Quad-tastic! Valieva makes history as Russians claim team gold

By DAVE SKRETTA
AP Sports Editor

BEIJING (AP) — Kamila Valieva walked almost timidly through the Capital Indoor Stadium, juggling her pink-cased cellphone, her ice skates with the fuzzy pink blade guards, and the Beijing Games’ plush mascot, Bing Dwen Dwen .

Then they all fell in a heap on the ground.

She managed to hold her own better on the ice, where the 15-year-old Russian sensation became the first woman to land a quad at the Olympics – two, in fact. They came during Valieva’s historic free skate in a historic arena and helped the Russians cap a dominant run to gold in the team event to open the figure skating program.

“I feel a bit of this burden, this pressure, because it’s my first season as an adult skater,” Valieva said. “I think I deal with that pressure, and sometimes it even pushes me forward. It helps me.”

How far can she go?

Valieva started with a huge quad salchow and followed with the difficult triple axel before landing another quad, this time a toe loop in combination with a triple toe loop. The only flaw in her program came when she fell on her quad toe loop late in the program, but by then her first gold in Beijing was assured.

Another could come soon in the individual event, where the Russians are favorites to sweep the podium.

“I’m very happy that most of my planned program went well,” she said.

The Russians finished with 74 points in the team event to win their second gold medal in three editions. The United States won the silver medal after back-to-back bronze medals at the last two Olympics, thanks in large part to a winning dance program from Madison Chock and Evan Bates, while Japan climbed to the podium by team for the first time.

Team USA’s celebration was tempered by word shortly before the awards ceremony that Vincent Zhou had tested positive for COVID-19 after his free skate on Sunday. Zhou was tested again on Monday and had to return a negative result or he would miss the start of the men’s competition.

The news was particularly stressful for Olympic teammate Nathan Chen, whose long-awaited quest for individual gold begins with Tuesday’s short program. The two were part of the same practice group in Beijing.

“We basically said, ‘Vincent, we’re sorry to hear the news. We miss you. We want you to be here because you are a big part of this team. You helped win the silver medal,” Bates said after filming a video for him. “And we’re just hoping for the best and that he’s all cleared and he can compete in his individual event.”

The Americans were the talk of the town at Capital Indoor Stadium after day one, when Chen won the men’s short program, ice dancers Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue had the best score in their discipline and the duo Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier finished third with one of their best short programs.

Valieva erased her hard-earned lead on her own on Sunday, and then the Russian team started to pull away.

Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov, the reigning world champions, took maximum points in pairs to start the final day of the team event, despite inexplicably collapsing on the ice on their final lift. And their ice dancers, Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, finished second to Chock and Bates to clinch the gold medal.

That left no pressure on Valieva to unload the first quad – and the second – by a woman in Olympic competition.

“Everyone did our programs in the best possible way,” Katsalapov said, “so what can I say?”

The only controversy, both in Russia and abroad, was the team’s decision to use the same roster throughout the event. Two substitutions are allowed and only those who skate earn a medal, leading some to suggest that Russian teammates Anna Shcherbakova or Alexandra Trusova deserved the opportunity to perform their free skate.

Again, that would have prevented Valieva from being the one to make quad biking history in the arena in the heart of Beijing, known as the birthplace of “ping pong diplomacy” in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, the Americans started their day watching a shaky program from Knierim and Frazier leave their team tied with silver medalist Japan with only the free dance and women’s free skate remaining on the program.

Sinitsina and Katsalapov’s performance of a Rachmaninoff piano concerto was timeless and elegant, but they lost a point for an overly long lifting streak to score 128.17 points, giving Chock and Bates the opening they needed .

Performing their groundbreaking alien-astronaut love story, the American champions skated with the kind of emotion and precision that could reach them on the dance podium before the Beijing Games were over. Their score of 129.07 was their best score in international competition and, more importantly, trailed the Russians by less than a point.

“Honestly, I had no expectations,” said Chock, who along with Bates served as Team USA captain. “I heard (the score) from the Russians just before we were skating and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s such a high score.’ And then it was like, ‘Okay, focus.'”

With maximum points from their dance, the only way the Americans could squander their coveted silver medal would be if Kaori Sakamoto of Japan wins the women’s free skate and Karen Chen finishes last for their team.

Chen made sure that wouldn’t happen, after her disappointing short program with a redeeming free skate.

The 2018 Olympian landed all five of her triple jumps, including the same triple loop – paired with a double loop – that sent her onto the ice on Sunday. As the Cornell student finished her program, to a piano concerto by Japanese violinist Takako Nishizaki, she had to cover her face in a failed attempt to hold back tears.

“Coming back from yesterday is a huge thing for me,” Chen said. “I knew I could have landed that loop. I knew I was training so well and I’m just waiting for this moment. And for today, to go out there and do that, it was just an amazing feeling. I know it’s the team event, but it’s still an incredible feeling.

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