Sara Hurtado and Kirill Khaliavin: “At this point we just keep building in us”

1 Sara Hurtado Kirill Khaliavin practice FD 2017 Europeans

Meet Spain’s newest ice dance couple: Sara Hurtado and Kirill Khaliavin. Winning National Championships in December, they travelled to their first Europeans as a team, in Ostrava – and this is them sharing their story with our readers.
Less an interview, and more a candid, detailed talk about beginnings, the interaction between Sara and Kirill will show them exactly as they are: she, the fire, the enthusiasm, and he – the equilibrium, the balance; a team of contrasts, more like their red-black short dance to „Sweet Dreams”. But in the months they’ve been skating together – from April last year until now – they started borrowing things from each other, so Sara looks more confident and calm, while Kirill seems to smile more often. One thing is sure: apart from being such a positive influence to one another, they’re also a team of undeniable talent, one that brings excitement, innovations to the world stage; and this season is only chapter one of Hurtado/Khaliavin. One that comes with great signs for the future: Sara mentioned a while ago that the initials of their names in Russian, УX (Уртадо/Халявин), meant, simply, „Wow!”.

by Florentina Tone/Ostrava

I’m meeting Sara and Kirill on their day off at the Europeans, in between the short dance and the free, at the end of a morning practice session; they’re sitting in 13th place after SD, and look with joy, emotion at the road ahead them. Because this season is all about beginnings, holding hands, creating habits and routines – it’s about them becoming a team. And their free dance to peculiar music might just be the epitome of their journey so far: „We tried a few things and we were like: Ok, what do we wanna bring? And we wanted to have something that we could be free, and create ourselves. Free to experiment, and see how we felt the moves in between us, free to think what is beautiful or not. And this music gave us the chance to do that”.

We’re in the press room of Ostravar Arena, with a huge TV screen ahead of us – and our conversation only starts after Javier Raya has ended his short program; the men’s event is under way at Europeans. And so they talk, for a minute or so, about the Axel and the toe pick, the entrance in the Lutz, different techniques from different schools – a constant negotiation, exactly as the first weeks of their partnership had been. But they do speak the same language now, Sara and Kirill, the universal language of ice dancing – and they more and more do so as they are keep progressing and adding months and weeks under their belt. As for these Europeans – Sara’s 6th, Kirill’s 2nd, and their first one as a team, they look at it as if it were a cake: “This is kinda of our recompense of our work so far”.

And for the day ahead oh them, “we’ll go and see the men”. “He’ll cheer for Javi”, Sara smiles, pointing to Kirill. And she’ll add quickly, with a laugh: “But also for the Russians, we will cheer for everyone”. There’s this good energy arising from their interaction – you’ll notice it yourselves along the lines; and one that clearly translates on to the ice. Because Hurtado & Khaliavin is a beautifully matched pair, with spark, potential, elegance – and this was obvious even from their try-out, last March. As “awkward” as it was: “We had only been skating with our previous partners – it was the first try-out for both of us”. The rest… well, they’ll tell you the rest.

Sara and Kirill in Ostrava, during the draw for the free skate

Sara and Kirill in Ostrava, during the draw for the free skate

Florentina Tone: “I’m not done with skating” – that’s what you said, Sara, in our previous talk, in December 2015, during the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona. A year and a month later, you’re surely not done with skating: you’re entering the ice at Europeans alongside Kirill Khaliavin. Did this scenario seem plausible a year ago?

Sara Hurtado: No, I think I was hoping that it would happen – something inside me had that hope: Please, Universe, give me another chance, but I never expected actually being true. And, also, not only being back skating, but being back skating at Europeans, which is even a longer journey.

I also remember a joke you made a year ago: you said you wanted “a tall, dark haired guy, muscleeees”… Does Kirill fit the description?

[I laugh, she laughs, while Kirill looks a bit confused: “What?”. Sara explains him]: Yeah, she asked me last year: If you asked for a partner, how would you describe it? And I was like: Well, I want a partner that is tall, and he has dark hair, and… [laughing heartily]

Leaving jokes aside, I know you might have mentioned here and there, more for the Spanish&Russian press, but how did the story of Hurtado/Khaliavin start? Who approached who?

Kirill Khaliavin: It was around New Year, before New Year [December 2015]. Because Ksusha was injured [Ksenia Monko, Kirill’s former partner, and his longtime life partner] and we were thinking about the future, about everything… Because even if she would have been good after the injury, in our country it was really hard to be in the National team, because… because of many factors. And… how to say it nicely? [he smiles – a restrained smile]

[Sara is giving him a helping, diplomatic hand]: It’s hard, just say it’s really hard.

Kirill: Yeah. And she had to choose, Ksusha: will she start something new, or will we do this again? But, at the same time, the most important thing was her health. And to risk it for a goal which was not even clear… It was complicated. And then she said: Maybe I’m gonna finish, because we skated for a long time… We talked to the specialists, the coaches, and they said: Ksusha, you’re only 23, it’s just the beginning of your career. But, I don’t know, we had been skating together since we were 8 maybe…

And you talked and kinda of decided what you would do…

Kirill: Yes, and she was like: I think you should try to find another partner if you want to continue. And we thought about it, and she said: Sara and Adri, I hear that they’re not skating anymore.

So Ksenia suggested it?

Kirill: Yeah, this was her idea, actually. But we thought about it at the same time… Our coaches had heard about this too, but they hoped that Ksusha will continue. And we didn’t say anything to the Federation, because first we needed to figure it out if we would continue to skate. And then we decided to try with Sara.

Sara: I got a message, he wrote me – because we were already facebook friends. And he asked first if I was still looking for a partner.

Joking here: if you were still on the market…

Sara [laughing]: Yeah. And I was. Because I hadn’t done any other try-outs before that. And we started to just talking, you know, to see where we were: If you come back, what would you like to do, if I was willing to move again… You know, all those things that you needed to know in order to decide. And it was all kind of natural.

Coming from different directions and approaching one another – this might very well be a metaphor of their encounter

Coming from different directions and approaching one another – this might very well be a metaphor of their encounter

When did the try-out take place?

Sara: The try-out was in March, something like that. I flew to Moscow for like four days. But it took us a while to… I had to get the visa and, obviously, I needed the help of the Federation to do this trip, I needed them to be Ok with it, I needed to know whether they were going to support this or not.

And how was it, the try-out? Of course, you were not speaking the same language and all…

Sara [a quick answer, and a laugh]: Awkward.

Kirill [on a serious note]: It was weird, but we were not looking for the best skate. The coaches said that we were looking good together and…

Sara: It was just the first contact, to see if the energies were matching, more than the skating and the technical things. Of course, I was like for a year not competing… Yes, I was skating a bit at home, but not that much, and without a coach – and when I got there, I could start feeling the new techniques, the new rhythms, and all that. But it was exciting. It was awkward too, because we had only been skating with our previous partners, it was the first try-out for both of us. [smiling] But I knew as soon as we were holding hands if it’s gonna feel good or not. You feel it in the moment. It should not be forced, it has to come right away – and it felt good, even though, as you say, we didn’t speak the same language.

And what have you said to each other on the first day? Hi and Hi?

Sara: Yeah, sort of [laughing]. Of course, we knew each other from the juniors, but this was like: Ok, let’s skate together now. Let’s just try to push forward at the same time.

4 Sara Hurtado Kirill Khaliavin FD 2017 Europeans Ostrava

So that was in March, last March, and afterwards you returned to Madrid and…?

Sara: I returned and, well, we were both giving our feed-backs to the federations, and they started talking to the coaches, to see their point of view, if they could see a future in us or not. And then it all started moving towards getting Kirill’s release.

So this was right from the start, the decision to try to represent Spain?

Sara: We talked about it even before doing the try-out. Like: If things go well, will we represent Spain? I felt like I really, really wanted to represent Spain. So from the beginning we thought that was the best option for both of us.

Kirill: …and, actually, I am not distancing from the Russian culture and everything. We’re practicing in Moscow. I am not separated from this.

But I need to get used to seeing you, Kirill, wearing Spain’s jacket: I saw you climbing the stairs in Ostravar Arena yesterday, alongside Dmitri Soloviev, and it took me a couple of seconds to make the connection…

Kirill [smiling]: Yeah.

Sara: But the jacket is very nice, it’s refreshing, right? New team… and he’s learning all the Spanish traditions [smiling].

Kirill: I am trying to learn a couple of words now. [to Sara] And you do have a lot of traditions…

Sara: We do, we do. He saw a couple of them, because we spent the Christmas at home, with my family, after Nationals.

Returning to the story, you had the try-out in March… and came back to Moscow when?

Sara [she looks at him for confirmation]: End of April maybe? It was a long way, it was a really long way. We wanted to start right away, of course, but it didn’t only depend on us. There were decisions that we couldn’t control, or make faster.

Kirill: It’s because we didn’t have my release. And it was that question: Will our federation give me the release or not?

Correct. You are, after all, Junior World champion and two-time Junior Grand Prix Final champion with Ksenia Monko…

Kirill: We did it from the second try, because on our first try, they delayed the decision.

So your release only came in…?

Kirill: In September, after the Russian National camp.

They had a meeting, all the Federation needed to be together to approve this request.

Kirill: And everybody should say Yes, it had to be unanimity. And, all this time, until the Summer Camp, we skated without release.

…and was it a bit nerve-wrecking, as I suppose it was?

Sara: A bit…

Kirill: Well, a lot of people worked on this project, and we weren’t sure what was going to happen, cause you never know till it’s done. So it was a bit like… not abnormal, but a bit weird to train…

Sara: …without being certain.

Kirill: …without being a couple officially. All this time it was like a whole try-out.

Sara: And I couldn’t say I was in Moscow…

Yes, this was a very well kept secret.

Sara: People close to us knew, and everyone in the Federation and in the Olympic Committee, they were aware of it, but, of course, we couldn’t make any public announcements. Because it could have affected the decision.

Kirill, were you relieved when the release finally came? Did you start breathing normally?

Kirill: Yeah, of course.

Sara: We all were. Coaches too.

There is this huge sense of relief, joy in this hold – one that has you thinking Sara and Kirill’s free dance this season is actually a portrayal of their journey so far

There is this huge sense of relief, joy in this hold – one that has you thinking Sara and Kirill’s free dance this season is actually a portrayal of their journey so far

So, is it correct to say this was the most difficult time of your first months together? Other than the cultural differences, of course…

Sara: Definitely. It hasn’t been easy. But we knew from the start it’s not going to be easy. It was clear for us. Because we were starting from zero, and not only for the release, also for us as a couple. But it is super exciting, I like it.

Kirill [approving and adding]: I don’t know, I’m just taking the enjoyment from this. And now it’s not a lot of pressure…

Sara: Bueno… [a Spanish word and a smile, at the idea there’s not so much pressure]

Kirill [notices her reaction and adds]: But it’s less. Now we can do what we want…

Sara: Yes, we have our own expectations.

Kirill: And all we want now is just show how much we improved from the beginning – that’s the thought that is sitting in my head right now, not the thought that we should fight for… [”Top 3”, I’m adding] Yeah, it’s more about skating right now – it’s much easier when you’re not over concentrated on the competition. And I’m not talking about like the Spanish ice dance is weaker, it’s actually good – I’m talking about how it starts from the beginning. Like when it’s not a lot of pressure on you, and you can try to do all your best, and in this short period of time people can see how the couple is growing. And this is good, and this is really exciting, to do all of this.

6 Sara Hurtado Kirill Khaliavin practice FD 2017 Europeans

7 Sara Hurtado Kirill Khaliavin practice FD 2017 Europeans

What about the coaching team – was it a sure thing right from the very start: Moscow, Alexander Zhulin?

Kirill: Yes.

There weren’t any other thoughts, like you, Sara, wanting to go back to Montreal…

Sara: Not really. Because I was looking also for a fresh start. And I think it did a lot of good to have different eyes into skating, from another school, another point of view – and, of course, to start I think it was the best place to be. And also they believed in me. So from the very beginning, the moment we did the try-out, I could see they saw something in me – and I really appreciate that, and I felt grateful, and powerful in a way, to grow with them. And see how they could see me as a skater, and how they would make us improve.

And your first months in Moscow, how were they?

Sara: Oh, my God! Every day was an adventure! Like: Let’s see what I’m gonna do today! You know, just going on the metro was an adventure. But I was really lucky that my roommate is Tiffany Zahorski, so she was my guide everywhere: “Ok, here they speak English”, “Here they don’t”… and telling me a few phrases, and all that. And actually there is a big Hispanic community in Moscow. So it was fun.

And you became Sarichka…

Sara: I am Sarichka now, yes. [laughing heartily]

The new life of Sara Hurtado – photo taken in Ostrava, at the end of the short dance, hence the earrings

The new life of Sara Hurtado – photo taken in Ostrava, at the end of the short dance, hence the earrings

Sara, Kirill, tell me a bit about your programs this season – they are, of course, your very first programs as a team. The music for the short dance is really addictive – “Sweet Dreams” and “Douce Lumière” by Térez Montcalm, who came up with that?

[Kirill smiles and looks at Sara]

Sara: Yeah. I listened to this version of “Sweet Dreams”, I don’t know what I was looking for in particular, but…

[To Kirill] She always does that, listens to music and finds this or that…

Sara [laughing]: Yeah, he knows, I just come and say: “I found this reaaaally good piece…” [and then, on a more serious note] I had a few ideas, and we were playing them on the ice and trying, because some musics are really good in your ear, but then you try it on the ice, and with your body, and it doesn’t feel that good. So we tried a few and we really liked this version of the blues and the other one. They just felt natural, with the same singer – they had like a link, they don’t seem they had been cut or something…

And the whole thing was choreographed by…?

Sara: By our team.

And the choice of music for the free dance? It’s also unusual… [“Two Men in Love” by The Irrepressibles]

Sara: I found this one in a movie.

So it was again you…

Sara: Yeah [laughing]

Kirill [smiling warmly]: She had a lot of ideas. She brings a lot of ideas to the ice rink, with the costumes, with the music, with everything.

So she brought a lot of enthusiasm with her, when coming to Moscow…

Kirill: Yes, absolutely!

Sara: Because we tried a few things and we were like: Ok, what do we wanna bring? And we thought: Let’s not make something very restrictive, like a tango, let’s say. Everyone knows how a tango is supposed to be, or look – from the stories, from the movies, and this is very closed. And we wanted to have something that we could be free, and create ourselves. Free to experiment, and see how we felt the moves in between us, free to think what is beautiful or not. And this music gave us the chance to do that. So it was a lot of experimentation.

9 Sara Hurtado Kirill Khaliavin practice FD 2017 Europeans

10 Sara Hurtado Kirill Khaliavin practice FD 2017 Europeans

11 Sara Hurtado Kirill Khaliavin practice FD 2017 Europeans

12 Sara Hurtado Kirill Khaliavin practice FD 2017 Europeans

13 Sara Hurtado Kirill Khaliavin practice FD 2017 Europeans

Tell me a bit about your first competition…

[They smile while looking at each other]

…because by the time you got your release and start preparing for competition, the Spanish Federation also made public the set of rules to get to the Europeans and Worlds – winners of Nationals for Europeans, and higher TES in the short dance for Worlds. And you started a bit late: this first competition of yours was in December…

Sara: Yes, we couldn’t compete before because Kirill did Cup of Russia the year before. So we had to wait one year.

Were you nervous entering Santa Claus Cup in Budapest?

Sara: Yeah, of course we were nervous, I was nervous. [To Kirill] Were you?

Kirill: Not much, but it was a bit… how to say it? The competition was really weird… I don’t know how to say it nicely.

But was this your only option?

Sara: It was either that or Golden Spin, and Golden Spin was very close to Nationals, so we thought: Ok, let’s do this one. But the organization wasn’t very smooth.

[Kirill is smiling]

Sara: But it happens, it happens – and when you are a solid team, you don’t mind having weird schedules or not having the practice before the competition, things like that. If you are a solid team, you can overcome this.

Kirill: For example, now we can go and do it… Because the next competition was Spanish Nationals, and at Nationals we also didn’t do the practice on the competition day.

Sara: It was a day before, like in Budapest.

Kirill: So our first competition was in Budapest, with the same schedule, and it was weird…

Sara: … without the experience.

Kirill: Like you go on to the ice [during the 6-minute warm-up], and every couple starts to go like this… [a mad run, he suggests]

Sara: …and we were a lot of teams on the ice at the same time.

Kirill: …and the ice rink is smaller, and you need to calm down and do a run. But everything starts to go not as you planned from the first step…

Sara: …and even in between us we were very [clumsy].

Kirill: You should just concentrate on the run – but you cannot relax, as you usually relax in the practices when you do the run. [In Budapest] you needed to be always focused – and when you haven’t competed for a long time, and now you’re competing with a new partner, it’s a bit weird. And after that, we went straight to Nationals. And it was fine – Santa Claus in Budapest was actually a good warm-up before the Nationals.

Sara: We just needed to get this first one out of the system. To see: Ok, this is how we did it… and have like a base to compare with. Because we didn’t know what worked and what didn’t. What works best in the warm-up, how can we feel each other best – you know, those little routines that you end up having with your partner, that we needed to make, to create, to see, just to experience them, and then have them for the future. So that was Budapest, it was like: Let’s see.

14 Sara Hurtado Kirill Khaliavin practice FD 2017 Europeans

Yes, let’s say you needed Budapest. But was there any external pressure in all this, knowing that there are now three Spanish teams fighting for that sole spot to Europeans and Worlds?

Kirill: No, because we saw on the practice that we can do great, so we just needed to do it on the competition, that’s it.

Sara: We trust our work and we just focus on what we can control. Which is us, and what we do on the ice. It’s great actually that now we have a competition inside the country, so we just have to acknowledge that: Ok, this is here, but what can we do about it? Let’s be ready for it, and that’s what we did. Trying to separate us from the external talk and conversation, and focus on what we had to do.

If you can separate yourselves from that is great, actually.

Kirill: More or less, yes.

Kirill, I remember your interview with Ksenia on Inside Skating, done by my colleagues in Belarus a while ago, in October 2015; they asked you then if you followed social media, forums, and you said No, not so much.

Kirill: Well, I do have twitter, but my twitter is actually made of news from worldwide, funny pictures with cats and everything [laughing], no figure skating. And if somebody wants to leave a feed-back or something like that, he can leave it, of course – I will see it in my stories and I will read it. But I’m not following the forums, because that’s kind of my philosophy: people cannot show me what to do. Even if they say it would be good, I should not follow what people are talking about – it’s not me, it’s not who I am. If people want to show support, that is really good, it’s a healthy thing. It’s not a healthy thing when people start to give you ideas for a short dance or a free dance…

With Nationals giving you the confirmation you would be at the Europeans, how did you approach this competition in Ostrava? Your first European together – after a one-year break: in 2015, you were in the continental competition with your previous partners.

Sara [to Kirill]: In Sweden? That was the same?

Kirill: Yeah. I felt good coming here, actually. Maybe it’s better than our previous competitions. And even if this is a much bigger competition than our previous ones, here I feel much better.

Sara: We start to feel more and more confident on the ice, more like a team. And this is kinda of our recompense of our work so far, of what we accomplished so far. We earned this, so we are just enjoying the experience of having a first Europeans again. I feel like I’m new in here again, so it’s just experiencing it in a different way.

Did you set up something for yourselves coming here?

Sara: Actually, we don’t think about the place. At this point we just keep building in us.

As higher as we will be, the better for us and for the federations and for the coaches. But our priority is to show strong skating. [Sara and Kirill ended the Europeans on the 13th place – n. ed.]

And are you satisfied with your short dance yesterday?

Kirill: Yeah, we are really satisfied.

Sara: We felt good on the ice.

A glimpse of their short dance in Ostrava, at 2017 Europeans

The end of their first Europeans: a bouquet of emotions

The end of their first Europeans: a bouquet of emotions

What about the next step? The World spot is still…

Sara: Is still open. It will be decided after Oberstdorf [to Kirill], because Olivia and Adri are doing Oberstdorf [Bavarian Open in Oberstdorf].

Now your higher technical score in the short dance is from…

Sara: Torun [Mentor Torun Cup in Poland]. So, of course, we hope to go and finish strong at Worlds. Because this first part of our season, it was like to test things and see what we feel better or worse – and from now to Worlds we will have like the same amount of time to work on things and fix them. So I think we can actually improve a lot more from here to Worlds because we have this experience of the last four competitions.

It might be so very early to talk about that – but I’m going to ask it either way: are the Olympics somewhere in the back of your mind?

Sara: That is always a goal.

Kirill [going for a rational, analytical approach]: Look: to be at the Olympics, we need to qualify for the Olympics, to qualify for the Olympics, we need to go to the Worlds, and we still don’t know if we are going or not. So… I don’t know.

Sara: Of course, we would love to go and fight for the Olympic spot. But we just take it one week after another. That’s all we can do.

Hand in hand, facing the unknown, embracing the journey

Hand in hand, facing the unknown, embracing the journey

Inside Skating: opining on the Worlds spot’s allocation.
A month after Europeans, on February 28, the Spanish Ice Sports Federation (FEDH) nominated Olivia Smart and Adrián Díaz as Spain’s representatives in the ice dancing event at 2017 Worlds in Helsinki. It was a decision rather controversial, followed by a chain of comments – a decision which gave the impression the federation wasn’t really ready to handle the reality of having two new ice dance teams with lots of potential.

A short recap might prove useful: if the team winning Nationals was going to make the trip to Europeans (and Sara Hurtado and Kirill Khaliavin went to Ostrava as Spain’s national champions), the spot to 2017 Worlds was to be allocated to the team with the highest technical score for the short dance in an international competition during 2016/2017 season; FEDH set the criteria at the end of last August.

With Sara and Kirill earning 35.70 TES at Mentor Torun Cup, and Olivia and Adrián 35.60 TES at Bavarian Open, the decision seemed obvious, in spite of such a small difference. From time to time, minor differences in the dancers’ scores decide between the gold and the silver, the silver and the bronze. The most prominent example is the 2014 Worlds in Saitama, when Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte won the gold medal, finishing 0.02 of a point ahead of the silver medalists Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje and 0.06 ahead of Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat, who won the bronze. The most recent example happened this January, in Ostrava: a 0.08 difference in the overall score placed Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte 2nd, ahead of Russia’s Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev.

But after a thorough consideration – which included consulting with ISU members, and analyzing the situation within the Technical Committee of FEDH – the Spanish Federation called the 0.10 difference a “technical tie”, and went for the subsequent tiebreaker (TES in the free dance; overall scores in the short and free dance were also looked at), with Olivia and Adrián superior to Sara and Kirill. Hence, the first ones were chosen to be Spain’s representative at the pre-Olympic Worlds in Helsinki.

And if no one can deny that, according to their recent results at Bavarian Open, Olivia and Adrián might be actually readier at the moment to fight in Helsinki for a Spanish spot in the Olympic dance event next year in Pyeongchang, the way the Spanish Federation handled the allocation of the Worlds spot this season was rather unfortunate. And a sign it was completely taken by surprise with the quality of both ice dance teams, with their commendable progress in such a short period of time.

If the result at Nationals was to be used only as an indicator for the Europeans spot, the federation should have decided, right from the beginning of the season, to send all Spanish ice dance teams to the same international event, to eventually decide the spot for Worlds. It didn’t – and put itself into the unfortunate situation of choosing between two teams with undeniable potential, without having the same reference.

More than that: though it offered a detailed account of why a 0.10 difference in the technical score for SD needs to be considered a “technical tie”, it left the overall impression it could change the rules along the way – creating frustrations instead encouragement. And this is, of course, a lesson for the future: a clearer, detailed, unchangeable set of rules needs to be put in place for next season. Especially when a potential Olympic spot will ask for an even more difficult decision.