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Kamila Valieva Is The Latest Victim Of Russia's Brutal And Abusive Figure Skating Training Methods

By Jaimee Marshall··  14 min read
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If you’re a casual viewer of figure skating, watching every four years when the Olympics rolls around, you might not be familiar with esteemed Russian figure skating coach Eteri Tutberidze.

However, you might have noticed that the Russians competing in the women’s events consistently prove to be the Americans’ worst nightmare. The women figure skaters who come out of Russia are completely unbeatable, and there’s one large reason, or should I say person, behind it. That’s none other than Eteri Tutberidze – a coach who produces very young, elite-level athletes who have a meteoric rise to success…that dissipates just as quickly. 

The notoriety that comes with gold medals and broken world records quickly fades, as their poor technique, restrictive eating, and brutal training methods leave them with career-ending injuries, eating disorders, or the loss of their skating skills once they go through puberty, only to be replaced by a younger, fresher face that will repeat the same cycle over and over again. Puberty means an increase in height and weight for these skaters, which is bad for the physics of their jumps. This leads to the promotion of restrictive eating, and Team Tutberidze has even been accused of having her skaters use puberty blockers to delay this process as long as possible.

The Cost of Success: Injuries, Short-Lived Careers, and Eating Disorders

Eteri Tutberidze’s skaters’ careers are so fleeting, the phenomenon has been given a name – the Eteri expiration date. It describes how skaters trained by Tutberidze are forced to retire early due to underdeveloped technique that’s only suitable for prepubescent girls with dangerously low body weight. The dreaded age where it all starts to fall apart for these skaters is 17. While they can train and compete with ultra-c elements (triple axel or quad jumps) while they’re young, a quad is next to impossible for an adult woman to land. 

Tutberidze’s grueling coaching techniques include 12 hour training days, weighing her skaters multiple times a day, prohibiting them from drinking water on competition days (including the entire time an athlete is at the Olympics), making her skaters consume a diet of only powdered nutrients to get them to lose weight, and compelling her skaters to compete with serious injuries. She’s also created what’s known as the quad revolution in women’s figure skating – bringing quads back to competition, which hasn’t been done since the 1990s. While most women can’t land a single quad jump, some of her skaters can land five in a single program, forcing the rest of the figure skating world to try and adapt. However, with such young skaters that can consistently land the highest difficulty jumps that other women can’t even attempt, and which rival even the best male figure skaters, they’ve been untouchable.

Tutberidze relies on skaters being very young and with very tiny bodies to complete their rotations.

One has to wonder, however, what sort of toll these high-impact jumps taught with a poor technique are taking on these skaters’ bodies. All of Tutberidze’s skaters end up with serious injuries or eating disorders in their teens and retire not too long after their peak. Many in the figure skating world have dubbed Tutberidze’s coaching technique dangerous and antithetical to a skating career that promotes longevity.

Instead of stressing the importance of strength training and building muscle, she relies on skaters being very young and with very tiny bodies to complete their rotations. As she has said in an interview, “It seems that with every gram of weight, a gram of laziness is added.” Tutberidze teaches her skaters to prerotate their jumps, meaning they begin rotating before they take off the ice. To get good height and rotation, she relies on the skater having a very small frame and weight rather than proper form. This puts excess strain on the back and leads to injury over time.

The Eteri Expiration Date in Action

Tutberidze has produced the most successful figure skaters in the world for the past eight years. “Produce” is the operative word here – she runs her training camp like a factory of never-ending disposable prodigies. Ever since the huge success of Tutberidze’s skater Yulia Lipnitskaya, who earned Russia an Olympic team gold in Sochi in 2014, she has continued to churn out the highest performing skaters in the world, who consistently sweep the podium in just about every single competition there is to win. However, that comes at a cost. 

Lipnitskaya may have helped Russia take home team gold due to her performance in the short program and free skate, but by the time individual Olympic skating competitions came around, she started to fumble. She placed fifth in the individual short program and sixth in the free skate. Following the Olympics, she won a silver medal at the World Championships. However, this is when things started to go downhill. Lipnitskaya struggled to maintain consistent skates and her jumping technique began to crumble with her growing and aging body. She ended up retiring from the sport at just 19 years old due to recurring injuries and anorexia, for which she had to be hospitalized for three months. But her skating career was going downhill far before she retired. She tried to make a comeback by switching coaches but was unable to reach the same heights of success as when she was a 15-year-old student under Tutberidze.

After Lipnitskaya, Tutberidze coached Evgenia Medvedeva, a skater who went undefeated for two years, winning every competition in her Junior and Senior seasons. However, by the time the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics rolled around, there was a younger, fresher skater to compete with – her teammate Alina Zagitova. Both girls qualified for the Olympics and went head-to-head in their battle for gold. However, Medvedeva ultimately lost the gold medal by 1.31 points. Devastated, she was determined to put in the work to redeem herself. Unfortunately, this day would never come. She suffered from a stress fracture in her foot, which she had to continue to compete on throughout the 2018 Games. After winning a silver medal at Pyeongchang, there were reports that Tutberidze told her to retire. 

Uninterested in leaving the sport, she decided to leave Team Tutberidze to be coached by Brian Orser in Canada, to the displeasure of many Russian figure skating fans, and most of all, to Tutberidze herself. Medvedeva’s former coach blasted her in the media, saying that her former student was ungrateful for everything she’s done for her and was disrespectful for leaving her without even “bringing a bouquet of flowers.” Medvedeva reportedly had to relearn how to skate with Orser, as she was used to doing jumps in a way that put a lot of strain on her back. She was able to earn a bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships. 

Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic took away Medvedeva’s hopes of continuing her life as a skater in Canada. Due to the restrictions from the pandemic, she was stuck with training sessions over FaceTime that stifled her improvement. She made the difficult decision to go back to Team Tutberidze, even after her former coach went on a smear campaign after the skater left her. Tutberidze is no stranger to insulting her skaters publicly, doing so to multiple skaters who left her for other coaches by posting personal messages on Instagram and spreading rumors about them. However, Medvedeva had to withdraw from competitions due to severe back pain and was later hospitalized with severe lung damage after contracting the coronavirus. In December 2021, she announced she was retiring due to a chronic back injury.

As for the fate of Alina Zagitova, the younger fresher face who was set to replace Medvedeva, she announced that she was taking a break from skating at just 17 years old because she lost her passion for the sport. What’s concerning is that she had a disappointing skate at Nationals in 2019 due to multiple significant injuries, but she was allowed to skate anyway. She had a severe burn on her foot which was a result of receiving heat treatment for sore joints. 

Zagitova has also made some concerning comments about how she wasn’t allowed to drink water the entire time she was at the Olympics – instead the skaters would have to swish around water in their mouths and spit it out. Zagitova found it difficult to keep up with younger skaters, especially after a rule was introduced, commonly referred to as the Zagitova rule, which prevents you from stacking your jumps in the second half of your program. This used to be a strategy to rack up extra points, but it’s since been prohibited for being unfair. Tutberidze publicly stated that she kicked Zagitova out of her training group at one point because she was becoming lazy, but gave her another chance if she agreed to stay away from her mother, stating, “The condition was that her mother would not live in Moscow and practically not visit until an Olympic medal.”

The Quad Revolution

The reason Zagitova couldn’t keep up with Tutberidze’s new skaters? She’s teaching young girls quads – a feat that is much more difficult or next to impossible for an adult woman. Zagitova spoke to the media, saying, "Quads are too dangerous for me for the time being. I will need to prepare for them physically and mentally. I will also need to lose some weight, something like 3kg, to decrease the risk of injuries." She added that if it was really necessary to learn a quad, she may train to land one but that it would prove to be a difficult task. She wasn’t wrong. Upon Zagitova’s indefinite exit from competitive skating, Tutberidze was busy raising a new generation of young skaters who were about to revolutionize the sport. 

Their names are Alexandra Trusova, Alena Kostornaia, and Anna Shcherbakova. Trusova and Shcherbakova can land consistent quad jumps, while Kostornaia is known more for her high execution scores for her artistry and she has a triple axel. These three girls, who were nicknamed 3A, became a force to be reckoned with, winning every single competition in their Senior season and sharing the podiums equally. Trusova landed two quads in her first Junior season and won the World Championships in her first and second Junior season. 

 

She became the youngest girl to land a quad lutz, is the first and only skater to have four different quad jumps, and is the first woman to attempt five quads in a single free skate. Shcherbakova is the first woman in her Senior season to land two quad lutzes in a program and one of them is done in combination with a triple toe loop. She has landed quads in international and domestic competitions. Two of these skaters ended up leaving and returning to Tutberidze. By the time they came back, there was yet again a newer, younger skater who had it all – mastery of quad jumps, the triple axel, and high component scores. That’s Kamila Valieva.

To put this into perspective, most women can’t land a single quad jump, yet Tutberidze has four skaters who can land them consistently and one skater who has had five quads in a single program. A woman had never landed a quad jump at the Olympics before – at least, not until Kamila Valieva in Beijing this month, who landed two and fell on the third in her world record-breaking short program.

Doping Scandal

Amid the glory of Kamila Valieva’s gold medal-winning performance with a score that earned her a new world record, some devastating news broke. Reports came out stating that Valieva tested positive for trimetazidine (TMZ), which is a banned substance because it can be used to improve athletic performance. The World Anti-Doping Agency lists it as a metabolic modulator that works by increasing blood flow to the heart and limits rapid swings in blood pressure. It’s used to treat angina (chest pain). It's banned because of its ability to enhance an athlete's physical efficiency and endurance. This may explain how Tutberdize’s skaters can withstand such intensive training on so little fuel.

It has previously resulted in the banning of Olympic athletes. Valieva tested positive in a test that was taken back in December, and while it’s unknown why it’s taken so long for the results of this test to come out, during and not before the Olympics, she and her entourage were suddenly under investigation. Russia’s team gold and Valieva’s upcoming performance in the individual competition seemed to be up in the air. However, it’s just been confirmed that the Court of Arbitration has cleared her to compete in the individual competition. 

The status of the previously earned medal is at this point unknown. Keep in mind that Kamila Valieva is a 15-year-old girl – a child. She has gone through the same brutality as every other skater who has been coached by Tutberidze – restricting eating, intensive training, and a lack of care for the skater's wellbeing. Ice dancing coach Romain Haguenauer spoke to the newspaper 20 Minutes, stating, "When Valieva’s name came out, I wouldn’t say people weren’t surprised, but let’s say it’s been stuff that’s been around for years…To see these kids between the ages of 12 and 15 doing quadruple jumps…it’s true that there are always questions from the [jumps] specialists. I’m not one, but I know plenty of people who are and all of them have always been extremely surprised that it happened all of a sudden. Before Sochi, Russia did not shine in women’s skating…And then, all of a sudden, every year they bring out four new kids rocking quads."

Whether the use of this drug was planned by her coach all along, knowing that as a 15-year-old, she’s a “protected person” whose name was never supposed to be revealed in the doping scandal and who would face much more lenient punishment can’t be confirmed, but it is suspicious. What we should all keep in mind amid all of this is that while it’s unfair for a skater to be able to compete while taking performance-enhancing banned drugs, this is not the fault of Valieva. She’s a victim in this situation and is just a child who has placed her trust in the adult authority figures in her life who are supposed to know what is best for her. Hopefully, she can persevere through this scandal and be the first of Tutberidze’s skaters to have a long, successful career.

Closing Thoughts

The unfortunate truth is that this article has only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the seriously concerning coaching methods of Eteri Tutberidze. While some may be tempted to justify her brutal methods in favor of her medal-winning results, I implore you to remember that you would be justifying the abuse of children who don’t have full autonomy over their bodies nor do they have the understanding that authority figures don’t always have their best interest in mind. 

If an adult wants to sacrifice their mind, body, and soul in the pursuit of a single gold medal that will be forgotten after the next skater comes along next season, then be my guest – but these aren’t adults. They’re children who have been systematically brainwashed to accept severely restrictive eating patterns and brutal training methods that will leave them with serious injuries by the time they hit puberty. 

While the so-called quad revolution may be entertaining to watch for casual viewers on TV, this push for girls to learn quads necessitates the existence of this cycle. A cycle where skaters are disposable because the next, new 15-year-old is ready to take their place as the older one is discarded and forgotten. Sure, they may have won some medals for a couple of seasons, but they end up with severe injuries that can plague them for life and will require costly intervention, not to mention all of the emotional and psychological anguish. Most of the time, this happens before the athlete ever even reaches their Olympic opportunity.

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