You’ll notice a word repeating in Carolina Kostner’s interview, and that particular word is “yesterday”. And no, she’s not thinking about her past, her glory, the days behind her – she’s just using the word to emphasize emotions. Because “yesterday” is not just any other day, but April 22, the day Ice Legends took place in Geneva, in Patinoire des Vernets. And no wonder Carolina will refer to that so often during our talk: this open, friendly, heart-felt interview happened in the morning after the show, with the impressions still powerful, and fresh, and nuanced. She’ll talk a lot about Ice Legends – about Stéphane, Champéry, Boléro, Mambo, Tessa – and she might have done only that if my questions hadn’t redirected her to other topics too.
Just like a bear in front of too many bottles with honey, I wanted to taste them all, so this candid dialogue – in the hotel hosting the cast of Ice Legends, on the Quai du Mont-Blanc – turned into a multi-layered one: the show and its emotions, Carolina’s life during the months of suspension, the road ahead here, since she decided to continue her competitive career.
Hence, this interview is, equally, about yesterday(s) and tomorrow(s). About Carolina challenging the mentalities of the sport, opening the doors that are closed – and, most of all, about learning and wanting to perfect herself. Yes, she feels there is still room to grow, so her biggest goal for the rest of her career is to create emotional performances. And judging by the air, the aura surrounding Carolina in Geneva, during her skate to Debussy’s Clair De Lune, her comeback in the competitive arena might just be the biggest story of next season.
…and, yes, her answers are just as emotional as her skating.
by Florentina Tone/Geneva
[I ask Carolina how was Ice Legends the previous night, more like an introductory “Hi”, and she takes my question so very seriously and starts answering even before I set up the recorder. I’ll do that in a second, not wanting to miss a single word, or the clearly visible traces of her enthusiasm due to the show]
Carolina Kostner: …The hardcore of the group cared so much, and I mean, we all admire Stéphane so much, and we were good friends and, with time, we learned to love each other outside of the ice, so we just wanted to make this so special for him especially. And then we found out that the group was so great that we could make something maybe unique for the skating world. And I believe that yesterday we witnessed something unique, that we might value more in the future. Cause it would be hard to [match]… It set the standards.
And now I know that you can rely on friends. And that’s such an amazing generation to be in, because it’s not only competing, it’s creating something together. And I think the difference is that, yes, you want to be the best you can be, but you always value the strength of the others and what others can bring. And that unites, that makes you strong…
But how was it for you in particular to attend a project in which you were very much involved beforehand? You share this longtime friendship with Stéphane…
With Stéph, we have been talking about it, just joking about it, for so long, and say: One day we will do this, one day we will do that… But then life comes in, and you have to deal with your evolution, and he decided to stop competing, this was his direction, and I wanted to continue, that was my direction… But I think, even though we’re so different, we share the same passion for our sport, that just brings us together.
And in Verona, the both of us have had the luck to experience, or to dream about how it could be, in that beautiful venue, and the chance to do different things… It opens up your mind, and that’s when maybe we started talking and maybe we started dreaming. And, yes, this year we decided to take time, to make time, and not just: Let’s do something… There were very clear ideas, Let’s do this, and so we met for a whole week, and he hosted me at his skating school, in Champéry…
Tell me about this special project: skating a pas de deux with Stéphane. How was it to prepare it, to perform it?
I have to say we were so prepared that we knew what to do, what was gonna happen. It was not: Hopefully, it’s gonna work. It was more like: How… I mean, if we could go into details, maybe it was not perfect, and I’m sure if we had the chance to prepare more, especially the pieces together could be more fluid… I mean, I asked Tessa some advice, and she said: “You can do this, and you can do that…” And I was like: “Show me slow, please”. [laughing]. And our rose turn – we called it the rose turn in Stéphane and my number –, Tessa actually taught me to turn well, but I didn’t turn well yesterday… I will improve that. [smiling]
Prior to the show, I saw this little video with you and Stéphane making a soup together, with your different personalities and everything… [Yes, she laughs] What did you want to put in the “soup” of this particular partnership?
We had, I think, tons of “vegetables”. Oh, and he was the chef, I was just his sous-chef, cleaning the dishes and…
Nooo, I don’t think it was like that… [we both laugh heartily]
What was very important to Stéphane in all the skates was the human part of everything, the friendly part, and that also created, maybe, this special situation. Because if I just think of my piano number yesterday with Khatia [Buniatishvili], it was just so heartwarming, because it’s not an atmosphere that you can switch on and switch off. It happens, it creates. And it’s an energy of a lot of people coming together, and Khatia was just so passionate, she can sink in to that moment that inspired me so much to try and sink in too…
And, plus, I felt even the audience that came, did not come because they wanted to see Ice Legends, or wanted to see the legends – they wanted to come to be part of this big friendship, and that made a huge difference. So you can kinda of relax more [her voice tone softens], and you can share… You stumble, and maybe you make a mistake, but still you’re about to share your emotions, and that was very, very special.
So, making the soup [in the video], we were trying to do exactly that, we’re just sitting there and: Ok, let’s just take a minute and talk about it, let’s be very natural, let’s be how we are and see… And they were making fun of me because I said: “I actually had to watch the video twice to understand my French!”. And they were also making fun of me because I said something like: “I am so shy, and he is so out there!” [in the video, Carolina says that in French, talking to Stéphane about their first encounter, in 2001: “Moi, j’étais toute timide, et toi t’étais tout out there!”] Out there! [she keeps laughing]. You know, spontaneous things just happen to be so fantastic…
To me, Le Poème was the most emotional moment of the night… I mean, at the end of your skate to Debussy’s Clair de Lune, people around me were looking for handkerchiefs… and I’m not even going to say that I was looking for a handkerchief too…
I did too at some point. But I said: No, no, no, just concentrate. [Laughing, a happy, satisfied laughter] Yeah, we really put in a lot of effort, and it makes a difference. It does.
And the reward of the audience was just phenomenal…
Yes, right from the beginning. I even remember that after the opening, Stéphane said: “Oooh, how are we gonna keep up? How are we gonna keep up with this energy?” But then it was just getting better and better, masterpiece after masterpiece after masterpiece. And after my Boléro, I would run into the dressing room to change, so that I could see Mao, so that I could see Tania and Max, so that I could see Carmen… [the enthusiasm in her voice is easily traceable]
This was actually an amazing idea: to gather life changing programs around this show. Why have you chosen the Boléro?
Stéphane chose it. I think he chose the programs for everyone.
Great choices – the choices of a fan, actually. That’s what a person who loves figure skating would choose…
Yes, I mean, there are many programs you could choose from, but for sure he wanted to create… It’s called Ice Legends, and it sure lived up to the standards. And I remember Ilia [Kulik] laughing and saying: “How am I going to do this? I can not go back to my Olympic program! It was years and years ago!” Yes, it’s understandable. But it was not easy, because there were many long programs…
Did you cut your Boléro a bit?
I had already made an exhibition out of it, so for me it was easier, and the best parts were in it anyway. So I just cut out maybe the parts taking longer, all the jumps set ups and stuff. But for me, I often just in practice skate the Boléro, because I just love it, and it keeps me fit [smiling], and it’s for sure the program I trained the most in my life, preparing for the Olympics and skating it for two seasons.
And I also think that… You know, in the ballet world they have the same choreography and they have different companies doing it, and different generations… But if you see a young Sylvie Guillem doing Boléro, and she did it again in her last tournée, in her Goodbye tournée, if you compare the two, there is just a change of… maturity. And so I believe that you can always go back to a choreography and do it in a new way. That was very special – and I think that my Boléro yesterday was not the same as in Sochi, or as other times. Because I’m not the same anymore.
Speaking of that, of you growing, maturing, speaking of life coming over you, when you look at those difficult moments behind you, the months of suspension, what do you see?
Oh, it was a huge roller coaster. For sure. Pain, and disappointment, and anger, and just… [feeling] powerless. Because you felt you could not do anything. You didn’t have any decision-making power. And, along the suspension, it was just kinda of… not waiting around, but trying to give yourself an answer, and there is no answer. Plus, dealing with personal emotions that were just involved, with your personal life…, future plans were made, and all just kinda of had to go away…
Have you thought about ending your career during those times? Had this thought crossed your mind?
Mmm, I have to say it was much more on a personal level than on my skating level. Luckily, I was supported by people I found, good people, that always when it went in that direction, I don’t want anymore, I will just leave everything, they would support me and maybe push me a little bit, comfort me and say: Don’t take the decision now, cause it’s not the right moment. And in this hard situation, I had the chance to maybe take distance from people that I recognized were not good for me.
But was there any good in this period of time? Because a lot of people decided to take a break after the Olympics, to explore different opportunities, to grow artistically… Have you somehow managed to do that during your months of suspension? Is there a new Carolina skating right now, due to her recent experiences?
For sure you evolve, and, with difficult times, you change, and you see things from different perspectives, and maybe you also start seeing skating more as a pleasure, and not as “I have to”… And with less drama, because you put things into perspective.
[During this time] I started [to attend] a ballet school, and I was lucky to find an awesome, young ballet teacher, and so I kept on going every day to ballet classes, and found a group of people that were so inspiring because… we’re athletes and we compete, and we get a medal if we’re good – they are artists, they train like athletes, they don’t get a medal. But they’re doing it because they love it, because they have this image in their minds about how they would love something to be. And they are in class every day, and sweat and… To me that was just so inspiring.
And sometimes I would just go to class and sit, because I don’t have the strength to do [everything], and my muscles were so in pain… But listening to them, how they approach it, every day they start from the beginning and they go slowly, and they grow, grow into the lesson… In skating, sometimes we rush, we think we have to chase something, right? And to me, that opened my eyes, and so, maybe, you’re not old in your sport, maybe you still have so much to learn, so much to evolve, and maybe it’s just a mentality that is wrong, and not me.
Good there are people that are challenging this mentality…
Yes. Plus, to me, to spend time with Tessa and Scott here was even more special, because we felt like we’re on the same page, right? [Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir announced too their comeback into the competitive arena, after a two-year break].
Speaking of that, have you made any plans for next season, when it comes to the music, the programs, competitions to attend?
No, [but] the fact that gives me so much enthusiasm is just the process.
You could very well choose the piece you skated last night to, Debussy’s Clair de Lune…
I definitely [could], but when it comes to competition programs you have to be very smart. You have to consider so many things, that the crowd, not even my coach knows, because it’s a very intimate relationship with the choreographer, or at least the one I have…
You’re continuing to work with Lori Nichol…
Yes. I love Lori, and without her I could not see myself continuing. Without other people probably, but she’s the first one of my guides. And, with the years, she has this big intuition to first look at the people, and not at the champion, and go deeper.
I mean, choosing Madame Butterfly for Mao now, I’m sure it was planned in her mind for many years, but she had to bring her there first, in order to be able for her to value the music as much as she knew she could – and that’s what Lori is so amazing at. She has this long term view, and she builds up the skaters, without you even noticing…
So she’s building right now something for you…
[Smiling] Yes, I think that’s a big strength of her, and she believes in what she does so much, that’s why her programs are just… You see it’s a Lori program, but not because of the movement, just because it’s suiting so well to the skater.
What enthusiasms me right now is to have the chance to work with her on a very intense way. When I did shows, she always made time for me, but I always felt competitors have the right of way, because it’s more intense, and more difficult to prepare [a competitive program].
Not just the music choice, but it needs to kind of please the judges, it needs to be able for you to keep the energy to do all the elements. [and then, on fast forward, as if Carolina were recreating a dialogue with Lori Nichol about all the challenges involved in setting up a competitive program:] What’s the best way to do these elements, maybe you have problems with one jump, so let’s find a solution where we can put it there, but it has to be in it, and then you have to do the Biellmann… And then in your step sequence there is a 3 to the left missing, where can we put it?, But it’s not on the music, OK, let’s phone the musician: “We need one more second, at 3:05”, But then it’s too long, OK, so we will shorten everything… It’s so, so difficult!
So much work in the kitchen of the program!
One thing with Mao, because you mentioned her Madame Butterfly earlier, is that I think that she had one of her best skates in Boston, at the World Championships, at least when it comes to performance and interpretation. Still, I couldn’t find that in her Components Scores, where she was only in her 8s… And it was actually unfortunate to see that.
This is a sad thing, and it’s a very difficult topic to… I mean, you can not even comment, but I think those who truly know and who truly are knowledgeable, they’ll know. And for me, I don’t want to say it’s enough, because when you compete you put your energy into it and you kinda of put your face into it, and you have to respond to the media at home and to your fans, but, at the really end, if you sit back and then rationally think about it, that’s what you want to do. But, of course, those people give the value to your skating, and it’s just sad to see that it’s not valued. It’s very sad to see.
On the other side, you know the competition lives from that moment. And in figure skating it’s so hard to just see that moment, because it leads up to the whole season. And everything seems to influence, so I truly believe that the job of a judge is very difficult. Very difficult. Maybe I could suggest that there should be more education for judges. If you are more prepared… As an athlete, we train to be prepared to compete, maybe they should train as well. That could be a suggestion.
Have you somehow paid attention to what is happening in the ladies’ skating right now? To the Worlds in Boston? I’m gonna put it this way: is there a place for Carolina Kostner out there? [she smiles]. Because I know there is, I am convinced there is, but you must have asked yourself that when considering to come back in the arena…
[She takes her time before answering to this particular question] It’s a much more personal thing, 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 can not 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. And what they’ll do with it, unfortunately you can not decide.
But for me, this whole journey has been, most of the times, of just give what I have. I can not be someone else, I can not be Mao, I can not be… but I can search for my own best version, and then that’s my gift. And, I mean, if I could ever relive an experience like in Sochi… that’s my dream. But I think yesterday got really, really, really close. So what we should remember is that figure skating is not only the competition, and that’s what makes our sport so special.
We have so many doors to open… [Because] our mentality is just like that: You have to be young, you have to be cute, and full and energy, and you have to win, and you can not fall, you’re not allowed to do mistakes… And, I mean, you watch tennis, they have a match of 4 hours, and they do mistakes, they catch up… We’re not allowed. The moment we take the ice you’re not allowed to make a mistake. And, mentally, it’s tough. It’s tough. So, first of all, I think we should admire all of the skaters that go out there, and, to me, I think, skating has always been mostly a challenge with myself.
As a kid, I was very, very shy, and skating just helped me to find my own place. In moments like yesterday, you can truly be yourself. And just be there. I remember, as a kid we had a lot of friends and, you know, your competition is at 8 o’clock in the morning, and then you’ll play all day, and you don’t want to go home… And I remember I have always felt very shy, I mean, they were all playing and singing, but then it turned around: when was my turn on the ice, I don’t want to say I was the boss, but… I was the boss!
You were out there!
I was out there! [we laugh heartily]
Is there a goal you have settled for yourself? I’m not saying PyeongChang, I’m only saying it if you’re saying it…
Competition wise, there is no goal. I also still have to find out what my pace is, because two years have been long, and painful, and it’s not easy to just put it aside and say: Ta-daaa! I’m all new, I’m here! Plus, my body needs to reorganize, readjust, training is hard and you try to find ways to, maybe, do a couple of things better, other things you want to keep, but for me, saying: Ok, I go back to what I did two years ago, it doesn’t work. I feel I want to go forward, I feel I have so much to learn, and it will take time. I mean, even in practice right now I feel it’s getting better, but some of the brain wires are still a bit confused, because… you’re adjusting, and your body is adjusting, and then sometimes I have days when it’s amazing, and sometimes there’s just…
So I have to be very respectful to my time and my body. And the goal is to create emotional performances, I think that should be the goal. To do something else. To bring something to the sport I love that can be positive, that can look into a positive future, maybe that I can be an example for the young kids. And being around Elizaveta [Nugumanova], and Deniss [Vasiljevs] these days, they have been so great! I don’t know how many double axels Noah [Bodenstein] has done just because he wanted to show us he can do double axel… [a generous smile] And it’s so nice to see them like that.
For how long have you trained together for Ice Legends?
We met all together on Tuesday [April 19; the actual show was on Friday, April 22].
And Liza [Nugumanova], she’s so amazing, and so out there! [laughing] And we were a bit pushing her and say: Who is your idol? Mmm, I don’t know, Do you know who Scott Moir is? And she’s like: No. You know, you try, by using jokes, you try to educate the little kids, and you could see that yesterday they started to admire what you do, and it’s very important, because, as a kid, you see your world and you play… And I was the same, I mean, I turned up in Malmö, and I was in the dressing room with Irina Slutskaya, and I remember even in Washington, my first Worlds, Michelle Kwan was talking to Irina! [she says that with the startle, the disbelief of the kid she was back then]. And I was like: That’s not how it’s supposed to be! Right?
You’d imagine they’d stab each other in their backs… [we both laugh]
Yes. And they were talking about family, and friends and… You know, they had such big talents, such big gifts, and still such a long way to go…
…and from the ones here, at Ice Legends, have you stolen any secrets? Learned particular things?
We all learned Daisuke’s Mambo steps. [laughing] That’s very special. And just little conversations in the dressing room, openly, you know: How do you feel when practice gets hard or…? And then we found out everyone feels the same, right? We all get nervous before performing, some days more, some days less, everybody has their own emotions and thoughts to deal with, but at the end of the day, we’re all the same and that’s what makes us respect each other so much.
* All photos in this story were taken in Geneva, at 2016 Ice Legends.