Polina Edmunds performs in the Smucker's Skating Spectacular at TD Garden on Jan. 12, 2014 in Boston.
BOSTON – Polina Edmunds was just 20 months old when she first put on a pair of ice skates.
It was the first step she made in her journey to the Olympic Winter Games, which will be achieved next month in Russia, fittingly where her mother, Nina, got her start in skating.
The two will be at the Winter Games together since Nina is one of Polina’s coaches. And it will be quite a homecoming for the Edmunds family when Polina competes in Sochi. Polina, now 15, was the surprise silver medalist at the 2014 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships this past week in Boston, which helped her earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team.
“My mom’s brother and her uncle live in Tver,” said Polina of the Russian town located about 100 miles northwest of Moscow where Nina also grew up. “I’m sure they are very excited. They’re probably contacting my mom right now.”
A year ago, Edmunds was the junior national champion, and her leap to the Olympic Winter Games this year marks the first time in 50 years that a women’s junior national champion made the U.S. Olympic Team the following year. Tina Noyes, the 1963 junior national champion, made her Olympic debut in 1964 and then returned to the Winter Games in 1968.
|Polina Edmunds, with coaches David Glynn and Nina Edmunds, reacts to her scores after her free skate at the 2014 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 11, 2014 in Boston.
Although it is quite a jump for Edmunds — the Olympic Winter Games will mark her first senior-level international competition; the U.S. championships were her first senior event of any kind — she would not be the first teen to dazzle on the Olympic stage. After all, Edmunds’ idol is Tara Lipinski, who became the youngest Olympic figure skating champion at 15 when she upset Michelle Kwan for the gold medal in Nagano in 1998. Sarah Hughes went on to win the gold medal four years later in 2002 when she was 16.
David Glynn, who along with Nina coaches Polina, even went so far as to make this bold statement during the national championships: “She is 2014’s version of Tara Lipinski.”
Lipinski was 15 years and 255 days old when she won the gold medal, breaking a 70-year-old record set by Sonja Henie by two months. Edmunds, who was born on May 18, 1998, a few months after Lipinski won the gold medal, will be 15 years and 276 days old on Feb. 20, the day of the women’s free skate in Sochi.
Perhaps what is of the most surprising to many in the figure skating community is that Edmunds hardly seems surprised at all. She came to Boston with some of the most technically demanding routines in the women’s field (her short program featured a more difficult triple jump compared to that of eventual champion Gracie Gold). Edmunds also came to Boston with the luxury of no expectations. Although she had made a name for herself in the junior ranks, few expected her to reach the podium, much less finish higher than two-time defending U.S. champion Ashley Wagner, who placed fourth overall.
But Edmunds and her coaches all continually said they expected her to make the U.S. Olympic Team. Although many had her pegged as an Olympic hopeful for 2018, Edmunds said she always had 2014 in the front of her mind. She said she remembers receiving a red Team USA jacket with the year “2014” marked on it when she came to nationals in 2010 and had already calculated years ago that she would be age-eligible to compete when the Winter Games came to Sochi.
“This year, when I turned 15 I thought, ‘Oh this is it,’” said Edmunds, who was wearing a gold necklace with an ice skate on it.
For Nina Edmunds, the dream of having her daughter compete in the Olympic Winter Games in Russia is something she had hoped for as well. Nina’s father was a hockey player, and she started ice skating when she was 6. She rose through the ranks in Russia, and even landed some triples, but was never in contention for the Winter Games.
In the mid-1990s, John Edmunds, a businessman, came to Russia for a six-week sabbatical through a program at Global Volunteers, which boasts “volunteer vacations,” and he met Nina during that trip. They became pen pals after John returned to the United States, and after a few months of phone bills of about $500 a month, John decided to go back. Armed with a Russian-English dictionary, he learned enough Russian to ask Nina’s father for his blessing to marry his daughter and, as John recalled, “She said yes on the spot.”
They married and have made their home in California’s Bay Area. John said he knew nothing about skating but soon learned quite a bit. Their two sons, James and Daniel, are both hockey players. John and Nina knew they would have their hands full with Polina, since she was climbing out of her crib when she was just 1. By age 7, Nina said her daughter was landing double jumps, and by 13, she had all of her triples.
John admitted he was nervous about having his wife coach his daughter, but after talking to many top-level coaches, he was convinced it was the best situation, saying, “It is a real asset if you use it right.”
Nina said the advantage she has in coaching her daughter is knowing about Polina’s home life firsthand. If Polina is sick or has a busy day at school or lots of homework (Polina has never been home schooled), then, “I know how things will be on the ice, too,” Nina said. In addition to Nina and David Glynn, Polina also works occasionally with Frank Carroll, who guided Evan Lysacek to the gold medal in 2010 and also transformed Kwan into a national and world champion. Carroll, who is now coaching Gold, the newly crowned U.S. champion, said his main job with Edmunds is helping her develop her “aesthetic” side of her skating.
Edmunds has a balance of American and Russian coaching. Her choreographer is Marina Klimova, a three-time Olympic ice dancing medalist from Russia who won the gold medal for the Unified Team with Sergei Ponomarenko in 1992.
Polina has made just two trips to Russia, and she remembers virtually nothing from those visits since she was about 2 for one of those trips and younger than 2 for the other. She can speak a little Russian, however, and her grandmother makes extended visits from Russia to the Edmunds’ California home. Edmunds’ family uses Skype every week to contact Russian relatives.
“I fully understand what they're saying,” Edmunds said. “Then I respond in English.”
Earlier this season in September, Edmunds competed in ISU’s Junior Grand Prix event in Belarus. Her uncle took an 18-hour train ride from Tver to watch his niece skate in Minsk. She didn’t disappoint, finishing first.
Now her relatives will try to make the trip to watch her skate again in Sochi. And she’s hoping they’ll get to see her with the same result.
Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer and editor for TeamUSA.org. A former sports reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, she has covered two Olympic Games and two Olympic Winter Games. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today.