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Women's Figure Skating: Zagitova Edges Medvedeva To Win Gold

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, it took nearly the entire Winter Olympics, but the team known as Olympic Athletes from Russia finally has a gold medal. It came in ladies' figure skating. And the winner is 15 years old, the second youngest to ever win this title. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIGURE SKATING ACCOMPANIMENT MUSIC)

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Skating to the music of "Don Quixote," Alina Zagitova moved gracefully around the rink. Those unfamiliar with the teenager's strategy might've watched the first half of her roughly four-minute free skate and wondered, where are the jumps? The answer came in the second half, when she landed 11 of them by design, knowing that late jumps get bonus points. Her coaches decided to try the technique called backloading. For skaters to do that when they're already tired, it's really tough. After winning gold, Zagitova recounted her initial reaction to the idea. She spoke through an interpreter.

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ALINA ZAGITOVA: (Through interpreter) When I first heard about this, I was very nervous. And I did not know that - if I can make this right.

GOLDMAN: Zagitova has learned to make it very right, rising meteorically from World Junior champion last year to Olympic champion today. But it was close.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIGURE SKATING ACCOMPANIMENT MUSIC)

GOLDMAN: Two-time defending Senior World champion Evgenia Medvedeva, an ancient 18-year-old by comparison, skated beautifully. Many thought she outskated Zagitova. Medvedeva didn't backload all of her jumps. She was asked whether that made the difference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: If you did today in second half, maybe you could win.

EVGENIA MEDVEDEVA: If - if. I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDMAN: The battle between two Russian teenagers certainly wasn't the only drama today. Canadian Gabrielle Daleman fell on a number of jumps on her way to a 15th-place finish. She answered reporters' questions afterwards with tears streaming down her face.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GABRIELLE DALEMAN: There is nothing, really, that I felt good about. I feel bad for dragging my dad and my brother all the way from Canada to see this when it's not me. I do feel bad - like I disappointed everyone. But at the end of the day, there's nothing I can do.

GOLDMAN: Canada at least could console itself with a bronze medal from Kaetlyn Osmond. There was no silver lining, however, for the United States. At one time an Olympic ladies' figure skating power, three U.S. skaters finished ninth, 10th and 11th. U.S. women haven't won an individual Olympic medal since 2006. Tom Zakrajsek coaches American Mirai Nagasu, who finished 10th. He says the U.S. lags way behind at developing its female skaters younger.

TOM ZAKRAJSEK: Most of these girls that you see have been doing these jumps since they were 12, 13. So it's not a struggle to give a performance because the muscle memory is just there.

GOLDMAN: Zakrajsek says U.S. figure skating is aware of the problem. But he says it could take nearly a decade before the U.S. starts seeing results in its senior skaters. Meantime, finally, Russia is celebrating a gold medal, won by a supposedly neutral athlete. As part of the punishment for the Russian doping scandal, the Russian flag can't be raised. The Russian anthem can't be played at a victory ceremony. Now that there is one tonight, Medvedeva was asked what her reaction will be hearing the Olympic anthem while she and Zagitova stand on the podium. People know who we are, she said. Today, we proved ourselves here. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Pyeongchang. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.