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Russian figure skater Evgenia Medvedeva is as talented as she is terrifying

There aren’t many constants in figure skating. But Medvedeva’s apparent obsession with death is one of them. 

Figure Skating Japan Open Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

There is no figure skater I like more than Evgenia Medvedeva. There is also no figure skater I’m more afraid of than Evgenia Medvedeva.

Medvedeva, an 18-year-old Russian phenom, has been dominating women’s figure skating since she began competing at the senior level in 2015. From November 2015 until this past January, she went undefeated in every competition she entered, and in doing so became one of the heavy favorites to win gold in at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

When she finally did lose, it was to the other gold medal favorite, when she came in second to fellow Russian skater Alina Zagitova at the 2018 European Championships in Moscow.

Medvedeva’s unique ability to combine the athleticism of triple jumps with the artistry of a ballerina makes her a once-in-a-decade type of skater. Usually, a skater is either a strong jumper or a strong artist, but rarely both.

But what I love about Medvedeva isn’t just how good she is at what she does, but rather how much of a goth jock weirdo she is.

Acting and creating an image is a major element of figure skating

Olympic figure skating isn’t unlike the Hollywood celebrity industry.

First off, NBC regularly airs amazing fluff profiles designed to make you understand why you should be rooting for a particular skater in under a minute.

Maybe a skater has been chasing their Olympic dreams for their whole life. Perhaps they are coming back from injury. Sometimes they have the weight of an entire country on their shoulders:

Whatever the case may be, these profiles tend to reduce skaters’ backstories to easily consumable morsels.

Then, when those skaters eventually take the ice, they spend two or four minutes, depending on whether they’re performing a short program or a long one, embodying different characters. At the 1996 World Championships, American skater Michelle Kwan became the temptress known as Salomé in her free skate; two years later, at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, she performed as a heavenly cherub to her “Lyra Angelica.”

At the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Korean skater Yuna Kim was a flirty, winking Bond girl in her Olympic short program, then performed to George Gershwin for her free skate.

And elsewhere in the sport, there are ice dancing pairs like Meryl Davis and Charlie White or Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir who’ve become incredibly famous for selling artificial yet completely believable romance during their routines.

As amazing as these programs and performances are, it’s easy to feel like you’re never seeing the real skater behind the routine.

But I don’t think that’s necessarily true of Medvedeva, whose recent programs all tend to align with similar themes. The weird, macabre sentiments in her routines don’t feel like coincidence so much as they feel like a peek into a someone’s morbid psyche.

Medvedeva’s past routines have touched on death, 9/11, and getting hit by a train

Many of Medvedeva’s programs appear to echo a consistent statement: The looming specter of death waits for us all. Beneath their artistry and elegance, Medvedeva’s most recent performances, both before and during the Olympics, would seem to indicate that she’s spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about human mortality.

One need look no further than her 2017 World Championship-winning free skate to the soundtrack of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close; as part of that particular routine, she performed a footwork sequence to real audio recordings from 9/11 news broadcasts, which included the voice of President George W. Bush.

The program was no doubt controversial. Only recently have skaters been allowed to skate to music with lyrics (as opposed to purely instrumental arrangements), and many people thought that Medvedeva’s interpretation of 9/11-related audio as “lyrics” was tacky and disrespectful. But no matter how inappropriate you might believe her decision to be, judges who saw the resulting program during the 2016–’17 figuring skating season (where she won gold at every competition she skated in) thought she skated beautifully.

Medvedeva’s apparent fascination with doom and death has continued into 2018 with her short program in Pyeongchang. The program is set to Chopin’s “Nocturne in C-Sharp minor,” a song with its own riveting legacy, as Holocaust survivor Natalia Karp reportedly played it so beautifully on the piano that she and her sister were initially spared from being sent to a concentration camp. But Medvedeva has said that the program is a contemplation on “clinical death” and the moment the spirit leaves the body:

At a couple different points in the program, Medvedeva even pantomimes last breaths.

And in her free skate, which will air in the US Thursday night, she’ll perform to the soundtrack of 2012’s Anna Karenina, complete with the mordant choo-choo of an oncoming train. (In both the source novel and the film, Anna despairingly throws herself in front of an oncoming train.):

Granted, figure skating is about drama and emotion, no matter how manipulative it may be. Medvedeva, in choosing these bleak themes, appears to be conscious of that. But I’d be more inclined to believe view her apparent fascination with death as merely a put-on persona if her resume didn’t also include a program that casts her as a zombie bride, which she performed at the 2015 Rostelecom Cup gala exhibition:

To be clear, as NBC has pointed out in some of its aforementioned skater profiles, Medvedeva has other interests — including anime and dancing. And you can see evidence of that in the 2017 routine where she performed as the anime character Sailor Moon:

But what I really want to believe is that Medvedeva just feels so deeply and is so consumed by the idea of mortality that she can’t help but incorporate that idea into her skating. I’d like to think that if I ever met her face-to-face, she would look past the present version me and into my future, so as to imagine the different ways I might die and the look on my face as it happened. Then she’d think about the perfect song to encapsulate such a moment, were she to portray it on the ice.

Medvedeva will skate for the final time in Pyeongchang during the women’s free skate, which airs Thursday, February 22, in in the US.