The 15-year-old Valieva, who has become a household name at these Games after being permitted to continue competing when a Dec. 25 positive drug test came to light Feb. 8, was the leader after the short program two days earlier.
She had three quadruple jumps planned for her free skate, two of which she had landed cleanly in the team event. This time, she under-rotated one, stepped out of another and fell on the third. Along with several other mistakes that included another fall, Valieva had the fifth-highest free skate score and her total of 224.09 points put her fourth overall.
"I watched Kamila but probably did not understand what I was experiencing," Shcherbakova said. "Of course, I was very nervous for her during the skate because from the very first jump it was clear that the skate is going very hard and I understand perfectly what an athlete feels at those moments."
While her Russian Olympic Committee teammates should have been thrilled with their medals, what followed was anything but celebratory. Shcherbakova was seen standing alone, looking confused and void of emotion before eventually crying. Trusova, too, was filled with tears in the chaotic scene. After chants aimed toward Valieva -- who was also in tears -- were heard from the stands, it was unclear whether the ROC skaters were reacting to their own results or that of their training mate.
Sakamoto, too, cried, though hers appeared to be tears of joy.
"This is my 18th Olympic Games and I can honestly say I do not think I have ever seen anything like this -- raw emotions everywhere, stunning resolution to the story and it's one I can't imagine anyone saw coming," Jimmy Roberts said on the USA broadcast.
Trusova later explained her own emotions.
"I wanted to cry, so I cried," she said. "I've been here for two weeks, alone without my mom, without the dogs, so I am crying."
She reportedly told a Russian media outlet "I hate everyone, I hate this sport," and that she would never skate again. When asked about that quote, Trusova replied, "We'll see."
It was decided by the International Olympic Committee that if Valieva finished in the top three, there would be no flower ceremony and no medal ceremony for the event. With her in fourth, that expected outcome changed.
The in-venue flower ceremony was held for Shcherbakova, Trusova and Sakamoto, with medals expected to be awarded the following day.
Shcherbakova, 17, won with 255.95 total points and a free skate that included two quad flips. She adds the Olympic gold medal to her 2021 world title.
“No, I am just happy," she said in an interview on whether she had mixed emotions after her teammates were crying. "I am only happy. I still haven’t realized what happened. I can’t believe the Olympics are already over for me.”
Trusova, the 2021 world bronze medalist, became the first woman to land a quad flip and the first woman to land a quad lutz at the Olympics. She is the first woman to cleanly land three quads at the Olympics, and she is also the first woman to attempt four and five quads in a single program at the Winter Games; Valieva had become the first to land one and two quads in her team event free skate. The 17-year-old stepped out of a quad toeloop and under-rotated her second quad lutz, still scoring the highest free skate score of the day (177.13) for 251.73 points in all.
"I am not happy with the result," she said. "There is no happiness."
This is the second Games in a row where the gold and silver medalists in this event are Russian; Alina Zagitova and Yevgenia Medvedeva competed under Olympic Athletes from Russia at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.
Sakamoto was third after the short program -- ahead of Trusova -- but with no triple axel and no quad jumps, she was no match for her in the free. Still, with clean skating and the mistakes from Valieva, the 21-year-old earned bronze with a total of 233.13. The first Japanese woman on the podium since Mao Asada's silver in 2010, she broke up what could have been the first sweep in women's figure skating at the Olympics.
"Before Kamila Valieva's score was out, I wasn’t sure I was going to get a medal," Sakamoto explained. "Then I saw my name in the third place, I was like, ‘Wow’. It’s just so unbelievable."
"This bronze in women’s single is a bit of a surprise for me. I am just happy and grateful for it."
The Americans finished between seventh and 16th.
A face of U.S. women's figure skating through the entire quadrennium leading up to these Games, Alysa Liu made the most of her Olympic debut.
Smiling during and after both of her programs -- visibly enjoying every second of her experience -- Liu submitted two of her best performances.
"I'm still in shock at how well I did," Liu said. "I worked a lot on this and I'm glad I did two clean programs."
The 16-year-old, who won her first of two historic U.S. titles at 13, finished in seventh place, the best result of the three U.S. women. Her free skate, which opened with an under-rotated triple axel, scored 139.45 points for a 208.95 total.
Nine years her senior, Mariah Bell also moved up one spot from the short program standings and was 10th overall (202.30 points).
"I’m already here," Bell had told NBC reporter Andrea Joyce before the free skate. "The hardest part was getting here, so I want to hold absolutely nothing back."
She rebounded from a fall in her short program to have the eighth-best free skate (136.92 points), a performance she said made her "very happy."
"That's what I'll remember the most -- that moment of just being so happy at the end of a program," Bell, who lit up more and more as her program went on, told media of pointing to the ice at the end of her skate.
In her second Olympics, Karen Chen placed 16th. Unable to bring the magic behind her two world championship fourth-place finishes to Olympic ice, the 22-year-old's errors included a fall on her final jump, a triple loop, and putting her hand down on another triple loop.
“I did talk about that expectation of wanting to do what I’ve been practicing, wanting to do what I am capable of," Chen said. "It’s really unfortunate that I didn’t."
“Every single jump that I did, it felt rushed. I was able to stick to landing, but it never felt right. It did not feel like a solid performance at all."
She revealed in interviews following her free skate that she had fallen down stairs and hurt her ankle before the Olympic team event began.