This interview? You’ll love it. As you’ll love them, Deniss Vasiljevs and Stéphane Lambiel, student and coach, sitting shoulder to shoulder around a table in Moscow, during this year’s edition of Rostelecom Cup, and answering Inside Skating’s questions. It’s November 4, the men’s short program has just ended, and these two dissect the performance and intermediate result – Deniss lies in 12th place after SP, in the first senior Grand Prix event of his career – and talk about programs, costumes, overcoming injury, and mostly about them working together. Their interaction is priceless, you’ll see that for yourselves: there’s a lot of laughter in the room, and friendly jokes, and calling nicknames – but, all in all, they stay exactly as they are: coach Stéphane Lambiel, serious, responsible, demanding precision, and his first student, Latvia’s Deniss Vasiljevs, in love with speed, philosophy, technology and history.
How did this story start? Deniss answers in a heartbeat: “I raised my hand at the right moment”. 10 months after that moment, they’re in this together, making plans, working hard and dreaming big.
by Nadia Vasilyeva/Moscow
Nadia Vasilyeva: Deniss, this is your first senior Grand Prix event. How do you feel about transition onto senior level, and how do you feel about coming to Rostelecom Cup?
Deniss Vasiljevs: It’s a new experience, I’m very happy to skate here.
Do you feel like anything has changed, maybe in yourself?
Deniss: I started to skate with older guys that I’d been following not long ago. So it’s actually a lot of changes. And overall, like on the energy level. It’s a lot of new experience.
Do you feel like there’s more pressure?
Deniss: No, I don’t think so. The main competition is still [with] me, so it’s fine.
And, of course, another huge change in your life is your new coach. Can you tell me a little bit more about how this collaboration happened?
Deniss: We just enjoyed working together. We met basically because I raised the hand at the right moment. We decided to work together in better conditions in Champéry, and we did a great job preparing. So that’s how it happened.
[Note of the editor: the two met at 2016 Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, in February, where Deniss won the silver medal. Appointed as an Athlete Role Model (ARM) by the Olympic Committee, Stéphane Lambiel was also there to support the young athletes in competition and, during a meeting, he asked whether some of the skaters would like to take part in Ice Legends, his upcoming show in Geneva. Deniss Vasiljevs raised his hand – and so he became one of Ice Legends’ guests at the end of April. After the show, the Latvian skater returned to Switzerland to have his new programs choreographed by Stéphane Lambiel and, on August 26, he made public that they’d work together, as student and coach, for the upcoming season.]
That’s also a question for you, Stéphane. Why did you decide to coach Deniss?
Stéphane Lambiel: We did both choreographies for his short program and his free program, and he was looking for a place to practice, where he could have the best conditions. So he asked me to be his coach. I evaluated the situation, I had to understand what he needed, in which situation he was, to find all the best keys to the logistics. Because it’s a lot. I have the school with my students [Skating School of Switzerland, in Champéry – ed.], I have the shows, I have many things – so for him to come to me it was a big step. So I had to really think about it, and make the best proposition for him, so he could get the best conditions to practice and work. And, right now, we are very happy with how the preparation went. Actually he started to jump only two months ago [Deniss had an injury in his left adductor muscle – ed.].
Deniss: Less than two months.
Stéphane: Less than two months ago. He actually started the triple jumps…
Deniss: About four weeks ago?
Stéphane: Not long ago. Of course, we are both perfectionists, and we wanted that today in competition things worked like in the 6-minute [warm-up]. Unfortunately, it didn’t, but we will try our best tomorrow.
Deniss: I haven’t been skating, like fully, 100%, for half a year. I kind of lost [the] competition spirit.
Stéphane: His last competition was Worlds, in March.
Deniss: And junior competitions usually start early – the first one is already in August.
Stéphane: And I know the injury he had. When we started working together, I knew what he had in his leg, because I struggled with the same thing for more than one year. So I know how bad this injury is. It’s an injury with which you usually have to stop completely, and you have to start from zero. But we were able to do such good job in the Summer that, at the beginning of September, he could start slowly with the double jumps, and now he can do his triple Axel, he can do his triple-triple combo, he also works on quad Salchow, so, step by step, we are going back, we are going forward.
Stéphane: At least we are taking the perfect shape.
Quad Salchow, wow! And I remember last year you also talked about planning to work on quad Lutz.
Deniss: Lutz and Toe, yeah. But I haven’t started yet. I’m doing triple Lutz-triple Loop sometimes and, as he said, very well. I can probably… definitely start working already on the quad Lutz. But all my plans from the last seasons were half destroyed because of this injury our Olympic Committee couldn’t heal till the end. And after Worlds I lost… how much time? I went to Canada in July. And before that, all that time was lost. I wasn’t practicing, I couldn’t heal myself, I couldn’t work at all. So it was a very bad time, when I lost a lot. And now we’re really rushing…
Stéphane: No, we didn’t rush. I mean, we just…
Deniss: We had a plan.
Stéphane: We rushed in a way that, for sure, this kind of injury takes more than what we had. We had 10 weeks to heal, from the end of July, when you had your last injection [he looks at Deniss]. 10 weeks we had to stop skating, and after those 10 weeks we were able to build up, build up, build up.
Deniss: But since I came [back to the ice], there were 11 weeks to competition. So, yeah, that’s not very much, [when you have] to start from zero, to get back in shape. But I did a pretty good try.
So how do you feel right now, entering the season? And what goals did you set for yourself?
Deniss: I still have a lot of work to do. So, definitely, I’m gonna continue working. I feel very well, my body feels strong. I just have to come back to competition shape. And I think we’ll be fine, right? [he looks at Stéphane]
Stéphane: And he’s also becoming a man – he used to be a kid.
Deniss: That’s also a lot of changes. Because I grew up a bit, coordination also changes a bit.
Stéphane: So we have to adjust to this whole new situation, not only the coaching, but the whole system. And the first try was not perfect, but… We are a bit upset because we wanted perfect [at the time of this interview, Deniss had just finished the men’s short program in Moscow on the 12th place – ed.].
Deniss: I was expecting a bit more. We prepared a lot, I skated the full program, from beginning to end, I had a couple of good, maybe not perfect, but still very good run-throughs… The preparations was harder than it was before, so it’s probably just my mistake, because I haven’t competed in a long time, and I just wasn’t able to do it…
Stéphane: He was too cautious. I think he didn’t use the adrenaline of the competition. When you have this adrenaline, you push the limits. He was scared of this limit, and he was holding back a bit.
Deniss: I need more practice of competing.
This season, and also previous season, you had some very interesting music choices. How did you come up with this idea for the short program, “Voodoo Child” by Stevie Ray Vaughan?
Deniss: Umm… Stéph?
Stéphane: From all the music that I showed you, why you wanted this one?
Deniss: Because I thought it’s the best music that can be. From everything that you chose – it was all good – I think I feel more conscious about the “Voodoo Child”. And also, come on, this music is three times older than me! Or even more, probably…
Stéphane: We just put some music pieces I thought were good for him and, as soon as I put this one, he was going wild. He loves the speed, so he was taking a lot of speed. He was just perfect, he was fitting this music so well.
Deniss: Yeah, it’s the same as my hair, always wild [he smiles].
And what about your free skate? I guess it was your influence as well, Stéphane?
Stéphane: Well, that was actually Mr. Urmanov’s influence. When Deniss came [to Champéry], at the end of May, Mr. Urmanov said that he was thinking about “The Four Seasons”. And I was not ready to do “Four Seasons” like I did – so that’s why we took the version of Max Richter, because I really loved the version that he did, a more modern one, with different rhythm from the original version. So I suggested that. And also I felt, when he was skating to it – I feel this music very deep, and he also feels this music a little bit deeper.
Deniss: I really like the music.
Stéphane: It was the first program that we did, actually, “The Four Seasons”. And every time he skates the slow part, I have some nice feeling in myself. I just love how he feels the music. I mean, I don’t need to do this in front of him, but it’s really true: when the music is so powerful, and he uses this power, it’s amazing. [He looks at Deniss, smiling] So I hope tomorrow you will use this power!
Deniss: I will do my best!
Deniss, how do you feel about skating to “The Four Seasons”, when you know it’s the music of the silver Olympic program skated by Stéphane? Does it have any influence on you, does it inspire you? Or you don’t think about it at all?
Deniss: Well… I like this music, really. I enjoy skating to all classical music…
Stéphane: You know, he probably never saw my Olympic program.
Deniss: I saw it! I saw it, your wonderful zebra [both laughing]. Captain Zebra.
Should we expect another crazy costume for that music, something like the famous zebra? [everyone smiles at this point]
Deniss: The idea that was on the picture, when we were planning the costume, was really interesting, in my opinion. But when it came to realization [of it], we met a lot of troubles, a lot of problems to make this costume as we wanted. So there was a lot of work, and there’s still a lot to do, to make it very good; a lot of changes.
I can’t wait to see it.
Deniss: I had to make a costume of a giraffe!
Stéphane: Ha-ha, no! That was Ilya Kulik, I’m sorry [laughing]. No-no-no. You could come with a lion. You could put some hair on top.
Deniss: Okay. I’m lion, so, it would be great for me, a lion costume [they both laugh; Deniss is born on August 9, 1999, and that makes him a Leo, when it comes to zodiac signs – ed.]
Stéphane: Well, actually, the costume [for the “The Four Seasons” FS] represents the soul of the nature. It has a dégradé of colors, from cold colors to warm colors – to illustrate the nature has seasons, and he’s the soul of the nature. There is not a story to the program – there’s more like an atmosphere, where you can see the different colors of the nature.
Deniss [smiling]: I know how to make the costume crazy: you just have to take a lot of small tiny branches, put them all together around, and that would be the perfect costume.
Stéphane: He has a lot of imagination [smiling].
What’s the style of your coach-student relationship? From your interaction, I’d assume it’s rather democratic, or…?
Stéphane: Democratic? Oh, no, unfortunately for him, it’s not [smiling].
Deniss: When I’m doing everything my coach says, I feel more comfortable in my preparation. So every time he wants something, more of this jump, or more of this jump, or do additional practice, or skate again – I’m following and I’m doing that. I’m more like following the orders. So it’s not like a lot of changes in practice from the way it was before. It always was like that.
Stéphane: He follows the orders. I’m the chef, he’s the student.
Deniss: Yeah, he’s the top-chef, not only in the kitchen, on the ice also.
So you’re a strict coach, Stéphane?
Stéphane: I’m not a strict coach, I’m just precise. I love precision. And if I don’t feel like he understands what I want him to feel…
Deniss: …he’s gonna really piss me off until I’m gonna make it.
Stéphane: Nooo, come on!
Deniss: You’re gonna do that, do that, do that, till I make it perfect.
Stéphane: I would never do that.
Deniss: Come on, you always want me to make it perfect.
Stéphane: No-no-no. I’m looking for you to feel what I want you to feel. And until you haven’t felt it, I won’t let you go.
That can be difficult, in the way that people feel things differently…
Stéphane: One interesting thing, actually, is that I think we have a very close sensitivity in a couple of things. So I know myself in many situations where I see him. So if I see that there is no point of insisting, I will not, because I know that it will not bring him somewhere. But when I see him stuck somewhere, and I have the key to open the door – I will use it for sure.
So there aren’t a lot of arguments going between the two of you…
Stéphane: Right now, [there are] not. When we started working together, in the beginning… I mean, for choreography it’s [a] different job: you mostly have fun, and you try things. I’ve never done any programs with any skaters when we had to argue. In choreography. But then, being a coach and having to train every day – it’s a different experience.
Deniss: In [the] technical aspect, his education is really great. He knows a lot, he worked with a lot of people. And even the things I knew – completely the same thing, but he knows more of it. So his education is wider than mine, and I have a lot of pleasure to work with him on everything. Like, choreography – it’s just the flow, and you go into it, but when it goes into the technical side, it’s the same. When I start something, I’m doing my job and he’s correcting it, always. And usually, with every correction, it goes only better. We’re working, we’re progressing, and I think, since we’ve started from zero, it’s not very bad to have made it to this shape in only 11 weeks. And also there were a lot of problems, since I haven’t skated for so long: my ankles and my body were weak, also I was a bit overweight. So huge work was done to be back. I just need more time to prepare, and it would be better.
What kind of skater do you want to be? How do you want people to remember you?
Deniss: First, I’m trying to win always over myself. I want to develop myself to a very high level, to fight for medals and to be a very nice skater. I want people to remember me not only because I did everything in jumps, or I won something, but the main reason for me is that they’re gonna love my skating, they’re gonna enjoy my performance, they’re gonna really like to see me on the ice. That everyone’s gonna like me as a skater and also as a person.
And besides figure skating, what else do you do? You are studying as well, right?
Deniss: Yes, I’m in the XIth grade and I have a lot of work, I’m doing all the tests. I think I’m doing rather well. Also I like to draw, I like to read – not so much, but sometimes. But I have kind of a deficit with good books that I would really enjoy to read.
What books are your favorites?
Deniss: The first one it’s very old: it’s called “The Chronicles of Captain Blood”, by Rafael Sabatini. It’s very old, but it’s my favorite, a trilogy. I love it. Also I love the books about Percy Jackson. “Harry Potter”, I read it a long time ago, but I enjoyed it, especially the fourth, “The Goblet of Fire”. These are the kind of books I like, they all kind of have teenagers, and it’s a mix with maybe history, or ancient times, or magic, or something very interesting.
And you also like history, especially war history?
Deniss: I love history, yeah, and war history. Of course, history is not only wars, but for me all the greats things, or disgusting things that people did in the past, it all comes mostly from wars. And we have everyday war, every day we fight with ourselves, to do that or not do that. Always trying to do something. And so by that, defeating ourselves, we grow up, we change. All the technology comes from war.
Stéphane: Don’t do so much philosophy.
Deniss: Come on! I love philosophy also. I’m not studying it, but I love reading it.
Stéphane [smiling]: The philosopher Vasiljevs!
Deniss: Come on! I always have my own point of view on everything.
Deniss, do you have a favorite period in history?
Deniss: I like them all, really. Ancient time, especially the time of the Roman Empire. It’s a great time, I think, because the world changes so much. The time of Napoleon’s Wars – it was really interesting, why the people weren’t afraid to die in the first line. I don’t really know a lot about it, but I like to imagine how it was. The First Word War, the Second World War. Especially the Second World War, I’m really interested in the technology development. And also I really love the Star Wars universe, and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Would you like to put it one day into your programs? Maybe a historically inspired program, or a Star Wars themed program? If your coach allows it, of course…
Deniss: If I find something really interesting and impressive for myself, that I would feel and I would love to skate to – I will do it. Right now, I haven’t found something really awesome to show, so I think that has to wait.
This interest in history, is it something you’d like to continue after school, in the university maybe?
Deniss: Since I’m very interested, and I always find something interesting in it, I’m trying to study not only in school, but even more. I think I’m going to continue [with] my hobby and maybe even do something with it. I don’t really know. My dad really loves to collect World War stuff because, not far from my house in Latvia, there was a war line. During the First World War, during the Second World War. And in the forest less than 10 kilometers from my house, there was a battle, and you can often find something interesting. And my dad always finds something with the metal detector, and brings it home. Once I was there with my dad and we found this huge missile, not exploded, and we were like: Whoaaa! We called the people who took it out. So yeah, I really like it. But I’m more interested in future technologies. I’d want people to stop their missiles and go more into space, and make more defensive weapons than attacking ones. Although the best defense is offense. I really love the video games about strategy, [there are] my favorite thing.
Deniss, one more thing: are you already thinking about the upcoming Olympic season?
Deniss: Of course. The goal for the season, the main one, is to get the ticket to the Olympics, to get the spot, and I’m going for that. I’m really working for it, for the Olympics in Pyeongchang.
[Interview by Nadia Vasilyeva, Moscow/intro and editing by Florentina Tone]
More photos of Deniss Vasiljevs and Stéphane Lambiel at 2016 Rostelecom Cup
FURTHER READING – 2016 Rostelecom Cup