GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) – Four years can be an eternity in figure skating. Injuries, ennui, growth spurts, coaching changes, even rules alterations play a role in getting from one Olympics to another.
So who is well positioned to handle all of that, and which countries already are taking aim at the 2022 Beijing Games?
Start with Canada, which won the most medals at the Pyeongchang Olympics, four. The Canadians so dominated the team event with their depth and superb skills that they earned the gold with one event remaining.
They did it, however, with a veteran team led by ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, whose two golds gave them a record five Olympic medals. They are headed for retirement for the second time and promise it will stick.
With pairs bronze medalists Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford and 10-time national champion Patrick Chan also done, the Canadians will need to find a new wave of skaters to keep them on top.
“This was such an awesome team and such a great accomplishment,” Duhamel said. “The depth of our team and the way everyone skated, it was exactly what we hoped for. We’ll have nothing but great memories from these Olympics.”
So will the Russians, even though they probably underachieved. A young squad finished second in the team event, but the only individual medals came in the women’s competition from teenagers Alina Zagitova and Yevgenia Medvedeva.
Still, Russia could have a loaded team for Beijing. The Russians always find strong pairs and ice dance couples, and their failures in Pyeongchang probably are an anomaly; Russia or the Soviet Union won an ice dance medal in every games since the discipline became part of the schedule in 1976, and in all but one Olympics in pairs since 1964.
They are lagging in the men’s field, especially in comparison to the women, but who isn’t?
Then again, there could be warning signs from the past for the Russian women. Sochi champion Adelina Sotnikova and team gold medalist Yulia Lipnitskaya pretty much flamed out afterward.
But Medvedeva and Zagitova say they won’t stop any time soon.
“I love figure skating and I want to do it for a long time,” 18-year-old Medvedeva said.
Zagitova wouldn’t promise she’d be back in Beijing, when she’ll be 19, but said there are “many more titles to win.”
Zagitova must now cope with instant celebrity status in Russia, something that proved difficult for another 15-year-old champion skater in a red dress. Lipnitskaya, trained by Medvedeva and Zagitova’s coach, Eteri Tutberidze, struggled with the limelight and eventually retired last year following treatment for anorexia.
Just like how Medvedeva was displaced by Zagitova, both must now be wary of ambitious younger skaters, a coming generation with even better athleticism.
“In our group there’s a lot of female skaters who spur you on to go further and do more than them,” Zagitova said. “Sometimes you can’t, not every day.”
The Japanese are well positioned to be a major factor in individual skating for the next quadrennial. They finished 1-2 in the men’s competition, and two-time gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu and this year’s runner-up, Shoma Uno, are young enough to keep going. Hanyu, among the most popular athletes in his nation – note his Winnie The Pooh collection – fought through a severe ankle injury to make history. He’s spurred a legion of kids eager to follow in his skate steps.
Japan’s women finished fourth and sixth here, and there is a never-ending crop of youngsters behind them. But the nation lags in pairs and ice dance.
As for the Americans, dance will remain a powerful discipline, particularly with U.S. champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue planning to continue competing. The men’s event is in a good spot with jumping jacks Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou.
The women? Keeping pace is a long shot.
“It’s a cultural thing,” explained Marie Millikan, a former Olympian who coaches youth skaters in the Indianapolis area. “In Russia or some other countries, they have talent searches when the skaters are very young. Then they take them away to skating camps, where they are groomed. Their lives are built around skating.
“In the United States, we don’t have that kind of commitment, especially the time commitment. The kids want to skate on Monday, do piano on Tuesday, skate Wednesday, go to the movies with their friends the next day. It’s not constantly skate, skate, skate.
“The U.S. women are capable of doing the same tricks (jumps) and technical stuff, and some of them try it. But they don’t have the overall package because the time doesn’t always get put into it.
“I have had some very talented skaters who are 6 or 7 years old, natural skaters, but their parents say they want the kids to have a lot of different experiences. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, but if you want to compete with what the Russians do with the girls, you can’t.”