Before Sochi 2014 and the ensuing dominance of Russian girls in the latter half of the current decade, the country experienced another golden age in ladies singles skating that younger fans might not be so familiar with. In the late 90s Maria Butyrskaya (1999 World Champion) was the face of a rising force of strong Russian female skaters. The young Irina Slutskaya (2x World Champion, 2002 and 2006 Olympic medalist) followed in her footsteps and established herself as a top contender in the early 00s. With Their rivalry taking center stage on the domestic scene, more young ladies rose to the occasion and enjoyed international success, albeit not as grand as the former two, including Julia Soldatova (1999 World bronze medalist), Viktoria Volchkova (4x European bronze medalist) and Elena Sokolova (2003 World silver medalist).
This is a series of short portraits illustrating the careers of ladies who skated shortly before or during this hegemony but are hardly remembered by fans today. With totally different artistic styles and varying technical skills, they all had strong points in their skating, and could have risen to the occasion at one point. Today we take a look at Olga Markova.
During the late 80s and 90s very few male skaters ever displayed the same energy and light effortless elegance on the ice like David Liu of Taiwan did. Having first fallen in love with dance as a child and training as a classical ballet dancer, he had the perfect opportunity to translate the gifts of musicality and poise into each of his programs.
Throughout his long career on the international scene spanning from the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary up to the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, David Liu had the honor of being the very first skater to represent Chinese Taipei at international competition, as well as the first skater from that country to reach the final stage at the Olympics and Worlds, and win an international skating competition (1992 Nebelhorn Trophy). Despite not having his presentation talent properly appreciated by the international judges at the time due to the lack of political support, David is still remembered today by experienced fans as an exquisite artist who instantaneously drew the crowd into his world, with his unforgettable performance at the 1992 Olympics being the crown jewel in his lengthy career.
In the wild spectacle of elite sports, stars ascend quickly, shine brightly and fall down in an instance if they are not able to win big during the narrow window when their physical abilities are at their peak. Media and fans, hungry for thrill and eternally seeking new favorites to replace yesterday’s heroes, usually do not put much thought into this endless cycle. It is either a story of continuous undefeated success that sticks in the minds of the viewers, or a tale of defeating impossible odds to raise to the top. It is no wonder why these stories of overcoming adversity receive high coverage during the Olympics, with the emergence of the concept of athletes making miraculous comebacks to fulfill their “Olympic dream”.
And figure skating, like all sports, is a straightforward, simple and extremely cruel game: the most capable rise to the top, the less talented or misfortunate ones are easily replaceable both by their federations and in the eyes of the audience. Unfortunately, little attention do we pay to the fact that for every Yuna Kim, Yuzuru Hanyu or Evgeni Plushenko who garner and inspire countless dedicated fans with their astonishing abilities and competitive drive to beat all odds, there are thousands of equally amazing figure skaters who come painfully short of achieving their immense potential. A few of them live in the collective memory of the community as a cautionary tale for the dangers of the sport; the overwhelming majority end up a mere sporting statistic.
Ilia Klimkin is arguably one of the most talented figure skaters to ever come out of Russia – and probably one of the biggest wasted talents from there, and that says a lot for a country that prides itself on being one of the leading powers in the sport. He was almost up there with Evgeni Plushenko and Alexei Yagudin in terms of raw talent and artistry, but unlike the other two, he lives in the minds of figure skating aficionados today as a collection of a few faint fragmented memories. Yet, I am still to find a story which more beautifully illustrates the hypocrisy, unfairness and ultimate meaninglessness of elite sports on all sides, like the career of this largely forgotten skater does .
Competing in a discipline so dependent on visually pleasing aesthetics where graceful skaters effortlessly flow and fly together across the ice under enchanting rhythms, Jamie Silverstein and Justin Pekarek looked like they were poised to break through. Hailed as potential future world champions by Paul Duchesnay, among others, the young ice dance team swept audiences off their seats during their incredibly short career.
Back in 1999 – 2000, they were on the track of sporting success – equipped with superb skating skills, versatility, musicality and passion in their skating uncharacteristic for their tender age, Jamie and Justin made their senior debut following a very successful junior season. Fans and commentators alike were excited about the bright future prospects of the exceptionally talented and promising team. Little did they know, however, about the inner turmoil faced by Jamie at the time, and that the debut season would also be their last together…
On paper, Yuri Ovchinnikov’s career doesn’t look too bad but he is barely remembered today. Being one of the emerging talents from the Soviet Union in singles skating during the late 60s and 70s, he won a bronze medal at the European championship in 1975, and made the top 10 of the world four times, often getting overshadowed results-wise by other soviet skaters including Sergei Chetverukhin (1972 Olympic silver medalist), Sergei Volkov (1975 world champion) and Vladimir Kovalev (1976 Olympic silver medalist and two-time world champion).
What sports records omit from the picture was that Yuri was far ahead of his time, being born in an era when his talents were just not rewarded the same way they would have been at a later time – with his infinite passion and energy on the ice, innovative choreography, musicality and lyrical expressiveness, and huge jumps which left spectators gasping in awe, he was considered a “king of the free skate”.
Coming from a figure skating powerhouse that had been known at the time to produce multiple technically proficient jumpers, Yukina Ota stood out. Her balletic grace and sophisticated musicality set her out as a prominent artist on ice in the mid 00s. One word that comes to my mind when observing her competitive performances, is poetry – her superb, light flow across the ice and the excellence of her carriage are so hypnotizing that you easily forget you are watching an athlete compete. The beauty of her skating and the intricacy of her choreography are so mesmerizing that she hardly even needs any jumps to draw the viewer in.
Yukina made her senior debut at Skate Canada grand prix in 2003 following a triumphant junior season in which she won every competition she entered into – from Junior Grand Prix to Junior Worlds in 2003. Following her grand prix assignments Yukina gained further momentum with a win at the Four Continents Championship. Poised to break through as a major contender at the time, Yukina experienced injury setbacks in 2004 which forced her on a year long hiatus. She was unfortunately not able to regain her shape in the following years, and decided to end her amateur career on her 22nd birthday in 2008.
In this post, I would like to talk a little bit about Yebin Mok. Yebin was a very promising Korean-American skater from the early 00s who competed against some of the absolute greats of ladies skating of all time including Michelle Kwan, Sasha Cohen and Sarah Hughes. Sadly, her career was tragically cut short by injuries and personal struggles.
An incredibly talented young woman pursuing the conventional dream of sporting success and glory, she had her life consumed and derailed by the very sport she had devoted herself entirely to. However, the rediscovered passion for the beauty and joy of figure skating following her retirement allowed her to take ownership back and be happy once again.