BEIJING — After leading her Russian team to gold in the figure skating team event last Monday, before the world around her began to crumble, Kamila Valieva stood before a room full of journalists.
At first, she didn’t know how to wear the earphone that provided simultaneous translations and sought help. She fumbled with the microphone and then giggled as she struggled to find her words, like the 15-year-old she is.
“More courage! More courage!” Nikita Katsalapov, the ice dancer and team leader of the Russian team, told him. “It’s going to be okay!”
It was a snapshot of a teenager new to the spotlight that in recent days has gone blindingly bright.
Valieva rose to the highest level in the sport just four months ago when she competed in her first top-level international competition. A prima ballerina on the slides, she began setting world point records with her rapid quadruple jumps and artistry so elegant she radiated maturity.
Ahead of the Beijing Games, she was tipped as the favorite to win, but now she’s at the center of a doping scandal that could be the beginning of the end of a glittering career if she can’t compete in the Olympic women’s singles event on Tuesday.
Caught up in the whirlwind, Valieva tried to hide her face from reporters last week at Beijing’s training rink after it was revealed she had failed a doping test after testing positive for a banned heart drug. weeks before the Games. She didn’t have the pastel-colored stuffed rabbit she sometimes hugged when reporters started pushing.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport will decide by Monday afternoon whether she can compete in the Olympics but whatever the outcome, and no matter who bears the greatest responsibility for the scandal, she faces future scrutiny for whether performance-enhancing drugs helped her win.
“I admire Kamila as a beaming star, who burst into the orbit of the international skating world,” two-time Olympic champion Katarina Witt said on social media last week. “And I still very much wish she had come to stay.”
It was far from the moment Valieva had been waiting for since she was 3 years old. It was then, when she was just a little girl, that she told her mother 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 first and foremost. Her first coach, Ksenia Ivanova, remarked that she had everything to be a successful skater, but what stood out the most, she told Russian media, was that she was “determined, 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 around 12 years old. It was then that she was invited to train at the Sambo-70 Crystal rink, under the guidance of Eteri Tutberidze, a trainer known for her grueling training schedule and winners.
Valieva said she felt lucky. She felt depressed by the sport, but last year she told Russian reporters that she and Tutberidze were a good match because the coach “likes skaters who are on the edge of despair”.
Tutberidze, a former pair skater who lived in the United States for six years, had a magnetizing resume, including coaching the women’s singles gold medalist at each of the past two Olympics., These skaters – as well as her first Olympic success, Yulia Lipnitskaya, who was 15 when she helped Russia win Olympic team gold in 2014 – has struggled with injuries or an eating disorder, or both, and quit the sport shortly after reaching the top.
Still, Tutberidze got results. By the time Valieva was 13, she was gaining international notoriety. Fans started asking Valieva for autographs and photos at competitions. A fan club gave her a dog, a puffy Pomeranian she named Leva, who once had her own Instagram account. Valieva has been featured in the Russian edition of Vogue.
Last year, Valieva told Russian ballet magazine La personne that she wanted to live off the rink one day. 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 maybe even learn to draw or ride a motorbike.
But “now only figure skating and school studies,” she told the magazine.
Valieva’s determination to focus on her sport helped her excel at the right time. In the fall of 2021, she competed in her first senior-level international competition and was immediately called a favorite for the Beijing Games after easily landing quadruple jump after quadruple jump. The four-turn jump is still rare on the women’s side of the sport.
“She combines everything,” Olympic champion and NBC commentator Tara Lipinski said in an interview last week before the drug test issue surfaced. “She’s a ballerina who does quads and you don’t see much in skating. For me, she has the best quad in figure skating, and that includes the men.
She added: “His technique is pure perfection. You can take a picture of her in the air and every picture would be a textbook. Something you should use to teach other skaters.
Valieva and her teammates Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova headed to the Beijing Olympics, all planning to perform quads and finish one, two, three. The Russians were expected to win the team event as well, and they did just that, but that medal is now disputed and never awarded after the drug test failed drugs from Valieva.
On the day of the team’s victory, 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.
In front of dozens of reporters after the Russians were announced as Olympic champions in the team event, Valieva didn’t act as strong.
After relaxing 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.