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2 Russians medal at the Olympic figure skating final, but not Kamila Valieva

Russia's Anna Shcherbakova won gold in the women's free skating event during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
AFP via Getty Images
Russia's Anna Shcherbakova won gold in the women's free skating event during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

Updated February 17, 2022 at 12:12 PM ET

BEIJING — Russian figure skater Anna Shcherbakova took the gold medal in women's individual program at the Beijing Winter Olympics, in a competition that took place under the shadow of a positive drug test from her teammate Kamila Valieva.

Another skater from the Russian Olympic Committee, Alexandra Trusova, won silver. Japan's Kaori Sakamoto took bronze.

Of the top performers was 15-year-old Valieva, who has been the subject of scandal in the days leading up to her performance. Valieva, who skated last, finished the night in fourth place.

The 15-year-old tested positive for a banned drug before the Olympics — a revelation that came out during the Games — but officials in Beijing allowed her to continue to compete anyway.

The pressure of that scandal and the days of headlines it made appears to have had an impact to the young teen. She landed her first quad jump, but after nailing the difficult trick, Valieva unraveled. She stumbled multiple times and fell at one point. When she finished her program, she waved her hand in disgust. And as she awaited her score, she broke down into tears.

Had Valieva medaled, officials would've postponed the ceremony after an investigation into the doping controversy. But because Valieva placed fourth, officials held a venue ceremony to honor the top three skaters. A medal ceremony will be held Friday in Beijing.

Later that night, the 17-year-old Trusova appeared upset. She left the rink earlier than Shcherbakova and Sakamoto, who continued to take pictures after the venue ceremony.

"I am not happy with the result. There is no happiness," Trusova told reporters after taking the silver medal, and cast doubt on her future in the sport.

Trusova said she thought winning gold was within reach by attempting five quad jumps in competition — a feat that she said she worked incredibly hard for.

When asked about her emotional response, she said, "I wanted to cry, so I cried. I've been here for three weeks, alone without my mom, without the dogs, so I am crying."

Skaters nail big jumps

Russia's Alexandra Trusova competes in the women's free skating program during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
AFP via Getty Images
Russia's Alexandra Trusova competes in the women's free skating program during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

It was a night of big tricks for the top skaters of the night, with the Russian athletes nailing hard-to-hit quad jumps in their routines — marking a landmark moment in the evolution of the sport.

Nicknamed "The Quad Queen," Trusova was set to complete five quad jumps in her routine. She stumbled later in her performance, but her first major jump — a quad flip — received big applause from the audience. She finished with 251.73 total points.

Shcherbakova, also 17, whose score of 255.95 earned her a gold medal, started her performance with two, successful quad flips.

Though this trick is common in men's figure skating, few women have been able to land the jump in competition.

During the team figure skating event earlier in the Games, Valieva became the first woman to execute the quad jump in competition.

The U.S.'s Alysa Liu, who is 16, landed a triple axel — the hardest triple-rotation jump — at the start of her routine. Liu ended the night in seventh place, with 208.95 points, unable to come out above stellar performances from the Russians.

Skaters deal with low-energy crowd and distractions

The Capital Indoor Stadium noticeably lacked the energy and joy that existed for the men's skating program. The arena was roughly a third full Thursday night in Beijing, with mostly media filling the stands.

A couple hundred local Chinese fans and a small delegation from the skaters' countries attended the program.

Perhaps it was the cloud of scandal over the event. Or maybe Chinese spectators were less enthusiastic about the program with no hometown hero to cheer on. But until the final group of six skaters took the ice, most excitement shown by those fans appeared when the announcer called on them to stand up and wave their flags during intermission.

That is, until Trusova nailed the first quad jump of the night to huge applause.

U.S. skater Karen Chen said she felt the lack of energy of the stadium Thursday night.

"It was a hard performance to get through," Chen said. "I think it's definitely tough with the situation that's been unfolding to just stay focused, there's so much buzz. It is pretty tough."

Chen placed 16th with 115.82 points, bringing her combined total to 179.93.

USA's Karen Chen competes in the women's figure skating event during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at the Capital Indoor Stadium.
AFP via Getty Images
USA's Karen Chen competes in the women's figure skating event during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at the Capital Indoor Stadium.

"Speaking for myself, I've been here for quite some time now," she said. "I've done my best with the pacing but at the end of the day I may have been just a little fatigued from everything skating related and non-skating related."

Mariah Bell, also of the U.S., skated a solid routine after many skaters stumbled or fell earlier in the night. Bell's performance gained her 136.92 points, giving her a combined total of 202.30. This pushed her to the top of the leader board, temporarily.

At the end of the night, Bell placed 10th.

Some skaters told reporters the Valieva controversy affected them leading up to their big night.

"There's always drama," said Madeline Schizas, who skates for Canada. "I think it's always a little bit hard to tune that stuff out. It can be hard to know you're going to be asked about something you have no control over."

But Schizas said it was appropriate that the issue drew so much coverage.

"It's something everyone wanted to know about. There's often some kind of scandal at the games. This time it was our sport that got it."

At least one skater said adjustments to the line-up and schedule made ahead of the event may have affected their performance.

"I was kind of upset at the situation in general," said Alexia Paganini, age 20, who grew up in Connecticut but now competes for Switzerland. Paganini placed 22nd.

The best 25 skaters, not 24, took to the ice Thursday night. The extra skater was added to the program lineup in case Valieva was later disqualified.

Paganini noted that last moment change can get inside an Olympic skater's head.

"The practices [before the programs began] were more hectic than usual. Mentally, I was annoyed in general," Paganini said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 16, 2022 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story incorrectly described Shcherbakova's "second-place performance" in one instance. In fact, she is the gold medalist.
Jaclyn Diaz
Jaclyn Diaz is a reporter on Newshub.
Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.
Tom Goldman
Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.