Elizaveta Tuktamisheva was a precocious Russian girl who astonished coaches in her hometown in central Russia when, at age 10, she could land any jump with three rotations.
She was a prodigy for sure. Now, still only 14, she is trying senior international competition for the first time – and it's going well. On Friday, she won the women's short program at Skate Canada International, about five points ahead of three more experienced American girls. The Americans are all talking about taking baby steps to get to their best. The stylish little Tuktamisheva is taking giant steps, with the Sochi Olympics in her sights.
A year and a half ago, the Russians left the Vancouver Olympics with far fewer medals than usual, and with no gold at all in figure skating. With the Sochi Olympics looming closer in 2014, the Russians are turning things around – quickly.
"At the last Olympics, they were just really skunked," said Louis Stong, a consultant for Skate Canada who conducted a seminar in Frankfurt, Germany, early this year about world-wide skating development. "But they're hustling now. It takes a lot of money. But they are very focused and they are focused on Sochi."
Nina Mozer, coach of the exciting new Russian pair team of Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, the current world silver medalists in only their first year together, said she believes Russia will be able to turn things around for Sochi.
The whole system has changed in the past year, she said, noting all coaches with top skaters now have teams of specialists built around them, including medical experts.
Stong said the Russians are spending a lot of money to prepare athletes for Sochi, but they are not spending recklessly. The Russians have always been good at selecting promising athletes, and now the country is ensuring those skaters get the help they need to excel as quickly as possible. Good young skaters are given a certain amount of money to use for training. If the skaters get results, then they get more money, Stong said. Results count.
Mozer said there is also a new mindset in Russia. At the very least, the competitive fires have been stoked anew with the Sochi Games in sight. And she admits that for many years, Russian coaches and the country's skating federation ignored the intricacies of the new judging system, which awards marks for every element and for various aspects of presentation. Now they have realized that they can't continue to do so.
"Other countries went forward [with the new judging system]and we were still working as if the old system was in place," she said. "At first we didn't take the new system very seriously. But then once we realized that the new system is going to be there, forever, we started to catch up."
Now Russia has very able young athletes who have grown up with the new system, with the strength coming mostly in the women and ice dancing disciplines. Russia's pair skaters have also begun to pick up steam, and at the top level, there are six pairs fighting for spots on the European and world championship teams this year.
Only the men lag behind. Mozer said many young men were discouraged over the years, with Olympic champions Alexei Yagudin and Evgeny Plushenko dominating the sport for so long.
During junior grand prix events this season, Stong saw another young Russian woman, Julia Lipintshaia, win a short program by 10 points. She's the top qualifier for the junior grand prix final, and will go there with two other Russian girls. Three of the six dance teams that have qualified are Russian, as well.
"When you look at their feet, there is not a waver," Stong said. "They do it either through selection or through terrific training. They do a lot of work on the actual ankle development and the ability to use the ankles and the toes. Toes are turned right out and pointed. The ankle flexes like crazy. I think they work a lot on their skating skills."
It was no surprise that Volosozhar and Trankov of Russia – Mozer's team – won the pair short program on Friday at Skate Canada with 70.42 points. Stong said their skating skills are top notch.
Stong said he has no idea what will happen in Sochi. The Russian strategy will be to have as large a resource as possible to choose from. But if the junior-level skaters are going to be a factor, they will have to be doing well at the senior level by 2013.
"The Russians have always been good at getting ready for the Olympics," he said. "With the exception of the last one."