Looking for a leit-motif of Carolina Kostner’s presence at the Europeans? Well, look no more: it is the heart. The big, red heart in the generous banner hanging in the arena („We love Carolina”), the smaller, plushy heart passing from Carolina’s hands to Alexei Mishin in the Kiss and Cry – one of the iconic images of these championships, and that imaginary yet palpable heart that Carolina set free in the air, at the end of her Vivaldi long program. Watch that extension of her back and arms once more. Is it as if the Italian wanted to embrace the world of skating, to share her gift with everyone watching – and we gladly accepted the gift, the embrace, her opening arms. “I feel absolutely joyous and honored that I can continue this beautiful journey”, she said in Ostrava, in her 13th Europeans. She might have won a medal here, her 10th consecutive European medal, but the true medal, for the sport and audience altogether, is her comeback. Just ask the lady wearing a Carolina T-shirt in the press conference room on the short program day – she might tell you a love story or two.
by Florentina Tone/Ostrava
No bigger story on the first day of 2017 Europeans than Carolina Kostner returning to competitive skating after a hiatus of two full seasons. With 72.40 points, she jumped into the lead, and continued to do so for three more hours, until the final group of ladies took the ice. At the end of ladies’ SP, she was sitting in 3rd, behind Evgenia Medvedeva and Anna Pogorilaya – and at the post-event press conference she talked about the joy of coming back and about how lucky she feels to be able to do what she loves. Her smile lighted the room as she shared the emotions of the day – and just because ISU live streamed the press conference through social media, many others could witness the joy. Among those, a fellow skater, Kaitlyn Weaver; she wrote on twitter: “Love listening to the divine, wise Carolina Kostner speak. #FigureSkatingBuddha”.
That was the end. But let us tell you the beginning and the middle.
At 11:54, Carolina takes the ice for her short program; the last time she had done that in a major competition was at Worlds in Saitama, in 2014, a month after she had won the Olympic bronze in Sochi. Skating to “God of Thunder” by Kitaro and “Bonzo’s Montreux”, by Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, the Italian looks fully focused and immersed into the program; she doesn’t allow herself to smile and she’s exact, precise, more like a Swiss watch. And the comparison is actually appropriate if you consider this tiny, precious detail: this season’s SP had its core into an exhibition program, skated to live drums, at Art on Ice, in Switzerland, two years ago.
There are smiles behind the curtains though, in the mixed zone: you see her happy, relieved, while she talks in front of a TV camera. And then Mr. Mishin, her coach, comes to rescue the girl, to protect her – and, just like that, he takes Carolina from the long line of journalists waiting to get a quote, a glimpse, a smile. He had wandered around, Mr. Mishin, more like a lion in cage, while his student had pursued her obligations to televisions having broadcasting rights, and then there was that: silenzio stampa. Carolina wasn’t allowed to add anything more. “Less talking, more skating”, the coach will say categorically when questioned by a journalist. And Alexei Mishin’s resistance continued – even when approached by a Russian journalist in the press conference room. “What is there to say? The competition is not over”. The lady insists, and gets another short reply: “You know I love you, but I won’t say anything now”.
Looking in retrospect, Mr. Mishin’s lack of generosity to the press might have been, in fact, a proof of his generosity towards Carolina and her energy. In the 13th season of her Senior career, and coming after a long and, at times, painful break, she needed to put her heart into skating. No other energy-consuming activities fit the schedule.
…except for the press conferences, of course – a habit that no skater ranking in Top 3 at competition would be excused from. Lucky for us, I selfishly think. Because – and you might know that already – Carolina Kostner talks like she skates: a gliding poetry. Take this from this amazing artist of the ice: “I have started a journey not long ago – and it’s showing with each competition I do that it’s going into the right direction. And the joy that I felt skating today was much bigger than the feeling of being nervous or scared or whatever. So that gives me a lot of confidence”.
The journey and the gift
You’ll notice some words repeating in Carolina’s take after the short program: joy, journey, the right direction. And while joy is spontaneous, of course, all of them point to this new philosophy guiding Carolina Kostner after deciding to return to the competitive arena. Last year in April she’d already set her priorities straight, as shown by this extensive interview for Inside Skating: “It’s a much more personal journey, because I feel that, finally, I reached a place where I have the chance to work with the best in the world, a chance that you don’t have as a teenager. You have to work yourself up there, and now I see things with much more consciousness, awareness. And I truly cannot really think where I can fit in, but the thing I have always felt is that… It’s hard to explain, but since the first time I put my feet on the ice in the senior scene, let’s talk about Malmö, but it was a bit before, I thought I could bring something different to the skating world. And it’s less about the placement, it’s more about giving your gift to the world. For me, this whole journey has been, most of the times, of just give what I have”.
A leap in time, till Ostrava – and you’ll probably understand better now why Carolina Kostner chose to work with Alexei Mishin. She’ll be asked that on numerous occasions during Europeans – the training regimen in Russia; the rather protocolary handshake with her coach; the red, plushy heart handed to him in the Kiss and Cry – and she’ll choose to answer using metaphors: “What I’m looking for is to have life surprising me – and it usually surprises you when you least expect it. And if you keep yourself open, and ready to learn each day some little things, then, day by day, after a while, you realize how far you can go. And sometimes you can get to places, and emotions, and experiences that you will cherish your whole life – and I feel lucky that I can do this”.
Things you didn’t see on TV on the short program day. Anna Pogorilaya’s coach, Anna Tsareva, sitting back against the wall, not near the boards, while her student skates her tango. Eteri Tutberidze, who has three accreditations hanging from her bag. Maria Sotskova’s coach, who keeps a plushy cat in her hands, while her girl, a butterfly, is on the ice. Team Italy, who hurries in the stands to see the last group of ladies. Team Russia, who does the same – and I need to familiarize myself with the fact that Kirill Khaliavin wears Spain’s jacket now; he’s climbing the stairs alongside Dmitri Soloviev. The lady in the press conference room wearing a Carolina Kostner T-shirt – her Mozart long program from 2012. The other lady, wearing a T-shirt handwritten by Carolina – she shows it proudly: “She wrote me a message herself a long time ago”. Anna, Evgenia, Carolina’s smiles during the press conference – and Anna’s respect and admiration: “I appreciate Carolina coming back, because not many skaters can be at such a high level for a long time”.
Fan for a day
On the day of the free skate I leave the media tribune and head for the stands. No better time to be a fan – I’ll watch the event with a friend, and cheer, and yell, and scream, if it comes to that. And from my new seat, I can see that simple yet beautiful banner with a heart – while in the middle of the rink, during the 6-minute warm-up, a tall, slender lady, wearing Italy’s jacket, is spinning and twirling; a festival of spins preceding the last group.
At 21:48, the biggest joy of these Europeans had already happened: Carolina Kostner skated her Vivaldi long program, to the enthusiasm, awe, amazement of everyone watching. She’s back at Europeans, Carolina, and wins the bronze – and she’s also back in Ostrava, at a 14-year distance from her first ISU medal, also a bronze, at 2003 World Junior Figure Skating Championships. And no, these are not coincidences, she answers to a Russian journalist at the press conference. “I think it’s more hard work behind it, than coincidence”. And that particular medal in 2003 was “a start that showed me where I wanted to go and where I wished to be one day”.
One day in January 2017, she is getting ready to enter the ice, a lady in black dress, a chain of sparkles on her shoulders, in front of 10.000 people in Ostravar Arena. And while waiting for her turn, a flower wrapped in cellophane, meant for Evgenia Medvedeva, falls on her head. “It was not easy to skate after you, Evgenia”, she tells her, laughing, in the press conference. And not just because people are throwing toys and flowers, lots of them, but mainly because Evgenia skates flawlessly, like she always does, and the audience rewards her with great warmth. And to defend herself, Carolina seems to place her palms above her ears when Evgenia’s scores, 150.79 points, a new Word record, are announced. Or maybe that’s just an impression – and Carolina covers her ears involuntarily just to cover the noise, even when the noise is meant for her. I remember her in Nice, in 2012, the same defensive gesture, when the audience yelled and screamed and clamped, and Carolina Kostner entered the ice for her masterpiece of a free skate, to Mozart’s Concerto no. 23. Do you know this particular Concerto had a life of its own, even before it was sublimed to perfection by Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron?
Airy, fluid skate
But we’re here, in Ostravar Arena, and 4 minutes of beauty, warmth, emotions follow, almost like a religious experience: Carolina Kostner skates to Vivaldi, “Nisi Dominus (Cum dederit)”, and later on, during the press conference, she’ll explain her choice. “First of all, Antonio Vivaldi is from Italy and one of my most favorite composers, because his music has been written such a long time ago and still feels so actual. And there is a long story behind it: he has written this piece for an orphanage of girls, and just reading about it, I thought it was very inspiring. And the piece is very beautiful and I fell in love with it right away. And since this was my first time to be able to use lyrics in competition, the decision was not difficult to take”. A bit of additional research also shows that Vivaldi’s “Nisi Dominus” dates early in the composer’s career, a long and ambitious piece with nine movements, out of which Lori Nichol and Carolina Kostner chose the 4th one, “Cum dederit”, “written in the slow siciliana style, with chromatically ascending lines that Vivaldi often used to convey the idea of rest and sleep”.
Of course, all of us in the audience don’t know that yet – what we know is there is something about this piece, this airy, fluid piece, that touches the heart. And at the end of it, when Carolina leaves her arms floating in the air, her back perfectly arched in a ballerina extension, we’re jumping on our feet, as if a very tensioned spring had kept us on the chairs for all 4 minutes, and now we’re all free and flying. It’s an almost tangible sense of freedom in the arena – and there’s Carolina in the middle of the rink, opening her wings to embrace the world again, and let herself embraced by it. There’s no giving back in her gesture – her attitude towards skating is all here, in this beautiful extension, a metaphor of her comeback.
More photos from 2017 Europeans