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Figure Skating Star Alina Zagitova Most Admires Namesake Kabayeva
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Russian figure skating sensation Alina Zagitova has no shortage of potential heroes among her compatriots, including reigning Olympic champion Adelina Sotnikova, 2014 Olympic star Yulia Lipnitskaya and training partner Yevgenia Medvedeva, but the 15-year-old Zagitova says she most admires rhythmic gymnastics legend Alina Kabayeva.

Russian figure skating sensation Alina Zagitova has no shortage of potential heroes among her compatriots — including reigning Olympic champion Adelina Sotnikova, 2014 Olympic star Yulia Lipnitskaya and training partner Yevgenia Medvedeva — but Zagitova says her idol remains rhythmic gymnastics legend Alina Kabayeva.

Olympic Athlete from Russia Alina Zagitova set a new world-record score on Tuesday performing to "Swan Lake" at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang

Zagitova, 15, took the lead after the women's short program Tuesday at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, where her stunning performance of "Swan Lake" (from the Black Swan soundtrack) set a new world-record score of 82.92 points, eclipsing the previous record set by Medvedeva only minutes before with 81.61.

Nicknamed the "Tatar Princess," Zagitova says she has always admired 2004 Olympic champion Alina Kabayeva, her superstar namesake. Zagitova has frequently cited Kabayeva as her idol because of her character and determination.

"I would like to get to know Alina Kabayeva," Zagitova said in December when asked who she would most like to meet. "This is not because I was named after her, but for her outstanding successes and for the fact that she has done a lot for Russia. I watched a lot of movies about her, her performances. In general, rhythmic gymnastics is one of my favorite sports, but if I had the choose between figure skating and rhythmic gymnastics, then, of course, I would choose the first one."

The Zagitova-Kabayeva parallels do not end with their common first name and heritage, but include similar career trajectories and high levels of difficulty in their dazzling performances. The junior world champion in 2017, Zagitova burst onto the senior scene over the last few months. Figure skating experts have been starstruck by her performances, and the superlatives have flown over the past week describing her technique and artistry.

In 2002, Zagitova was born May 18 less than a week after Kabayeva's birthday 19th birthday on May 12. But Zagitova's parents disagreed on the right name for their first-born child to such an extent that she went nameless until 2003.

"For a year after I was born they did not give me a name," said Zagitova, whose younger sister, Sabina, is also a figure skater. "One day my parents watched gymnastics on television and Alina Kabayeva performed. They exchanged glances and decided to name me Alina."

Kabayeva — like artistic gymnastics star Aliya Mustafina — was born to a Tatar father and Russian mother. Kabayeva's father, Marat Kabayev, was born in Uzbekistan to a family relocated from the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, where Zagitova's father, Ilnaz Zagitov, was born. Zagitova's mother, Leysan Zagitova, is of Russian and Tatar heritage.

Both Kabayeva and Zagitova began sports at a young age — Kabayeva began at age 3 and 1/2 and Zagitova at age 4. Both their fathers are professional athletes turned coaches — Marat Kabayev in football and Ilnaz Zigatov in hockey — but the two high-energy girls began sports at the insistence of their mothers. Originally, Kabayeva's mother, Lyubov, wanted to put her daughter in figure skating, but there were no suitable skating clubs in Tashkent where children could take lessons, so she took up rhythmic gymnastics instead. At age 12, Kabayeva moved to Moscow to begin training with Uzbek native Irina Viner.

Zagitova was born in Izhevsk, Republic of Udmurtia, but at age four months moved to Leninogorsk, Republic of Tatarstan, where her father played for the Neftyanik club. Her father took her to the skating rink frequently for fun, but there were no lessons available. After he transferred to another Neftyanik club in Almetyevsk, she began informal lessons at age 4 under coach Damira Pichugina. But when the family returned to Izhevsk in 2008, her mother insisted the 6-year-old Alina continue with classes under the top local coach Natalia Antipina. Antipina already had a top group of young girls who would reach the national level, including Alisa Lozko, Natalia Ogoreltseva and Diana Shamsutdinova, who all moved to Saint Petersburg eventually to continue their training. It was after a year of training with Antipina that Alina got serious about the sport.

Alina Kabayeva runs with the Olympic torch at the 2014 Winter Olympic Opening Ceremonies in Sochi with fellow Russian sporting legends Yelena Isinbayeva (pole vault) and Maria Sharapova (tennis)

Only two years ago, the 13-year-old Zagitova chose to move to Moscow instead of Saint Petersburg, to train with Eteri Tutberidze. Tutberidze also coached Lipnitskaya, whose routine to the theme from Schindler's List mesmerized the world four years ago in Sochi, where she won a gold with the Russian team and silver in the individual final. Tutberidze also coaches Medvedeva, the 2016 and 2017 world champion, who until recently had been considered a lock for the Olympic title in PyeongChang.

Zagitova's sudden breakthrough is a shock to her as much as it is to anyone else. Tutberidze kicked her out of the club when Zagitova was frustrated by an injury, and she decided to call it quits and move back to Izhevsk. When she came to present flowers to Tutberidze as her goodbye, the coach reconsidered and asked her to stay. It's easy to understand Zagitova's admiration for Kabayeva's tenacity; she herself estimates she tried to quit figure skating seven times, but always changed her mind and came back.

Like Kabayeva, Zagitova won her first major title at age 15, taking the European championship title. Last month, Zagitova triumphed over Medvedeva at the European championships in Moscow, dealing her 18-year-old training partner her first defeat in two years. In December, Zagitova also captured the Grand Prix Finale and Russian championships while Medvedeva was absent with a foot injury.

In PyeongChang, Zagitova already won a team silver with the Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR), who are competing under a neutral flag due to the International Olympic Committee's punishment against Russia in response to the investigation into a state-run doping program. While the IOC agreed to allow Russia to compete at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, it banned Russia from PyeongChang. As part of a compromise, Russian athletes who passed certain requirements were allowed to compete in PyeongChang under the IOC flag. The Olympic Athletes from Russia have yet to win a gold medal in PyeongChang, but Zagitova may change that.

In a recent interview, Kabayeva expressed sympathy for the difficult situation facing the Russian athletes in PyeongChang.

"It won't be easy for the athletes who have received permission to participate in the Olympics," Kabayeva, 34, said. "To compete without a flag, without an anthem, under neutral symbolism ... After all, every athlete has a homeland, and there is a sense of national pride. This cannot be canceled or suspended."

Zagitova's lead over Medvedeva is so narrow that either could take the gold in PyeongChang. But if all goes her way in the long program, Zagitova won't follow in her idol's footsteps in her first Olympic appearance. At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Kabayeva was the top gymnast in qualification but a disastrous drop with the hoop cost her the gold in the final, and she settled for bronze behind teammate Yulia Barsukova and Belarusian Yulia Raskina. Four years later in Athens, Kabayeva won the gold easily and retired in 2007, with 14 world medals (nine of them gold) and 21 European championship medals (18 gold).

Since her retirement, Kabayeva joined political life, serving in the State Duma for many years, and is now chairman of the boards of the corporation New Media Group and the Sport-Express group. She also runs a charity for low-income families and an annual rhythmic gymnastics festival. Despite frequent tabloid headlines that have linked her to Russian President Vladimir Putin for years, Kabayeva remains guarded about her personal life and declines all comment. She is frequently named among the powerful and influential women in Russia.

Alina Kabayeva in 1999

Last year, Kabayeva served as the ambassador for the 2017 World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships in Pesaro, a new initiative for the International Gymnastics Federation FIG), which also had its first ambassadors in artistic gymnastics, Romania's Nadia Comaneci and Canada's Kyle Shewfelt, at the world championships in Montreal. Kabayeva, along with two-time Olympian Nellie Kim and Bulgaria gymnastics legend Vera Marinova Atkinson, were named earlier this month to the FIG's new ambassador commission, to select future ambassadors for FIG events.

After visiting the FIG headquarters recently in Lausanne, Kabayeva said she hopes the FIG will lobby for a full set of medals for rhythmic gymnastics at upcoming Olympic Games — currently only the individual all-around and group contests are awarded medals, unlike most competitions, which award individual apparatus medals as well. She also hopes the Code of Points for rhythmic gymnastics would return to rewarding more difficulty, citing figure skating as an example to follow.

"[When I competed] I did 17 or 18 elements in 90 seconds," Kabayeva said. "And now the gymnasts do only nine. Later, many complex elements were excluded from the Code of Points, while others were not used because the risks of doing them were large while their value was small. And the gymnasts didn't want to take any risks, which I'm very, very unhappy about. This shouldn't the way it is, because the sport of higher achievements is associated with increasing complexity. After all, nobody would ever ban pole vaults at the level of Lena Isinbayeva can do because it's dangerous. This is ridiculous because it contradicts the very essence of the highest achievements in sports."

Continued Kabayeva, "Why is rhythmic gymnastics limited? All the talk about the fact that difficult elements are supposedly dangerous to gymnasts' health don't stand up to criticism. In figure skating, for example, they already make jumps with four and almost five turns and no problems, but in rhythmic gymnastics they removed 20 of the most complicated elements, because they are supposedly dangerous. Elements for flexibility are harmful to the back, rotation on relevé is bad for the foot, etc., etc. We discussed this issue with Irina Alexandrovna (Viner) and came to the conclusion that we shouldn't deviate from our targetted level (of difficulty), at least within our country, so we should increase the difficulty of our rule in Russia to maintain a high level in the regions."

The long program for the women's individual figure skating will be held Friday in PyeongChang. Zagitova will skate to Don Quixote, which she performed in the team competition, and Medvedeva to Anna Karenina.

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