There are moments in watching sports when you know you were seeing the extraordinary, when what you saw needed no further enhancement, nothing to reaffirm the accuracy of your impression.
And yet those moments are enriched when they occur before thousands of eyewitnesses, all ready to express their awestruck appreciation for the athlete who created them.
So it was a shame that there could not have been a packed house at the Capital Indoor Stadium to give Russian Kamila Valieva the loud and immediate tribute she deserved for one of the most stunning performances in Olympic figure skating history.
It was enough to make those in the global audience watching from a distance want to stand and applaud in front of the television or laptop or mobile phone that conveyed the images of this 15-year-old living up again to a standard she has set and that only she can reach.
Valieva expressed pleasure, according to Russian media, at seeing the standing ovation from the U.S. athletes in their team box. Her fellow skaters understand better than anyone just how remarkable was the Valieva short program they saw.
It is not only that Valieva lands extraordinarily difficult jumps, but also the way she executes them, with striking extension of arms and legs and the flow that follows her landings. It is not only that she is in utter command while flying across the ice but the way she lets go to express herself while doing it.
NBC commentator Johnny Weir, a two-time Olympian, calls Valieva the best women’s skater he ever has seen. It still seems a bit premature to echo Weir’s assessment – although perhaps not for long.
Valieva came to these Games as an acclaimed phenom in the figure skating world. Sunday morning, during a 2-minute, 50-second short program in the team event at the 2022 Winter Olympics, the rest of the world learned what the acclaim was all about.
She did a triple axel with hands over the head, body perfectly upright and toe pointed on the free leg after landing. A triple flip with three maximum marks (+5) for grade of execution. Triple lutz-triple toe combination in the second half. Three spins and a footwork sequence of such captivating precision that 26 of her 36 marks for those four elements were also +5.
And she did the whole thing done with such seemingly effortless grace it drew seven perfect 10s on the artistic, or component mark, side of the score sheet.
It added up to 90.18 points, the second highest short program score in history, topped only by the 90.45 Valieva scored at last month’s European Championships. This performance felt better, and maybe that was because she had done it at the Olympics, even if it took place in an arena with just a few spectators scattered among vast swaths of empty blue seats because of COVID.
Since the end of compulsory figures three decades ago made figure skating results less predictable, no woman skater had come to the Olympics as a heavier favorite to win the individual gold medal than Valieva. Her skating all season has made it easy to forget she is a first-year senior. And fifteen.
“I was a little nervous going into the competition,” Valieva said, “but once I got to the ice, I skated well. I was in control of my program and showed the result I wanted.”
The result was a first place, nearly 16 points ahead of runner-up Wakaba Higuchi of Japan, that helped propel Valieva’s Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) team past the United States to take the team event lead going into Monday’s final three sections, the free dance and women’s and pairs free skates. Russia’s 45-42 edge over the U.S. seems secure, but the three-point U.S. lead over the Japanese for the silver medal may not be as solid.
Underwhelming performances Sunday by both U.S. skaters, Karen Chen (fifth in the women’s short) and Vincent Zhou (a distant third in the men’s free), almost certainly ended their team’s chances of upsetting the Russians for the team gold.
Another prodigy, 18-year-old Yuma Kagiyama of Japan, was a dazzling winner of the men’s free, with four clean quads and the highest score (208.94) in the world this season. Kagiyama, reigning world silver medalist, is a title threat in the men’s event that begins Tuesday should either Nathan Chen of the U.S. or Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan falter.
Valieva likely will not skate again until the women’s singles short program a week from Tuesday. But she could also be a contender for an Olympic medal in men’s singles if women were allowed to do quadruple jumps in the short program and if their component scores were tallied the same way as the men’s.
After all, Valieva has done three clean quads and a clean triple axel in two free skates this season. She now is the fourth woman to land a triple axel at the Olympics, joining Midori Ito (1992) and Mao Asada (2010 and 2014) of Japan and Mirai Nagasu (2018) of the U.S.
Among women, Valieva has been peerless, certainly against her current group of rivals and, as Weir suggests, possibly even compared with the best in the sport’s history. It was easy to see that Sunday, no matter where you were watching.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCOlympics.com.