Brian Orser is a true skating legend – a two-time Olympic medalist himself, and a coach to several Olympic, World and European champions and medalists. With the one in PyeongChang, he has been to eight Olympic Games, as an athlete, coach, journalist, mere spectator – and not only witnessed the progress and development of skating over the years, but he was directly involved in it on so many stages, layers.
He knows the sport through and through – the same as he knows his students. He feels them wholeheartedly, and he’s able to bring out that feeling in others. “I’m like their father”, he says when talking about Yuzuru Hanyu and Javier Fernández, his most prominent skaters today – but let’s not forget he also guided Yuna Kim, the South Korean superstar, to winning gold in Vancouver, in 2010.
And so how does he do that, what’s the secret to great coaching?
by Nadia Vasilyeva/Moscow
Read it all in our in-depth interview with Brian, where we discuss many crucial topics: how to work with skaters from so many different cultures, how to combine technical advance with beauty, elegance of skating, how to get power and speed “for free”, what to do if a skater is having a bad day, what to say when Olympics are approaching, and you have a first-hand knowledge of the entire experience, pressure and uncertainties included.
We talked to Brian during Europeans, before the hustle, the excitement of the Games have started – and our long and detailed conversation will prove a wonderful read during the Olympics, we are sure. So many things to take from here – whether you are a skater (not necessarily his), a coach, a parent.
Not to mention that for any figure skating passionate, this interview is really a gold mine, offering beautiful insights into the “factory” of champions in Toronto and, most importantly, into the work philosophy of one of greatest coaches out there.
Nadia Vasilyeva: I’ll start with that: have you ever counted how many Olympic Games you took part in, both as a competitor and coach?
Brian Orser: Oh, coach – this will be tree, competitor – two, so it’s total five. But then one year, in 1994, I’ve been a television commentator, that was in Lillehammer. And then in Albertville I was a journalist for a magazine. And then in 1980, in Lake Placid, I went as a spectator: I went with my father and we watched.
So you witnessed the whole progress of skating so closely – and the level of competition that we see now at the Olympics is so different from the days when you were competing. Doesn’t it seem crazy to you sometimes? Like, you were the first one to land a triple Axel at the Olympics, but now it’s like a basic thing for everyone.
It’s a basic thing for juniors now, yeah! But you have to remember that was 35 years ago. So I would hope that skating would evolve in 35 years.
And, you know, in practice I would do quad Toeloops, but it was different in competitive skating. You couldn’t take a big risk. So even though I was landing some quad Toeloops, but to go out there and take that risk, and if I fell – basically it’s over. The Olympic champions did not fall then. You had to have a clean program, and it was safe, and it was beautiful, and it was choreographed. But now we have a point system, so you could take that risk. You could fall and still get some points for that element.
So that’s where it’s a little bit different. Before that, it was just discretion of a judge to put up a technical mark. They see somebody fall – that’s not very good technically. So it was harder to take big risks then.
So what you’re saying is, this new system is encouraging skaters to take more risks?
It is, I think it is, as far as development of the sport – sure.
And there’s not so much consequence to taking the risk and falling – you can still get a good placement. But now, with so many different quads, so many quads in one program – there is more than one fall. You’re seeing two falls, three falls. And that’s where with the second mark, the components, that’s where you take a big hit. And you should! [laughs] You can’t be a champion and fall three times, I’m sorry, but you can’t.
Well, things like that happened sometimes…
Yeah, but in my opinion anyway it should be clean and it should be beautiful.
When you were skating that was definitely true, and even 4-8 years ago it was still true, but now these lines are so blurred…
Well, we’re at a point where suddenly sport’s evolved, it’s evolving, and you do have a handful of skaters who can do multiple quads. I’m all for moving the sport forward, I encourage that, I think it’s great. But I’m also all for beautiful skating, skating skills, effortless skating, transitions, choreography that makes sense, a blade that runs across the ice beautifully.
I don’t know if people are working on that as much, but in our camp – we focus mostly on that. Where the power comes from, how you get power, how you use your bodyweight and balance to get your blade to accelerate.
A lot of it is physics. People envision power by just pushing really hard. But you don’t have to. You have to use your knees, your ankles, your weight, where you put your weight – so that the blade would accelerate, and how you use the curve to help that. It’s all these ways to get speed for free, you know.
And once they get it – because it takes a lot of time, it takes months and months and months and months… And, all of a sudden, you see the light go off with the skater, when they just start to feel it. And it’s the greatest feeling in the world.
Now you have to be able to make it a part of everyday routine of skating. You have to be able to incorporate that into your choreography. So you can pick one little 10-second piece of choreography, and tell that they feel that, when they put their weight over the blade, and bend their knees, and their ankles, and allow the blade to start to move. And then you start to put a little bit of power into it. Into a ‘rocker’, or whatever, into a move that’s a part of the choreography. And then they get that too, and that takes years.
Can you say that your students, Javi and Yuzuru, have that light now?
Oh, totally. Well, that was really fun, because I have to say that Javi is like our poster child for what we believe in skating. I say we, I mean Tracy Wilson and myself.
And when we started with him – he’s a super talent, but his skating skills were not great. He could do jumps, but if you watched him on a practice session, he was tripping all over the place. He’d be falling in footwork, he’d be falling on crossovers. Not on purpose, but he just didn’t have a sense of organization of skating.
Now he does, and it’s really quite nice to watch.
And Yuzu – the same. He came fiery of speed and passion, right? And then every once in a while he would go sliding across the ice, ’cause he would just lose control. Now he’s in perfect control. He has the same fierce, he has the same speed – but it’s all with control. Patrick Chan has it [also].
So it’s like you balanced them both?
Yeah. And we do all this at the same time as working on jumps. Even how you get into a jump. I see them coming down the ice to set up a quad Toe, and I’m like – no. Stop, stop. We need to go back to the beginning, we need to do proper crossovers. You have to do a step forward that’s functioning, and you’re gonna get into the jump with the same energy as you had at the beginning. You know, and that’s the whole idea, to be able to manage the energy so that they’re not exhausted after the first two jumping passes.
“WE HAVE TO ADAPT TO THEIR CULTURES”
They both come from such different cultures, coaching schools, they have very different styles. Do you have different approaches, strategies when it comes to their training?
These two skaters, Javi and Yuzu, are complete opposites of the cultural spectrum.
And I think that’s important to the coaches – we have to adapt to their cultures. In our club we have so many, we have Chinese-American, we have Vietnamese, we have Japanese, Spanish, Russian, Kazakhstani, Canadian… Of course we have to find some kind of middle ground, but we have to be sensitive to their cultures. We have to research a little bit about their upbringing.
With Javi, when he arrived, he had been living away from home for a few years. He has been sort of bouncing around from New Jersey, to Italy, to Russia, never really accomplishing much of a routine. And, basically, when he arrived, it was first of all get him settled. I knew that he had some life skills, so he could live on his own. He could do his own cooking, cleaning, laundry. He could, for the most time, get himself on time for the rink. And he’s quite social, so we had a little bit of a handle on that.
And then, at the other end of the scale – Yuzuru, who is younger, who lives with his mother, he’s in university online, he’s extremely private. And I would guess his mother probably does a lot of stuff for him – that’s just me guessing. But when it comes to the rink – work is work, you know. We have to work within their cultures, within how they are.
And some people we have to scale back. For instance, when I was with Yuna [Kim], the Korean skaters were all about more-more-more. And we were about less-less-less. And trying to eventually kind of buy into her program what was a little less time on the ice but better quality on the ice, to be more productive. So when we’re on the ice, or off-ice training, there’s shorter time, but it’s more intense, and it’s 100% effort, and then they can go home.
“IT’S UP TO US COACHES TO CREATE THE ENVIRONMENT THAT HAS ENERGY”
Yesterday, when we first talked, you told me about the atmosphere that you create for your students, and that you can feel their energy so well, like you can even tell if Yuzuru had breakfast or not…
I know Yuzuru is usually pretty well nourished when he comes to the rink, it’s Javi with whom I can usually just tell if he hasn’t. So I always have something in my office, whether it’s a power bar or a protein shake. And I’ll just say – “Here, have this. You can be 10 or 15 minutes late for the session. You just need to get something in your body, so you have fuel and you can train”. He appreciates that. But I can just tell by reading their energy. As soon as they walk past my door, I can just tell.
[And] there are some days when I just want them to stay there, at that low energy – we can still be productive, even at that level. Sometime, one day, Yuzu might be at a very high level of energy, and we’re gonna take advantage of that, we’re gonna push harder, we’ll do the run-through, we’ll do sections, we’ll practice at a very high level. And then there are some days when they’re both at a high level. And there are days when Javi comes at a very low level, and I’ll try to build him up a little bit, to get him onto higher level.
Every athlete is different. I read a lot from other coaches, and not just figure skating, and that’s the one thing from some of the best coaches in the world – they talk about energy. And it’s up to us to create the environment that has energy, and not just sort of sauntering onto the ice, and looking at the clock, and “what do we do today”, and bla-bla-bla, you know. We have our agenda, we have it on paper, we get our job done.
And apparently at the Grand Prix in China Javi was in one of his low-energy moods? [he finished 2017 Cup of China on the 6th place]
Yes, and I was in Canada, so there wasn’t much I could do. I sent a few messages, talked to the coach, and to Javi, but it’s not the same. I know how to get him out of that funk. Sometimes he gets into positions when it’s almost like he’s a bit bored. He can’t get enthused about the event. And I can help with that, whether I get angry with him, or I talk to him about the importance, or I talk about how good he is, whatever it is, I need to do something to sort of shake him up a bit.
Does it happen because maybe he doesn’t feel enough challenge at some competitions?
No, I think he feels the challenge, I don’t think he’s that confident. But it’s just his arousal level. So it’s not even just energy, it’s his arousal. Sometimes you need to push a few buttons to get him to that level. And it could be at the last moment.
And eventually him not qualifying for the Grand Prix Final has been kind of good for him?
Well, it’s a silver lining. And Tracy and I said at the beginning of the season that something had to give. Say, Javi was to go as planned, and he was gonna win both of his Grand Prix, and he makes it to the Final. Alright, then he has to do his Nationals. So it would have been like: finish in France – come back to Toronto. Go to Japan – come back to Toronto. Go to Spain – come back to Toronto. Go to Moscow – go back to Toronto. Go to Korea.
It’s exhausting just saying it. So Tracy and I said at the beginning of the season – something has to give. So whether it’s the Final, whether it’s Europeans, or whether it’s his Nationals.
So we always sort of said, me and Tracy, secretly, that if he would make it to the Final – which we all thought he would – we were gonna pull him out of the Final. Because it was just too much. And I knew that it was important for his Federation for him to do his Nationals, so we had to keep that option. And then, of course, the Europeans is huge and it’s important to Javi, so we had to keep Europeans. So it was a silver lining actually that he didn’t make it.
He wasn’t that disappointed that he didn’t make it, he was disappointed that he didn’t skate well. But not making it to the Final… We weren’t looking at the numbers and trying to figure out a way, like – if Jason Brown gets this place, and then Adam Rippon did this… You know, so that he could get this 6th spot. We just said, let it play out the way it played out, he didn’t make it – no big deal.
LESSONS OF SOCHI
Four years ago Javier lost his chance of medaling at the Olympics because of his miscalculation. Is he readier now to adjust to that kind of situations?
He’s taking on that responsibility. It’s hard for me and any of our coaches to prepare all our athletes for these sort of “what if” situations. To have a plan A, and plan B, and plan C. It’s a whole other thing for me, because when I skated, we just had plan A. And I didn’t have to make up other jumps, and to think “oh gosh, I did a double instead of a triple, now I can’t do a double there…”. We didn’t have that situation.
Now they do, and I have a hard time as a coach even now saying to Javi: “if you miss the first quad Salchow and it turns into a triple, then you have to do this later”. So, all of a sudden, you’re speaking kind of in a negative way. I have a hard time with that.
So what I do when we’re training programs – you’re gonna train your program, you’re gonna go from beginning to end. If you make a mistake, you get up, you keep going. And then, after they’ve done their program, I’ll say: “Javi, you missed your quad Salchow, so you don’t have quad Sal-triple Toe. But you could have done it on a triple Axel. You could have done triple Axel-triple Toe”. Just make that up, you can make up those points and that particular jump.
I do that at home, so that this scenario… What happened in Sochi was a scenario that never ever happened before. I mean, maybe it was actually our mistake that in the program we had too many Salchows. But he never made that mistake, he never popped a quad into a triple. I could see his wheels were turning, my wheels were turning, and he’s performing…
You know, now you look back at it, and you think of all these ways that maybe I could have got a message to him, ’cause he did his footwork right up to the boards. I could have said: “Do a triple Toeloop at the end!”. Or whatever, you know.
Is it actually possible to say something, so he would hear while skating?
He was this close to me [gestures at the distance between us sitting, which is less than a meter apart]. I’m not sure if it’s legal or not [smiles].
Right, because you don’t usually do that?
I’ve never ever done this before!
But in that case, if he didn’t know when I knew – I knew that he was gonna come around to do a triple Salchow at the end of the program, and if I would figure that out… But I was trying to watch the program, so… – I would have [said something]. If I actually knew for sure that he could not do another triple Salchow [laughs]. Because he came really close to me, so I would be like: “Do a triple Toe at the end” [imitates shouting]. And he’d be like: “Whaaat?” [both laugh].
Anyway, it’s hindsight, but what it did, it conditioned him, and it taught him to be aware of these kinds of situations. Because I have a lot of young kids who blow me away: when I see the program – I don’t even recognize the program. I mean, I like to go with plan A. But then I have a kid that would do a jump, and then miss their triple-triple, but later in the program they would do something else.
Like my little Stephen [Gogolev, 2017 Canadian Junior Men’s Champion at 12 years old] at Nationals last week: he actually practiced this, but he popped the second triple Axel, but at the end of the program he has a double Axel – so he did a triple Axel there. He did it in practice one day, and I thought: “Oh, that’s smart”. He never asked about it, he just did it. And I did the calculations then, and said: Yeah, that’s fine! Same thing happened at Nationals, he popped one of the Axels, so he did a triple Axel at the end. He was determined to get it in. He just turned 13 years old.
I like to stick with plan A, but now Javi has that awareness. My role with Javi and all the skaters – I want them to perform, and I don’t want them to be thinking about what they can do if… Just do it right at the first time. That’s an easy way [laughs].
“MY JOB IS TO TAKE SOME OF THOSE ROCKS OFF”
As someone who has personal Olympic experience, what is that something that you say to your students to make the Olympics somehow easier for them?
I think what I learned when I was working with Yuna is there’s always times – two weeks before, 10 days before, everyone has a different date – where all the wheels fall off. And you freak out, you feel like you can’t skate, you feel like you’re not ready. And it’s just the pressure.
And I remember when Yuna was having a bad day one day, and I just said: “I actually know what you’re feeling. There’s nobody else at this rink – I pointed to her mother, to her trainer, to the Zamboni man – nobody knows what you’re feeling, but I actually do, ’cause I’ve been in this position. So this is what we’ve got to do to get past this day. ’Cause it’s only gonna be on this day, and then it’s full steam again. But I know what you feel and I’m here to take some of that off of you”.
That’s just my job. I always talk about carrying like a backpack full of rocks. And, as athlete, as you go along, even unbeknownst to you, rocks are being placed into your backpack. You could be putting some in by yourself, coach could be putting some – not on purpose. You might be having your media, you might be having your parents giving some extra pressure or just not acting normal… Whatever! All these backpacks are now full, and you gotta start unloading some rocks. Whether it’s media and interviews – alright, let’s make a plan. Let’s do these two interviews right now – that’s two rocks out. You’re having trouble with your triple Flip – let’s figure out the triple Flip, we land some – boom!, some more rocks out. My job is to take some of those rocks off, and if I have to put them in my own backpack, I’ll put them in my own backpack.
So when they get to the Games – the backpack of theirs is empty, they can skate freely, the weight is gone.
So, this way, the Olympics might be even harder for you as a coach than for them?
I just have to have awareness and make sure that they have a complete and total open communication.
With me, or with their team leader, or with whoever it needs to be. Or a parent.
Some of the biggest things about Olympics… We have these competitions, and usually Javi’s parents come, and they keep a distance, and then we see them at the end, so they don’t to intervene. Them, or girlfriend, or something. And, all of a sudden, it’s Olympics, and it’s like everybody wants a piece of you!
You know, when I went to the Olympics, my whole family went. And my dad used to work for Coca-Cola, and Coca-Cola gave them all team uniforms. So I went out to do my compulsory figures, at the Olympics, at this pretty small rink, and I just see this whole sea of red!!! It was my whole family.
Well, they’ve never been there, so I told my sports psychologist – I had to communicate. I said: “You need to spread them around the rink”. So I don’t have this one block of my siblings – we had a big family – sitting there, watching me do my ‘rocker’ figure. Like, I don’t need to know that they’re there, I don’t want to know that they’re there. I don’t need to have my family, my mom saying: “Hey, can we maybe see you after, can we have lunch or can we have dinner?” No!
I mean, that is the biggest distraction for most Olympic athletes – their family. ’Cause they wanna get tickets for the hockey game, they wanna get tickets for the skating event, they wanna be able to see you – but it’s so impossible. Getting around, or getting into the Village. They wanna be able to see the Village, “Can you make that arrangement? I need your passport, I need your something else” – all these things that you don’t normally deal with.
And I often talk to the parents and just say: “Let’s try our best. You get your tickets any other way, but don’t bother the athlete. And we’re gonna see you after it’s all done. Then you have him/her for the whole time! You can go to ski jumping, or speed skating, or hockey games”. And for most athletes it’s no. 1 distraction, ’cause they love their family, and they don’t wanna let them down, and they don’t want mom crying, because, you know, you’re not talking to her.
Maybe the families should also work with a sports psychologist.
Oh, for sure!
Do they actually do that, ever?
I know that with Skate Canada, they have a meeting. They’ve already had a meeting with the potential athletes to be going, and now we have a team that’s going, and they will have a meeting with those parents again. Like, “These are the do’s and the don’ts. That’s our property now, your child. [laughs] We’ll take good care of them. And they’re gonna have a roommate, so don’t be calling them at an off hour, or don’t be sending them a text”.
“I WOULD JUST STAND LOOKING AT THE OLYMPIC FLAME, BEING IN AWE ABOUT THIS”
I also wanted to ask about your first Olympic experience. When you think of it, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
As an athlete?
It was Sarajevo, and the stadium was pretty close to where the Village was, but I think within view we could see the Olympic flame. I remember every time I’d went outside, I would just have to just stand and look at the Olympic flame.
I had this thing about the Olympics ever since I was a child, I always did projects on the Olympics. So if it was Geography – I did it about which country and city it was in. If it was History, or Statistics, or Physical Education – I would do the whole thing on the Olympics. I could always find a way to incorporate the Olympics into my projects.
And then you lived up to your dream!
And then I lived up to my dream.
And I would just stand looking at the Olympic flame, being – not intimidated – but just being in awe about this. I loved it. I got so jazzed by it. I had a great experience at the Olympics, both of them. But especially the first one. It was pretty remarkable.
So if I ask something like which Olympics feels better for an athlete, the first one or the second one, the answer would be the first one?
It’s hard to say. First time it’s always exciting. Second time – it’s like you know a lot, so maybe you can be a bit more selective about what you can see and do.
I think the biggest mistake a lot of first-timers do, they get sort of trapped in the Village. Now especially, when Villages have got all these media centers, games, McDonald’s… [laughing]. There’s so much going on – as a coach you have to really pay attention to what their activities are, so they don’t get too wrapped up in other activities. Because for some of them it’s a long time to be in the Village, that can suck all your energy out. You have to plan accordingly. You want them to enjoy as much as they can – but you have to remember: you’re here to compete. And you have to be selfish. And when you’re done, you can go to the games room, or hang out with the skaters, or whatever you wanna do, but until then, you gotta stay pretty focused. That’s the main thing.
Because I think as a young athlete going to your first Olympics – you’re like a kid in a candy shop. With all these athletes… You know, with other Olympics, but not these ones, you’d have NHL hockey players! I’ve got all these athletes going just – Oh my god, there’s Sidney Crosby! There’s all these famous hockey players, and they’re all sitting at same table, you know, having lunch! It’s amazing! Let’s have a selfie! [in a pretend-ecstatic voice, laughing].
There won’t be so much this year, but you know… You get overwhelmed.
And my message to the kids – when you see an athlete, whether it’s a speed skater or short-track skater, or somebody, and they just had a big win, and you see them – be inspired! See how normal they are. When everybody’s in the Village, they’re very normal. Everybody’s normal. And just be normal. They could be just as much a fan of you.
Just try to be normal, and that’s where you’re gonna get champions, by creating that normalcy of your day-to-day.
Do you personally still have that fascination with the Olympics, or is it just work-work-work now?
No-no, I have the fascination. Because every one is different, you’ve got the flavor of the host country.
And Sochi was amazing! It just seemed like the whole Olympic park was like a spaceship [laughs]. And it was amazing when you had the score of the hockey game on top of the hockey venue. And then curling is next door, and you’ve got speed skating right there, figure skating right there. Practice rink for figure skating right there. And the Village was right there. And it was so well done, and it was so beautiful. And there’s the sea! [laughs amusingly]. It was incredible.
But then I had great experience in Vancouver, because it was Vancouver. And I was so proud to be a Canadian, that they ran such amazing Games, and they had some great stories. And for me it was my first Olympic land as a coach.
And I just know that Korea will be amazing, because they are the leaders in the world of technology. And they have an amazing culture. I don’t have any insight into this Opening and Closing ceremony, but I would guess they’re gonna be blending the two beautifully. Because they have such an amazing and beautiful culture, and they are the leaders in the technology world, which a lot of people don’t realize, how current they are, and ahead of the curve. Seoul is one of my favorite cities, ’cause I just marvel at the lights. People just don’t realize it, and they’re gonna be blown away!
THE EMOTIONS, THE UNKNOWN OF EVERY OLYMPIC CYCLE THAT ENDS
Do you still hope to have both Javi and Yuzuru at your rink next season?
Ha! [laughs] I don’t know, I haven’t even asked either one of them.
Yeah, but do you hope to have them there, do you want them there?
Sure! As long as they want to be there. I’m like their father, and if they wanna be there, if they don’t wanna move out, you know [laughs]…
Even if they graduated from university, and they don’t want to move out – they don’t have to move out. And I’m always there to help them if they’re there for the right reasons.
I still get a little emotional. The other day it just happened, Javi was on the ice by himself, before we came here [in Moscow, for the Europeans]. And I just put some music on and the two of us just did some edge stuff together, and I kind of got a little emotional. Like, could this be the last time we’re having this kind of interaction? And a private moment of training, and beautiful skating?
And it just happened at the same day Javi had left, and Yuzu came in, and we had the same thing. And we did some similar exercises, and put some music, and I just had this connection with him, ’cause I can skate that stuff. And it was a non-speaking, just skating. And I got a little emotional too. I have no idea what he’s gonna do after the end of the season. It’s one of those things that we’ll just have to wait and see. He’s young and I’ve got not idea.
Whatever he does – I’ll support him. He’s a remarkable athlete, and he’s young, and he’s a megastar.
So probably he will still be there?
For him – I would guess it’s like, what more can he do? He needs to have a purpose. It’s not just another medal. Something with skating.
Some new record, a new jump? Quadruple Axel?
Oh God, don’t even… [Brian does a ‘facepalm’ gesture, then laughs]. I don’t want him to get hurt!
So you don’t want him to try that?
Oh, he has tried that.
No. But there are other avenues where you could have purpose, and it has to come from him. I’m not gonna tell him. But then, there’s a new set of rules coming out. And so that just might be enough challenge for him. Who knows. But that’s his thing, I’m just gonna wait and see, and let him have these decisions and choices, and be there for him if he needs me to be. Same with Javi.
EQUIPPED TO FACE THE CHANGES, THE CHALLENGES
By the way, how do you feel about this new set of rules, about the idea of dividing the programs into a technical and an artistic one?
Well, here’s the thing. I don’t really criticize, or say – this is a good idea, or this is not a good idea. I think the intention is to make skating even better and maybe more interesting. And so whatever they’re gonna hand down, whatever gets done – I just take it.
It’s like when the new [judging] system came out. There were a lot of people complaining about it – some of them, my own old colleagues from ice skating world: “Oh, this new system is stupid, and everybody hates it, and skating’s going down”. And I’m like – that’s quite the opposite. Skating is going up. I understand why we’re doing this. As soon as the system changed, we had Stéphane Lambiel as the World Champion. You would have never had a Swiss skater as it. Or a Spanish skater, or a South Korean skater. It kind of made it a bit more fair and even, an opportunity for everybody.
And if there is now a new set of rules that come up – I take them and I adapt to that. We’ve always had a good foundation of skating, just by the way we teach skating. Or skating skills. So we’re equipped.
They wanna make programs shorter from 4,5 minutes to 4 – I think for a lot of skaters it’s gonna be really hard. To show choreography, to show transitions, to get the tricks in, in a shorter amount of time. And I think with my skaters we’re doing it already.
So we’re equipped to go from one end to the other end, full of transitions, you know – tick! [makes a ‘tick’ gesture]. Transitions with choreography – there’s the double tick! And you get the jump done. And then you’re already on your way to the next element, with transitions and choreography, and then you can do that in 4 minutes. But a lot of skaters are gonna find it really hard to combine the choreography, and transitions, and the tricks.
Because people are used to doing ‘jump-jump-jump, choreography-choreography, breathe-breathe-breathe, jump-jump-jump-jump’. It’s like a tennis match. Jump – choreography – jump – jump – choreography. You know what I mean? And it’s all just not woven together.
And we take a lot of pride in it, and it takes a lot of time, and people who buy into it – it shows, eventually. We always say, when we take on a new skater, it takes a year and a half for it to come to finish. And we’re usually dead on. But there’s a lot of kids who don’t last a year and a half. Because they’re not seeing the change. And the parents are not seeing the change, and the Federation’s not seeing the change. So then they take them and they go somewhere else, where they get a quick fix.
And for the ones who have stuck it out – look at Javi. The first year, we had some good success, he made it to the Grand Prix Final, he was second at Skate Canada, second somewhere else. Europeans wasn’t great, he’s been 6th, Worlds wasn’t great, wherever that was. I forget where our first Worlds was, but it wasn’t great. But there were some moments of greatness, and then – boom! A year later – now we’ve had our year and a half – and he wins Europeans, and he’s 3rd in the World, he wins one or two Grand Prix.
Same with Gabby Daleman – our first year she was 9th at Worlds. And then, fast forward, another year – and she’s 3rd in the world!
I see. Well, slow progress is sometimes better, it’s more stable.
Yes. And they have to trust it. That’s the thing, it’s trust. Trust-trust-trust.
“STEPHEN GOGOLEV. HE’S A PHENOM”
Can you tell a bit about your younger, less known students, whom should we be looking forward to in the future?
Stephen Gogolev. He’s a phenom. He’s a natural. He’s ahead of his curve, this whole jumping curve. He’s an athlete and he wants to jump, but he’s really smart about his body, so there are times when we don’t jump for a couple of weeks, and there’s time to re-do. But he does all the quads.
He just turned 13, just last month [Stephen is born on December 22, 2004]. He has a nice quad Lutz, and nice quad Toe, and could beat off triple Axels. But he understands the value in doing stroking and skating skills. Not just stroking for cardio, but he understands how the blade glides, and he understands transitions, and how important they are. They have to work on his presentation, ’cause he’s a boy, you know. But there’s something special about that sort of shy skater. He has great speed, he’s got these great jumps, and finally this year he’s going into Junior circuit, Junior Grand Prix. And I’ve had him since he was 7, and I’m excited about that, sort of taking him from the bottom up.
Is it hard for boys, if they have their quads at a young age, to keep them as they grow older? Comparing to girl skaters, for whom puberty is a huge challenge?
I don’t know, time will tell. The boys will go through an awkward time, they get a bit gangly. They grow at different times, and some of them get really long legs and arms, and they get kind of sloppy. And then that gets homed in by just strength and manlyhood. But their hips don’t change, their chest doesn’t change. We sort of have that advantage to get them stronger. But there are moments when they go through physical changes. And it’s getting them to understand, giving them some exercises to do, to sort of keep that twitch. And be patient! [smiles]. And you tell their parents, tell their Federations – be patient.
We’re going through this with my Korean boy [Cha Junhwan] this season. You know, he was great last season, up until about Junior Worlds, and then he really grew, his body changed. And now it’s just starting to come back. And that’s exciting. And he’s got great Nationals, and he’s going to Olympics, but it just started again. And then, guess what? He’s gonna get through it again. ’Cause he’s only 16. So we’re gonna have another stint, maybe a bit shorter, but there will be a growing thing.
[And] everybody wants to panic. They have some growing pains, literally. So how do you manage that? You have to have a good therapist that’s gonna be stretching them out. Because their bones are growing faster than their muscles, that’s basically what it is in growing pains. And they get all these knee issues, because the bones have grown, the muscles are now tight, and now you’re gotta teach them the regular stretching out of these muscles. They’re pliable, you know. So that they can be encouraged to continue growing.
But at least they have this technical base behind their back, their jumps.
Right. So you may lose your triple Axel for a while, but you can have other things to work on, and you can still work on the take-off until you start to feel your body as one again. And sometimes it comes back better than it was!
[interview by Nadia Vasilyeva/Moscow, editing by Florentina Tone, photos by Natasha Ponarina, Getty Images, Florentina Tone]