She hopes to turn that and the standings in the short program to her advantage.

"I think this has given me somewhat of an impetus," Medvedeva said.

Until a couple months ago, Medvedeva was a prohibitive favorite to win the gold medal. She didn't expect to be chasing a 15-year-old this season. But she could see the younger generation coming.

Now it is in her face.

(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)