She's tiny, a Russian upstart, a prodigy, a marvel and very very young.
Elizaveta Tuktamisheva of Russia took a wild big step into the international spotlight on Saturday when she won the gold medal at the Skate Canada in only her first appearance at a senior international event.
Battling a nine-hour time difference from home and admitting to a bit of jet lag, Tuktamisheva's youth overcame all, apparently, admitting to a tiny bit of nerves, but you wouldn't know it. She recognizes there is pressure at home to excel before the Sochi Olympics, looming in 2014, and there is pressure on her for her already stellar career as a junior international skater. But Tuktamisheva says she just doesn't think about it, hides any knee-knocking and charges on. She steps up to a microphone like an old pro. She speaks English rather well.
"Even if I am nervous, I try to hide it. I want to stay calm and approach everything in a calm way.
Tuktamisheva won the gold medal with 177.38 points, about five points more than veteran Akiko Suzuki, who is 12 years her senior. Taking the bronze medal, well back with 165.48 points was Ashley Wagner of the United States, a 20-year-old.
Tuktamisheva didn't win the free skate, though, finishing second to Suzuki's mature routine to the Die Fledermaus Overture.
Canadian skaters, Amelie Lacoste finished sixth of 10 skaters, showing off a new expressiveness, but not quite pulling off the technical content; Canadian champion Cynthia Phaneuf was seventh with a fall on a triple loop, a step out of a double Axel, and a few scalebacks of jumps. Phaneuf was coming off an overuse injury to her right hip, and only began training again a week before the competition. She did accomplish one of her goals, to put the pesky triple Lutz as her very first element in the program, just to show it could not foil her or destroy her. She landed it.
Adrianna deSanctis finished ninth, ahead of former U.S. champion Rachel Flatt, who is overcoming so much, a stress fracture that she competed with at the world championships, and her work at university. She has a midterm exam in calculus on Tuesday.
The women's event is always a bit of a scramble, it seems, except for Tuktamisheva, too young to know failure.
Tuktamisheva won the technical mark as expected, especially after she tossed off a triple Lutz – triple top loop combination with ease, the most difficult triple-triple combination of the event.
But she lost on presentation marks, with the third best behind Suzuki and Wagner. It's not surprising. She skated her entire routine in the middle portion of the ice surface – never made to the ends. One bold judge – probably correctly – gave her only a 4.75 out of 10 for choreography, the part of choreography covered by ice coverage.
While few would disagree that it's exciting to watch a precocious youngster, not everybody was convinced that she is a senior skater, style-wise. Some said she still looked like a junior skater.
."In this competition, we have a little girl who has very tiny legs and she can rotate like a bat out of hell," said Frank Carroll, coach of Mirai Nagasu, who finished fifth. "She's doing triple-triples like nothing while these other girls are more mature and struggling with it."
But Carroll, known as the coach of Michelle Kwan, watched Tuktamisheva practice on Saturday and found her routine to latin music very junior-level, with 'no maturity, looking like she should be in a novice or junior program, executing these wonderful jumps, but lacking what the other girls have to offer," he said.
He said if the judges scored her correctly, they would give her high technical marks, but should be scored at six or seven for the presentation marks. Many judges gave her marks far higher than that, with some as high as 7.75.One gave her a 8.25 for performance and didn't give her a mark lower than seven (out of 10).
Tuktamisheva will have to learn to skate much more like a woman, with maturity, he said. "The movement is so immature right now," Carroll said. He'd like to use the word "childish" but feels it's too harsh.
On the other hand, John Nicks, the 84-year-old coach of Wagner, said he was more than pleased that his skater fell off the edge of a triple Lutz, and then came back and did three triples afterwards. That's the mark, he said, of a mature skater, who has learned how to overcome adversity.
Tuktamisheva may turn out to be a marvelous skater, come time, Carroll said. He can remember Kwan being the same way when she first burst upon the scene as a 14-year-old, and "completely lacking the concept of how to be a mature skater, but having what this little girl has,"
Kwan became known as the queen of mature skating as her career evolved.
"So let's she if she can become a Michelle Kwan," Carroll said.
Carroll says women's skating is hampered by the new judging system, which requires them to build up points with countless elements, giving them no time to explore the artistic side of skating, "the long sweeping graceful moves,"
.The programs are crammed with content, and the spins are convoluted, he said.
"The sport has become much more complicated, maybe too complicated for the women," Carroll said.