In the press conference room in Milan, at the end of the ladies event, the effervescence among the medalists, the media is really palpable, and rightfully so: Kaetlyn Osmond has just won the first World title for a Canadian lady in 45 years, while Wakaba Higuchi and Satoko Miyahara took silver and bronze, only the second time in history Japan has had two ladies medaling at one edition of the Worlds (the first time ever was in Tokyo, in 2007, with Miki Ando and Mao Asada winning gold and silver).
Hence everyone is glowing.
Two stories down, in the mixed zone, there’s almost a parallel press conference going on, but the air and the emotions are all different: tens of journalists are surrounding Italy’s Carolina Kostner as she dissects her free skate, which has left her just outside the podium.
And so this is the anatomy of a disappointment.
The story of a 4th place at 2018 Worlds, as told by Carolina herself minutes after leaving the ice.
But also the other side of it, the good in bad, the driving force of understanding a failure and moving on, the very essence of her character, and the maturity: realizing there’s so much more about herself and her career than losing a medal at home ground Worlds, as difficult and bitter as that was.
Metres to her right, a certain someone knowing Carolina for years is watching her with love, and warmth, and admiration. She feels for the Italian, and understands the hardships of the moment – but she’s proud of what her student has become, and offers a beautiful perspective on her journey.
And you will love every single word Lori Nichol has to say about Carolina Kostner.
by Florentina Tone
For Italy’s Carolina Kostner the 14th Worlds of her career started like a dream: with a breathtaking, career-best short program.
She knew the expectations of a home ground competition – she’d met them before, at the Olympics in Turin, in 2006, the Worlds in Turin four years later – so she got herself ready for it, spending precious time in St. Petersburg, with coach Alexei Mishin, in between PyeongChang and the Worlds debut in Milan.
And when the time came, she embraced herself, a beautiful, emotional lady in a cherry, sleeveless dress, and delivered greatness on the ice of Mediolanum Forum, under an umbrella of screams and cheers coming from all sides of the arena.
She could still hear the silence in an ocean of noise – “the special moment for me was in the middle of the program: I have this passage where I could actually hear the silence…” – but only for a couple of seconds, because all the rest was joy, enthusiasm, excitement.
And what a change this proved to be, Carolina will confess, an eye into her past: “If I think back 15 years ago, when I started competing internationally, nobody in Italy followed skating – and now there’s a venue full of people sharing this passion with me. I am so happy to see I can maybe inspire people, and maybe be a guide…”
And let’s just rewind to the genuine reaction of the 16-year-old Italian Elisabetta Leccardi minutes after her (debut) short program at Worlds: “It’s a wonderful experience to be able to skate in the same competition as Carolina” – or even to the reaction of the 15-year-old Alina Zagitova, the current Olympic champion: “Carolina Kostner is my idol, I am looking up to her, and I am very happy for her that she was able to do her best performance today”.
With 80.27 points, a personal record and a national record even, only the third lady to ever score over 80 points in the history of the discipline, Carolina Kostner has put herself in the perfect position to fight for a podium placement at home Worlds.
All energies in
And she draws 24, the last to take the ice for the free skate – and she has a full day ahead of her to breathe in, breathe out the emotions.
She does just that in the practice rink, on March 22, in the afternoon.
The men’s short program has just ended in the main arena – and a handful of journalists moved to the small rink near-by, alongside chaperones and family members, to watch the last group of ladies going over their programs.
Kaetlyn Osmond, Maria Sotskova, Gabrielle Daleman, Satoko Miyahara, Alina Zagitova and Carolina Kostner are on the ice – and, among them, Carolina is the one that seems to keep all her energies in: no generous, big movements, no tempting smiles or glances (her “Faun” can be very alluring when performed in front of the audience).
None of that exuberance is here.
Eyes to herself, she glides across the ice, almost noiseless, her hands moving incessantly – but it’s a slow, wavy movement, as if she were caressing the air. And while her hands travel, her mind travels as well, to every single part of the program.
“That’s her thing: she’s visualizing a lot when she rehearses”, a friend of Carolina tells me one day during Worlds.
And she’s also the first to leave the practice session. Preserving focus, energy, power for the actual free skate seems more and more her strategy.
A medal that is hers to lose
At 21:28, on March 23, when the six final competitors enter the ice to be introduced to the audience – the colours of the Italian flag surrounding them like a mantle –, the noise is going through the roof.
It’s literally fire on ice.
And I have never heard something similar in a skating arena before.
It had been like that all afternoon: a tangible effervescence, people staying in long queues, for tens of minutes, to get into Mediolanum Forum, and then rushing to their places, hands full of flowers and toys.
And now is deafening – the noise. And almost physical: you can feel it through your skin.
This is it: the Carolina Kostner effect. With the roar reaching its peak when the recipient of it takes the ice for her skate – just minutes after the Olympic champion, Alina Zagitova, had crashed under the pressure, falling thrice and leaving the ice in tears.
And in spite of having an even clearer shot to the gold now, this isn’t Carolina’s best day either.
And going through my notes from the performance – one by one, the missed elements, the moments of doubt – is like reading a sad haiku.
A delicate, beautiful embodiment of the Faun for everyone to see it, but one that lacked (technical) competitiveness – resulting in a 4th place overall for the Italian.
And so she finishes just outside the podium. And you can literally sense the regret in the arena, and see it on everyone’s faces in the Kiss and Cry: chin down, in between choreographer Lori Nichol and coach Alexei Mishin, Carolina acknowledges the loss and shrugs her shoulders.
Her immediate reaction, in the quick-quotes area, is really telling: “I wish I could have skated better to show the audience how much I care about this sport”.
To my left, an Italian journalist speaks loudly on the phone: “…she missed the podium for just 2 points, she was so close”.
It was actually less than that: 1.2 points, to be exact.
The anatomy of a disappointment – and the reverse of it, the gratitude
Carolina hasn’t arrived in the mixed zone yet – lots of media representatives are waiting for her words – but one can see her in the distance, past a plastic wall. She embraces people in the team – those wearing red jackets, with Italy’s name on it, as if she were embracing walking hearts, and gathering support – and then she spends tens of seconds into Lori Nichol’s arms.
She wipes her tears – a quick gesture, as if she were casting away a shadow –, takes a deep breath, draws herself up, and leaves to meet the press. A marathon awaits her, and she knows.
And when she finally arrives in front of us, cameras and lots of hands with microphones, recorders reach to her. And what follows is a journey into her emotions, minutes after skating, and losing a medal.
What’s left from this experience?, an Italian colleague breaks the ice – and after pausing for a couple of seconds, to find just the right words, Carolina offers a beautiful, candid insight into her mind post-competition.
“First of all, I always try to make myself remember that I am a part of the best female skaters in the world. For 15 years already”.
And then she adds, bitterly smiling: “The 4th place is not funny [divertente, her choice of words], I admit. I feel sorry for not being able today to find the right rhythm for performing a clean program. I made too many mistakes and I’m paying the consequences. But, all in all, who would have thought that I would go home with a small gold medal? And I have to admit that for the first time I have skated that short program just like I had dreamed for a lifetime. And I am going home with that”.
A big, generous smile shines on her face when talking about that “piccola medaglia d’oro” after the short program in Milan, one of the highlights of the entire event.
“And another thing that I am taking home with me is the fact that if I am thinking back 15 years ago, no one knew figure skating, and I was an exotic little girl – ragazzina exotica, she says, and smiles again – from the mountains, that was doing a strange sport, a sport that people didn’t know. Sometimes is actually very difficult to explain what I’m doing – but to see today a stadium full of people, with such support, such affection, such passion for my sport, giving me power, has been overwhelming. Because what I do is trying to touch people’s hearts – and you don’t do that with the jumps, with the technique…”.
And then again, the very essence of this beautiful, talented lady, and the proof she has already decided the real ending of this story – she gets to decide on how Worlds will be remembered: “The 4th place is bitter [amaro], but it doesn’t define me as a person, as an athlete, and it doesn’t define my career. And so I think tonight I will sleep bad – but tomorrow is another day”.
“Emotions mean that you are, that you care”
She won’t get away that rapidly though, as someone asks for an analysis of things not working during her skate.
“I have doubled the Lutz, missed the Axel, fell on the Salchow… that’s the short version of it”, she says in a heartbeat, while someone else brings the love-hate relation with the triple Lutz into conversation. “Nooo, it’s the most beautiful jump there is!”, Carolina bursts into laughter.
“Thinking back, that was it – and I can’t change anything. I can’t go back and do it again. But the day after tomorrow two beautiful journeys are in front of me, with very special surprises”. And so she’s looking forward to that.
Will it be difficult to let go the love coming from the audience?, someone else asks, hinting to a potential end of Carolina’s competitive career – and she doesn’t have the answer to that yet. But she does have something to say on the matter.
Come lo spiego…? (How should I explain this?), her mind travels to find the right words.
“I believe that affection is not connected to the sports abilities only. I believe that with my sport you can do so many other things – and that’s the beautiful part of my discipline: in the sense that there are so many directions which, in reality, are still not yet explored. It’s just that certain things, certain decisions… I don’t want to take them in the heat of the moment – I will take the time to reflect on the road to choose”.
Later on there will be an addition to that: “I have many shows coming up, in Italy, and also in Japan, and then, in the summer, I will take all the necessary decisions – sit down and see which direction I wanna go. But any direction to me at the moment sounds very, very exciting”.
And then there is that – did she know about Alina’s falls when getting ready for her own skate?
“I didn’t know that when I took the ice – but it’s obvious that tiredness was in everyone’s feet. We are all human beings, we all have strong emotions, and I do believe that the very fact that you feel the nervousness means that you are, that you know how much work you put into it, that you care”.
As for the welcome of the audience and the actual performance, “those six minutes were for me the wildest, most emotional of all the competitions that I attended. A complete madness it was! The atmosphere of a football stadium that only us, the Italians, know how to do! Bravi!”. Another share of laughter follows – proud, generous laughter; she definitely felt the noise and the support to the fingertips.
It’s beautiful to see you smiling, relaxed, so peaceful, a journalist notices, and Carolina Kostner finds again the moment to put things into perspective.
“I would like to say in all serenity that an extra medal or a medal in the minus doesn’t make any difference. And in reality, in life, it doesn’t. Still, today is sad”.
But then again, she’s looking for the broader picture.
“There have been a lot of very special moments today… You know, sometimes you think you can only be happy if you go home with a perfect performance and a medal, even a gold medal. But it’s the small things that are so special, and I said that this time the six minutes were the craziest six minutes that I have ever experienced. And seeing so many people starting to love and appreciate figure skating is so exciting, because there is so much work involved that I don’t even know where to start from. And to see that people appreciate and support you, and cheer you on, and help you… it’s very, very special”.
Lori Nichol: “Carolina is a very rare treasure”
A couple metres to Carolina’s right, a lady in a long, black coat is watching her handling the moment – it’s not easy to lose a medal and then account for it in front of the press. She shares the disappointment, understands it, but also makes it clear that nothing changes when it comes to the treasure Carolina Kostner is. And so this short conversation with Lori Nichol makes for a beautiful, visual journey into memories – Carolina’s journey through the eyes of her longtime choreographer.
I just need to ask that: how is Carolina today compared to the little one that came to you many, many years ago?
[Lori Nichol laughs, that’s her first reaction – and that’s how generous the question is]
I’ve known her for 13 years, and it’s been a very beautiful story from this… She reminded me of a colt, you know? A small Thoroughbred, filled with freshness and excitement – and I loved her sportsmanship, but she had dreams of artistry and she was very much a participant in becoming an artist in skating.
And as she grew through the years, became even more involved. She studied art, and music, and ballet, and I’m just so proud of her mastery of the sport and art of figure skating – she’s made them become one.
And she’s an icon of figure skating, so beloved, both as a skater and as a person, a very rare treasure… I mean, there’s so much love for her, all around the world, and I’m so grateful for that, because she deserves it, and she really takes to heart the love that she feels from other people.
Out of the programs that you did together, is there one that you as a choreographer feel very close to your heart? You liked the way she portrayed the character, the emotions…
Well, I have loved the process of all of them.
And, of course, many of them have attachments to the performances, to the events.
You know, the Ave Maria in Sochi was such a special moment – on her birthday, during the team event. And I loved the Ave Maria in the ladies event as well because she surprised everyone with doing the triple Flip-triple Toe, and I just loved her athletic spirit there! To just… Let’s go!
And Bolero is very close to my heart, I could watch that program a million times.
Because through the 13 years together, empowering her as a woman was very important to me. And I wanted her to understand that she could be, as well as being sweet and kind and conscientious that she always was, I wanted her to know she could be a strong and sensual woman – that she could be all that a woman really is.
And we’re complex, and we’re very beautiful – and I wanted her to feel a real fulfilling, all-encompassing experience as a woman – so that was a driving force in a lot of the music that I had her listen to.
And I’m just grateful she skated long enough that we could explore very mature emotions – and Ne me quitte pas was something so personal… You know, technically it was the right tempo, and the right mood for her to do under pressure.
And the Faun, the way it has been skated in practice – I have seen it skated with just true mastery in practice, I wish she could have had her moment tonight.
But regardless, she’s a treasure of figure skating, and she’s a treasure of Italy.
[story & interview by Florentina Tone/photos by Natasha Ponarina and Getty Images]