Crushing scenes of Kamila Valieva in tears Thursday after a disastrous long program took her out of medal contention might be the last image Olympics fans will have of the talented Russian figure skater.
The country's powerful figure skating program cycles through talent like no other, with these Beijing Games marking the fourth straight Russian women's team with no Olympic veterans.
In modern figure skating, which often puts a premium on lighter-weight athletes with maximum strength, even a teen like Valieva could be hard-pressed to stay ahead of younger competitors.
"This is a mill. This is a system where you put in lots of input into the beginning, and then it becomes a Darwinist nightmare with survival of the fittest," said professor Peter Donnelly, the director of the University of Toronto's Centre for Sport Policy.
"I think it's unlikely" that Valieva will become a repeat Olympian, "especially with the mental trauma she's gone through in the last few days," Donnelly added.
"Within the world of figure skating [in Russia] it is incredibly competitive," said Robert Edelman, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who specializes in Russian history and the country's sports culture. "It's not just a few people whose parents are wealthy enough for the lessons and rink time. That's the world we live in."
But news later emerged that Valieva had tested positive for a banned heart medication in late December, when she handily won the Russian national championship.
Trimetazidine is the generic form of a French medication typically prescribed to much older patients suffering from angina. The medication could help blood flow to the heart, and Valieva's eligibility to compete was thrown into doubt.
The revelation came before she soared to first place after the short program. She was cleared to participate by a world sports arbitration body Monday, raising expectations that Russians would take all three medals.
Russia's Alina Zagitova was just 15 when she struck gold in 2018, landing triple-triple jump combinations impressive for the time but pale in comparison to multiple quads some top women now land in their free programs.
It would be a difficult challenge for any of Russia's top three women in Beijing to come back for 2026 and hold off coach Eteri Tutberidze's up-and-coming students.
Beyond the physical challenges of launching those quads, the mental toll of reaching the Olympics is almost too much to bear, even once.
"This is a moment where you genuinely have to say — that poor kid," former U.S. Olympian Ashley Wagner tweeted moments after Valieva's crash in Beijing.
"She should not have ever been put in this position. She shouldn't have been out on that ice. She shouldn't have been put in a position where she became the face of a problem bigger than her."
The pressure faced by Russian skaters to perform can't be understated, as their country has been dominant for the past several Winter Games.
Rinkside cameras in Beijing on Thursday captured the moments after a devastated Valieva left the ice and the famously hard-driving Tutberidze offered no immediate comfort.
Valieva bobbled on a triple axel a short time into her routine before she hit the ice twice — on a quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination and then again another quad toe loop.
"Why did you let it go? Why did you stop fighting?" Tutberidze asked her saddened student. "After the axel, you let it go."