5x3 = astounding for Russia's Alina Zagitova, jumping toward Olympic title

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea - It was just after 10 a.m. Thursday, and the leading group of women was winding down its next-to-last practice before Friday's Olympic free skate.

Olympic Athlete from Russia Alina Zagitova, the short program winner, already had done the run-through of her free skate to music from the Minkus ballet Don Quixote.

It included a combination of three triple jumps: lutz, toe loop, loop. Zagitova apparently did it just because she can; the element is not a planned part of her program.

It was only the first course of the sumptuous jumping banquet Zagitova offered to the small audience at Gangneung Ice Arena.

After doing two more combinations of three triple jumps, which are common fare for her, the 15-year-old sated everyone's appetite with an extraordinary concoction.

She did a triple lutz followed by a triple loop and another triple loop and another triple loop and another triple loop. One lutz, four loops. A combination of FIVE triple jumps.

And she executed them all seamlessly, giving no indication that it was particularly difficult or remarkable for her.

The reactions of those fortunate enough to see this exhibition were justifiably less blasé.

"Absolutely incredible," said Canada's Paul Martini, a two-time Olympian and 1984 world champion in pairs who's working here as a reporter for Canadian television. "Do you know how much energy it takes to do one jump?"

"I never thought I would see a five-jump combination," 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton said.

Katarina Witt, Olympic champion in 1984 and 1988, saw the unprecedented combination later Thursday on social media. Witt, who never did a triple-triple combination in her career, was equally awestruck.

"This is absolutely amazing, outstanding," Witt said. "It was out of my imagination to ever think about the possibility of a combination like that."

Zagitova's teammate and training partner, Evgenia Medvedeva, 18, has routinely rattled off three-triple-jump combos in practice for a few years. She did three Thursday morning, all clean.

Medvedeva also did one in the free skate at the 2017 Russian Championships, a triple salchow-triple toe loop-triple toe loop, with the second toe loop called under-rotated.

Just for the heck of it.

The third jump received no credit because it was Medvedeva's third triple toe loop of the program, and the rules allow a skater to repeat only two types of triple jumps once each.

"I think I managed to surprise even my coach," Medvedeva told the press after doing the three-triple combo at her country's nationals. "Nobody expected me to go for it.

"But I know that the rules have been changed. ... Previously, the entire element would have received zero points, but now only the third triple toe would be discarded. I thought since I can do it, why not try?"

Medvedeva trails Zagitova by 1.31 points going into the free skate after putting up a short program score Wednesday that lasted as a world record for a whole 10 minutes -- until Zagitova finished.

Watching the two do combinations in practice Thursday, one could see a big difference in technique. Older, stronger and taller (5-feet, 4-inches to Zagitova's 5-foot-1), Medvedeva muscles into the jumps that follow her opener in a combination; Zagitova just pops up into them.

"Like a pogo stick," Martini said. "Boing-boing-boing-boing-boing."

Zagitova's five-jump combo Thursday would have a stunning base value of 26.4, if it were allowed. (Since she did it late in the practice, maybe the 10 percent second-half bonus should apply, too?)

"Who can do that?" Hamilton said. "It just shows how different these Russian women are."

Zagitova is different from Medvedeva -- and everyone else -- in another way, too: To take full advantage of the bonus, she does all 11 of her jumps past the midway point of her four-minute free skate. This season, Medvedeva has done either eight or nine jumps in the second half.

Under the Olympic microscope, where everything is magnified, that winning strategy has become a subject of considerable discussion.

Asked about it at a Sunday press conference, U.S. silver medalist Mirai Nagasu felt Zagitova was just taking advantage of every available point.

"I have nothing but the utmost respect for her," Nagasu said.

Asked about it again after finishing ninth in the short program, Nagasu called it "definitely a touchy subject" before adding, "If I had the tenacity to do all my jumps in the second half, I'd get that done."

There is a figure skating rule (Rule 612 in the ISU's Special Regulations & Technical Rules) that talks of a "well-balanced" free skate program. But it refers only to the maximum numbers of different elements -- jumps, spins, steps.

There is clearly a lack of balance in a program in which all of one type of element comes in one half. But there is no penalty for that type of imbalance. So why wouldn't someone do it if he or she has the stamina to pull it off?

"I actually think it's a real cool strategy," said U.S. bronze medalist Karen Chen, who placed 10th in the short.

"I never thought of doing anything like that. Whatever works for the skater. If the skater feels like that's comfortable, it does rack up a bunch of technical points, so there is really no downside."

Ironically, the bonus idea grew out of concern about a previous singles skaters' habit, notable among Russian men, of front-loading nearly all the jumps to make the second half easier.

It is likely that limiting the number of jumping passes in the second half to three or four (out of a current seven for women and eight for men) will come up at this summer's International Skating Union Congress. For now, though, the OAR women deserve credit rather than criticism for maximizing their chance to get medal-winning scores.

"It's more of a philosophical discussion about which direction skating should go," said Ravi Walia, who coaches Canada's Kaetlyn Osmond, third in the short program.

"The Russians work the system very well. It's not for someone to say it's right or wrong."

(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)