The fate of the modern women’s figure skater
It’s no secret that figure skating is one of the most important sports at the Winter Olympics – millions watch each event with passion. Those viewers were introduced to new competitors such as Donovan Carrillo, the classic Olympic hero, fighting through adversity to make it to the peak of the sport and looking to stay there for many years to come. His goal, though, was not a spot on the podium but instead to merely make it past the first round of skating and to the free skate. The new truly competitive skaters were found in the women’s division, specifically all representing the Russian Olympic Committee and the same coach.
These new athletes are simply cogs in a figure skating machine. These young skaters will likely only attend one Olympics and what is supposed to be their most beautiful moments, has been ruined by the ROC’s “win at all costs” mentality. This is not a temporary blip or a minor coincidence but is in fact an introduction to the new age of women’s figure skating.
This new age of women’s figure skating can be effectively defined as the age of Ultra-C elements. Ultra-C elements are the most ridiculously difficult pieces of skill humanly possible on ice – specifically triple axles and any quadruple jump. These incredible feats of athleticism are rewarded with higher scores than normal jumps, which is fair, as Ultra-C elements take years to master and are nearly impossible to complete. This rise in Ultra-C elements has come mostly from Russia, where an elite group of coaches capable of teaching young women Ultra-C elements all compete against each other for bragging rights and preferential treatment from the Figure Skating Federation of Russia (or FSFR), the same FSFR which funds these schools.
This age of Ultra-C elements has led to two major changes, first, the podiums for women at major competitions have become Russian-dominated at an unprecedented level. In the last 6 World Figure Skating Championships, a Russian skater has won gold 5 times. In 2021 every athlete on the podium was Russian. This would have also occurred at the 2022 Olympics if not for the sad collapse of Kamila Valieva in the free skate. This unfortunate self-destruction portends the second major change: the complete desecration of the sport and the normalization of abusive training methods.
This is not surprising for a sport with an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to common injuries and health issues. Even cynics have been shocked by the ghastly nature of the training elite-level Russian women skaters now go through to have a chance at the podium. Top-level coaches use any method they believe will improve the chances of their students winning. Enter the methods of Eteri Tuberidze. Commonly referred to as simply Eteri, the 48-year-old recently won the International Skating Union’s “Best Coach” award – her students consistently dominate the sport. Students of Eteri’s Sambo 70 academy have won five of the last six European Championships, four of the last five World Championships, and the gold and silver medals at both of the two most recent Olympics. This unprecedented dominance of an entire discipline by a single coach with multiple students proves the superiority of modern Russian techniques, what isn’t told however is the cost of those new techniques.
Eteri demands her skaters to be young and above all else, skinny. Her nearly weightless young girls rely on permanently damaging their backs with pre-rotation. To ensure that her students are capable of these jumps Tuberidze requires her students to maintain extreme levels of skinniness, admitting to monitoring her students’ weight saying in an interview, “I weigh them. Not even me personally, I just ask them to send me the numbers.” Such behavior is demeaning, inhumane, and above all else dangerous. Eteri is incapable of coaching a skater to a normal and safer career path. From early as age 8 Eteri utilizes her abhorrent methods to develop a skater capable of winning every available title for one or two seasons, before being forced to retire due to injuries resulting from years of eating disorders, constant strain on their bodies, and unsafe skating techniques. Many of her students have spoken openly about struggling with eating disorders, including 2014 team gold medalist Yulia Lipnitskaya who was described by Tuberidze herself, saying, “When she needs to lose weight, she only has powdered drinks,” essentially bragging about her student’s ability to starve herself.
All of this has led to many of Tuberidze’s skaters lasting only a few years at the senior level before retiring due to health issues. A sad example of this is the aforementioned gold medalist Yulia Lipnitskaya. Lipnistkaya’s career looked incredibly promising in the 2013-14 season, in only her first season at the senior level she entered nine competitions not missing a single event. Even more impressive was her record in those competitions, in nine entries she won 5 competitions including the European Championships and the Olympic Team event. That wasn’t all though as Lipnitskayafinished second in three other competitions, those being the Grand Prix Final, Russian Nationals, and the World Championships, overall missing out on the podium at one competition, the women’s singles event at the Olympics. That promising career ended only 3 seasons later, in those 3 seasons Yulia would only enter 13 competitions with the most she could manage in a season being a mere 5 in the 2015-16 season. Those 3 seasons were plagued by constant injury and pain along with severe anorexia. After retiring at just 18 in April of 2017 Yulia spent a full three months in a clinic to receive treatment for her anorexia.
This incredibly sad and disturbing story has been repeated in multiple forms over the years, each time Tuberidze gets her hands on one of these talented young skaters their careers and most importantly their health are severely damaged. Instead of athletes, these young skaters become victims of competition and victims of Tuberidze. Something must be done to stop this cycle of pain and suffering, but it seems the medals Sambo 70 brings to Russia are worth far more to those in power than the minds and bodies of these adolescents.