Before Failing a Drug Test, Kamila Valieva Was a Skating Phenomenon – The New York Times
Kamila Valieva, the teenager who tested positive for a banned substance, throwing her sport in disarray at the Olympics, likes stuffed animals and yearns to travel. And she has stunned seasoned veterans with her grace and athleticism.
Update: Arbitrators ruled that Kamila Valieva can continue to compete in the Olympics.
BEIJING — After leading her Russian team to the gold medal in the figure skating team event last Monday, before the world around her started to crumble, Kamila Valieva stood at the front of a room filled with reporters.
At first, she couldn’t figure out how to wear the earpiece that delivered her simultaneous translations and looked around for help. She fumbled with the microphone and then giggled nervously when searching for her words, like the 15-year-old she is.
“More courage! More courage!” Nikita Katsalapov, the ice dancer and the team leader of the Russian squad, told her. “It’s going to be OK!”
It was a snapshot of a teenager new to a spotlight that in the past few days has become blinding.
Valieva charged into the top level of the sport just four months ago when she competed in her first senior-level international competition. A prima ballerina on blades, she started setting world records for points with her fast-whirring quadruple jumps and artistry so elegant that she radiated maturity.
Going into the Beijing Games, she was tabbed as the favorite to win, but now is at the center of a doping scandal that might be the beginning of the end of a brilliant career if she cannot compete in the Olympic women’s singles event on Tuesday.
Caught up in this whirlwind, Valieva tried to hide her face from reporters last week at the practice rink in Beijing after revelations that she had failed a doping test by testing positive for a banned heart medication weeks before the Games. She was without the pastel-colored, stuffed rabbit toy she sometimes clutched close when reporters started prodding.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport will decide by Monday afternoon if she can compete in the Olympics but, no matter the outcome, and no matter who bears the most responsibility for the scandal, she faces a future of scrutiny over whether performance-enhancing drugs have helped her win.
“I admire Kamila as a radiant star, who burst into the orbit of the international skating world,” the two-time Olympic champion Katarina Witt said on social media last week. “And I still very much wish she has come to stay.”
This was far from the moment Valieva had been waiting for since she was 3. It was then, as just a toddler, that she told her mother back in the Russian city of Kazan that she wanted to be an Olympic champion.
Like many top skaters, Valieva started out in ballet and gymnastics before choosing figure skating above all else. Her first coach, Ksenia Ivanova, noticed that she had the entire package to be a successful skater, but what stuck out the most, she told Russian media, was that she was “purposeful, responsible and courteous.”
When Valieva was in elementary school, her family moved to Moscow so she could train with a better coach. The critical moment in her career came in 2018, when she was about 12. That was when she was invited to train at the Sambo-70 Crystal rink, under Eteri Tutberidze, a coach known for her grueling training regimen and for minting winners.
Valieva said she felt lucky. She had been feeling down about the sport, but last year she told Russian reporters that she and Tutberidze were a good match because the coach “loves skaters who are close to despair.”
Tutberidze, a former pairs skater who lived in the United States for six years, had a magnetizing résumé, included coaching the gold and silver medalists at the 2018 Olympics. More than a few of her top skaters — as well as her first successful one at the Olympics, Yulia Lipnitskaya, who was 15 when she helped Russia win the team Olympic gold medal in 2014 — battled injuries or eating disorders, or both, and left the sport soon after they reached the top.
Yet Tutberidze got results. By the time Valieva was 13, she was gaining international notice. Fans started to ask Valieva for autographs and photos at competitions. A fan club gave her a dog, a puffy Pomeranian she named Leva that once had her own Instagram account. Valieva was featured in the Russian edition of Vogue.
Last year, Valieva told the Russian ballet magazine La Personne that she wanted a life outside of the rink someday. She said she wanted to learn photography and modern dance. She wanted to visit theaters and museums, travel the world, learn foreign languages, read books and perhaps even learn to draw or ride a motorcycle.
But “now only figure skating and studying at school,” she told the magazine.
Valieva’s single-minded focus on her sport has helped her excel at just the right time. In the fall of 2021, she skated in her first senior-level international competition and was immediately called the favorite for the Beijing Games after easily landing quadruple jump after quadruple jump. The four-revolution jump is still rare on the women’s side of the sport.
“She combines it all,” the Olympic champion and NBC commentator Tara Lipinski said in an interview last week before the issue with the drug test surfaced. “She’s a ballerina out there doing quads and you don’t see that much in skating. To me, she has the best quad in figure skating, and that includes the men.”
She added, “Her technique is pure perfection. You can take a picture of her in midair and every picture would be textbook. Something you should use to teach other skaters.”
Valieva and her teammates Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova went into the Beijing Olympics all planning to perform quads and finish one, two, three. The Russians were expected to win the team event, too, and did just that, but that medal is now in dispute and was never awarded after Valieva’s failed drug test.
The day of that team win, Katsalapov, the ice dancer, described Valieva as “a very fragile little girl” who was so powerful and mature on the ice that he often forgot her age.
“She’s so thin and so young and still strong, stronger than me,” said Katsalapov, who is 30.
Standing before dozens of reporters after the Russians were announced as the Olympic champions in the team event, Valieva didn’t act so strong.
After loosening up a bit, she said: “I want to be an Olympic champion and now my dream has come true. I hope my next dream will come true, too.”
Alina Lobzina contributed reporting from Moscow.