By Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Two-time world champion Evgenia Medvedeva's seemingly smooth path to Olympic glory has run into an unexpected roadblock in the shape of her 15-year-old training partner Alina Zagitova.
The youngster upset the 18-year-old Medvedeva, who had not lost since November 2015, with a jump-packed free skate at the European championships in January, to suddenly emerge as co-favorite for the gold medal in Pyeongchang later this month.
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As Medvedeva sat out the Grand Prix Final in December with a fractured foot, Zagitova has seized her opportunity to shine in her first senior season and even threatened her older compatriot's incredible world record scores.
In her short program at the Europeans, Zagitova came within 0.6 points of the 80.85 mark Medvedeva set last year.
"In practice we have a rivalry, but not in a bad way," Zagitova said, adding that she and Medvedeva were good friends.
"It's like a game for us. If she does three triple jumps, I will try to do the same. It pushes us."
The usually flawless Medvedeva seemed unhappy with her short program skate at the competition. When the music stopped, she even poked out her tongue in apparent disgust, grimacing at a performance in which she stepped out of a double Axel.
She trailed Zagitova by 1.7 points after the short program and finished the competition a distant 5.38 adrift.
"I have my own way and I try to follow it," Medvedeva said after her short program.
"You have to look around sometimes because we compete in an individual sport and there are times when rivalry pushes you. But you have to concentrate on your own elements."
QUIETUDE AND K-POP
The team mates share renowned coaches Eteri Tutberidze and Sergei Dudakov, and also have a choreographer in common, Daniil Gleichengauz.
Despite shared coaching staff and training routines, the teens are a study in contrasts.
Zagitova is laconic outside the rink but expressive on the ice, skating her free program to composer Leon Minkus' "Don Quixote" in a flashy red tutu.
In her free program, Medvedeva interprets a tormented Anna Karenina, heroine of Tolstoy's classic 19th-century Russian novel, a woman suffocated by society who takes her own life.
However, off the ice, the effervescent skater professes her love of Japanese anime, particularly "Sailor Moon", and K-pop music.
Medvedeva radiates youth but is mature beyond her years. She embodies sobriety and exuberance, rigorous discipline and lightheartedness, all in a 159-centimetre frame.
The double world champion recovers from training sessions in complete silence, except for the bubbling of the aquarium in her room "because the fish need to breathe".
"When I come home from training, I go to my room and sit there in absolute silence," she said after winning the Moscow Grand Prix event last year.
"I might read a book or check social media, but there is not a sound in my room. I recover very quickly in silence."
She lets her performances make the noise.
At the 2017 world championships, she broke her own world record with a combined score of 233.41 points and became the first woman to win consecutive world titles since American Michelle Kwan in 2001.
A month later, she improved that record to 241.31 points.
"I was told I had broken the record only in the mixed zone," she said. "I didn't remember what the record was. I don't follow the hundredths that closely."
OLYMPIC ATHLETES FROM RUSSIA
Medvedeva deflects questions about the Pyeongchang Olympics and the doping scandals that have rattled Russian sport.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) last month banned Russia from Pyeongchang over "systematic manipulation" of the anti-doping system at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
The IOC, however, left the door open to athletes with no history of doping to compete at its invitation as neutral "Olympic Athletes from Russia".
Both Medvedeva and Zagitova are among the 169 Russian athletes who were cleared by the IOC to compete at the Feb. 9-25 Games.
Russian athletes in Pyeongchang will wear gray and red uniforms featuring no Russian emblems.
If they win gold, they will be serenaded with the Olympic anthem and the five-ringed Olympic flag will be raised instead of the Russian tricolor.
While nursing her fractured foot, Medvedeva traveled to the IOC headquarters in Switzerland along with Russian sports authorities to plead for her country's inclusion in the Games.
Medvedeva told IOC members that she could not imagine competing without the Russian flag, according to a transcript of her speech published by the Russian Olympic Committee.
She later said she was pleased that IOC had compromised to let some of her compatriots compete.
"We're 'Olympic Athletes from Russia,'" said Medvedeva at the Europeans championships, drawing out the word "Russia".
"It's a big honour to be able to represent our country."
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by John O'Brien)