Kamila Valieva, a Sensation in Beijing, Was an Exploding Star


In just a few months before the Beijing Olympics, the singular greatness of Kamila Valieva rose like a whisper swelling to a roar. It was the perfect Olympic story. Until it wasn’t.

She was a figure skater of just 15 out of Moscow, but seemingly out of nowhere, when she broke world scoring records again and again. A long-limbed balletic beauty, she knocked out quadruple jumps as if she were skipping rope on a sidewalk. The lovely soft shapes she formed with her arms during difficult routines were enough to mesmerize an audience.

When the Beijing Games began in February with Valieva as the heavy favorite, who knew that this star was more like a supernova, and ready to explode?

She kicked off her Winter Games by leading Russia to the gold medal in the team figure skating event. That competition pits each country’s best skaters and ice dancers against each other, and she rose above them all, achieving instant worldwide fame and affirmation.

Skating with the poise of a veteran, she became the first woman to land two quadruple jumps in an Olympic free skate, and won the women’s component of the team event by a wide margin. And at such a young age, too.

Her much older Russian teammates praised her, saying that Valieva the ingénue was phenomenally talented but that the world should brace itself because she was just getting started in the sport.

In front of journalists the night the Russians won the team event, those teammates encouraged Valieva to answer questions. Giggling nervously, she fumbled with the earpiece she needed for the simultaneous translation. For her, it seemed scary, but fun, to be the center of attention, with every eye and camera lens focused on her — this time, off the ice.

“More courage!” Nikita Katsalapov, the ice dancer and leader of the Russian squad, said to her. “It’s going to be OK!”

When asked how it felt to help her Russian team win while performing so well, Valieva said, “This is a fantastic feeling.” She said she was coping with the responsibility to succeed.

How Valieva would cope with one of the greatest and swiftest downfalls in Olympic history began to play out next for all the world to see. In a matter of hours, what was likely her best day in the sport crumbled into heartbreak, accusations and conjecture.

The day after she led the Russian team to a gold medal, it was announced that she had tested positive for a banned heart medication weeks before the Games. The cheers surrounding her hardened into shouts about whether she had cheated.

And despite what her teammates kept saying, it was not going to be OK — not, at least, at the Winter Games, where she came in as a teenage headliner.

The medal ceremony for the team event was put on hold indefinitely, and the medals still — more than six months later — have not been awarded because Valieva’s doping case hasn’t been resolved.

At the Games, Katsalapov, Valieva’s 30-year-old teammate, said that Valieva was a strong young girl and that she would handle the situation just fine.

Yet that young girl, carrying so many expectations, was trying not to let the situation crush her. Throughout the Games, Valieva clung to a pink, fuzzy stuffed bunny before and after she skated. After the doping scandal broke, she wiped tears away during her practices, and once buried her head into her coach’s shoulder while her coach coldly looked past her, watching other skaters on the ice.

The gold medal had been Valieva’s for the taking as she went into the free skate in first place. But she could not keep her composure. Dressed in her red and black costume, hair pulled back into a slick bun, she did not look like the mature veteran who had skated to Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro” so many times with drama and ease.

While the world watched, she turned from champion skater back into a child, one who looked lost and sad as she struggled to find a rhythm. She barely managed to finished her uncharacteristically mistake-filled performance, finishing a devastating fourth in the overall competition, and when she stepped off the ice in tears, her coach, Eteri Tutberidze, did not hug her.

Instead, the coach said in Russian, in a comment that was caught on live TV: “Why did you stop fighting? Explain it to me, why?”

Maybe someday Valieva will let the world know her answer. Or maybe her comet-quick rise and fall happened so fast and hurt so much that she will never be able to explain it. Or want to explain it.

Perhaps those events were swirling around in her head as she jumped and twirled on the ice this summer, far from the bright lights of international figure skating.

In Sochi, the Russian host city of the 2014 Olympics, Valieva performed as the lead in a skating show called “The Scarlet Flower,” organized by a former ice dancing champion who is married to the Kremlin’s spokesman. Russia is where she is considered an Olympic champion, though her team gold medal remains in dispute.

After her final performance in the show earlier this month, she thanked the crowd and said, “Without you, the fairy tale would not be a fairy tale.”

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