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Is the Olympic dream over for Russia’s ‘Empress’?

The level of talent on display in St. Petersburg across the past few days has been nothing short of staggering.

Commentators on Russian TV gushed that they’d never seen anything like it, even in a country with such a storied history of female figure skating icons.

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Fans in the stands at the Yubileyny Sports Palace lapped it up; foreign observers online effused superlatives such as “sublime, extraordinary, and inspiring” to describe what was unfolding.  

That might sound hyperbolic, but the fact that the ladies’ free skate on Saturday night culminated in Kamila Valieva registering a score which would obliterate her own world record, were it an ISU event, testified to the stratospheric standards.

When the stardust had settled it was Valieva, 15, who had captured the Russian national title, in the process cementing her status as red-hot favorite for Olympic gold in Beijing. Behind her by some distance trailed 17-year-old duo Alexandra Trusova andAnna Shcherbakova.

Valieva is nailed on for a spot on the Olympic team, while Trusova and Shcherbakova are expected to scoop the other two spots when the line-up is confirmed after the European Championships in Tallinn in January.

If that is the case, it means more Olympic heartache for Tuktamysheva, who finished down in seventh this weekend but was the most popular skater to grace the ice in St. Petersburg – and by some margin.

Known as ‘The Empress’, Tuktamysheva is the grand dame of Russian figure skating, a performer who continues to defy her age in a sport where a seemingly endless conveyor belt of fresh-faced young stars emerges every season.

Tuktamysheva enraptured fans in St. Petersburg. © Sputnik

Each of the prodigious trio of Valieva, Trusova and Shcherbakova can be counted among that number, and all three were forged in the talent factory of the renowned Eteri Tutberidze.

At 25 years old, Tuktamysheva is a full decade older than Saturday’s victor, Valieva.

This year was Tuktamysheva’s 14th appearance at a Russian Championships – a record.

She has mostly been there and done that when comes to titles and achievements: she was Winter Youth Olympics champion in 2012, senior Grand Prix Final champion in the 2014-15 season, and scooped gold at the World and European Championships in 2015.

Tuktamysheva was crowned world champion in Shanghai in 2015. © International Skating Union via Getty Images

There remains, however, one glaring omission on Tuktamysheva’s remarkable CV, one feather missing from her glittering cap: an appearance at the Olympics as a senior skater.

Tuktamysheva missed out on Olympic berths in 2014 and 2018, watching on as contemporary Adelina Sotnikova clinched a stunning gold on home soil in Sochi, before starlet Alina Zagitova claimed the title in PyeongChang four years later.

Neither Sotnikova nor Zagitova are in active competition now, despite being aged 25 and 19 respectively. The likes of 2018 Olympic silver medalist Evgenia Medvedeva is also on the sidelines.

Indeed, it was somewhat strange to see erstwhile rivals Zagitova and Medvedeva on hand to interview Tuktamysheva after her skate on Saturday, as the pair performed their duties in TV roles.

Perhaps something similar will beckon for Tuktamysheva too, but for now she is still very much active on the ice.

Medvedeva and Zagitova interviewed Tuktamysheva after her performance. © Russia Channel 1 TV

Seeing rivals come and go is nothing new for the evergreen Tuktamysheva.

She is a former child prodigy herself, skating in the senior competition at the Russian Championships at the obscene age of just 11 years old back in 2008.

She has grown into a woman on the ice and in the full glare of the media, captivating fans along the way and breaking the mold with her routines and exhibition performances – not least her famous ‘striptease’ routine for the 2018-19 season.

Tuktamysheva continues to dazzle and delight, as evidenced with her crowd-pleasing exhibition display on Sunday in St. Petersburg.

From her musical choices to her outfits, Tuktamysheva is a skater who offers something for the crowd to anticipate.

Her performances are tinged with sensual aspects that symbolize a harmony with her body that few other skaters – if any – possess.

Compared to many of the girls against whom she now competes, Tuktamysheva is a well-rounded personality in every sense of the word.

Tuktamysheva is typically inventive with her routines. © Sputnik

Heading into this season, Tuktamysheva and her fans had been desperate for the consistent and injury-free performances that could finally earn her a coveted spot on a Russian Olympic team.  

Things had seemed auspicious. Tuktamysheva earned second-place finishes at Grand Prix skates in Canada and Sochi, finishing behind Valieva both times but demonstrating the harmony and composure that seemed absent among some of her younger challengers.

Before the Russian Championships, Tuktamysheva signaled that this time round she was as content with her skating as she perhaps had ever been during an Olympic season.

“This time, I didn’t lose to myself at least,” she said in an interview aired by the Olympic website.

Tuktamysheva had been consistent before her disappointing showing at the Russian Championships. © Sputnik

Tuktamysheva was at one with herself and her skating, shorn of the self-doubt that had shadowed her in previous years and boasting a relaxed rapport with longtime trainer Alexei Mishin.

There was reason to believe that a top-three showing at the Russian Championships would be enough for an Olympic spot, with her chances perhaps boosted by fervent support from the crowd in her adopted hometown.   

Sadly, however, it was not the procession in St. Petersburg that fans had hoped for.

Tuktamysheva produced a disappointing performance in her short program, uncharacteristically falling on a triple Axel and ending down in seventh place.

Saturday was a vast improvement as Tuktamysheva delighted a raucous crowd with a scintillating free routine, but it was still only good enough for sixth for that program and seventh overall.

Tuktamysheva suffered a costly slip in her short program. © Sputnik

Many felt Tuktamysheva continues to be penalized against young stars who freely sprinkle quads into their routine while Tuktamysheva lacks that particular capability in competition. 

Soviet Olympic ice dancing champion Natalia Bestemyanova said she was shocked that Tuktamysheva had finished a full five points behind Shcherbakova in the scores for their free routines. Bestemyanova wasn’t the only one.

The results mean Tuktamysheva was only handed a reserve spot on the Russian for the European Championships, which was confirmed on Sunday.

Valieva, Trusova and Shcherbakova will be Russia’s representatives in Estonia. Barring any major developments, they will likely be Russia’s female trio in Beijing, too.

Tuktamysheva suggested the despite all her years of wisdom, she had been overwhelmed by the affection on display in St. Petersburg – which is partly why it will be so heartbreaking to see her miss out on an Olympic spot once again.

Tuktamysheva has enthralled fans around the world. © Twitter.

Capturing the mood after Saturday’s spellbinding performance, Tuktamysheva was presented with a portrait of herself in all her regal glory.

But for ‘the Empress’ and her adoring subjects, it sadly seems like this figure skating queen may never be given the Olympic coronation that many feel her service to the sport deserves.

© 2021, paradox. All rights reserved.

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