The cat, the prince, the history-maker

This was supposed to be written during Denis’ lifetime.

At the end of his competitive career or, better even, at the start of every generous project he was going to embark on. Because Denis Ten was meant for great things, you could tell, and because skating was just part one of the amazing life he had ahead of him.

But as with everyone else so gifted, so brave and so resilient, we took him for granted.

We thought we had him for an indefinite time, so there were plenty of opportunities to praise his achievements, his presence on the ice, his generosity and kindness – and see, with eyes amazed, what was next for him. Because when others find it difficult to envision their lives after skating, Denis had already opened a lot of doors for himself, for his country. A businessman, an actor, a musician, a brilliant photographer, or even the next Sports minister or president of Kazakhstan, as his colleagues wrote when he suddenly, brutally vanished. He could have done it all, he could have had it all.

That talented he was, that visionary.

And this inventory of small, heartwarming moments starring Denis throughout the years – more like a very personal journey into memories – is meant to show just how beautiful this human being was. And just how many dreams and plans were shattered on July 19, 2018.

by Florentina Tone – a journalist and a fan

When I first saw Denis, at 2010 Worlds in Turin, I hadn’t taken yet the step of professionally writing about skating – in Palavela I was just one of the many fans enjoying every performance on the ice, cheering and screaming from the top of my lungs.

And this 16-year-old boy from Kazakhstan, closing the short program segment of the men’s event, in a group also featuring Samuel Contesti, Brian Joubert, Kevin van der Perren, Michal Brezina and Adam Rippon, really caught my eye. His enthusiasm while performing “Sing, Sing, Sing” by Louis Prima, a program choreographed by Tatiana Tarasova, was palpable, delightful, and I vividly remember saying to myself: This boy is really something, I wanna see him more, I know I’ll see him more!

Plus his Biellmann – if I close my eyes I can still see it, my mind recreates the contour; in 2010, just like now, it was a rarity among the men.

Two weeks later I would see him again: wearing a tutu – you read that right – he’d be performing to Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Swan in an overcrowded, overjoyed rink in Bucharest, as a part of Evgeni Plushenko’s Kings on Ice-Olympic Tour.

Practically unknown in a cast featuring, among others, Stéphane Lambiel, Aliona Savchenko & Robin Szolkowy, Nathalie Péchalat & Fabian Bourzat or Florent Amodio, Denis would steal the show at times, all funny and bubbly and vibrant. And he would leave Romania with a solid group of fans, following him constantly through the years.

And though not many of us were aware at the time, up until that moment Denis had already made history for his native country, Kazakhstan: placing first at 2008 Junior Grand Prix in Belarus, he simultaneously became the first Kazakhstani skater to medal at an ISU competition and to win an ISU competition. Later on, he would qualify two spots for Kazakhstan in the men’s event at the Olympics (Vancouver, 2010) – another first – and he would finish his first Olympic competition on the 11th place, a stunning result for someone coming from a country with no presence at all in skating’s history, statistics.

“I’m with a cat from Kazakhstan”

Fast-forward to the Worlds in Nice, in 2012, and its beautiful encounters.

We’re five or six people in an elevator taking us to the practice rink – you might remember that peculiar, picturesque rink, located at the fifth floor of a building, with amazing view to the hills and houses nearby. To my right, a very jovial Frank Carroll talks to the man in front: “I’m with a cat from Kazakhstan here…”, and smiles to the ears. And since the space is so small, the “dialogue” becomes public and, instinctively, all pairs of eyes turn to the “cat”: the youngster in a corner, smiling shyly in return, Denis himself.

The elevator reaches its destination point – the ice rink “Jean Bouin” – and, for the next 40 minutes, under the vigilant eyes of Mr. Carroll, Denis will be getting ready for the fourth Worlds of his career.

And he’ll be sharing the ice during practice with Yuzuru Hanyu, Takahiko Kozuka, Daisuke Takahashi, Javier Fernández. Back then I called the rink “the factory of diamonds” – and time will prove me right.

And Denis will finish the competition on the 7th place, his best result at a World Championships up until then.

Little did we know his moment of triumph was just around (another) corner.

“Remember you can always go beyond expectations. It is possible. I checked”

We’ll see that often in Denis’ career – him flourishing in the second part of the season.

And though we were tempted to call it a trademark – “he peaks later”, journalists and fans used to say – it was more a proof of Denis’ constant battle with injuries, preventing him to gather the much needed ice time & program run-throughs under his belt.

And so he started his 2012-2013 season with a 7th place at Nebelhorn Trophy, followed by a 6th place at Skate Canada and a 9th place at Rostelecom Cup. He was then 12th at 2013 Four Continents – just a month before winning a golden silver at the Worlds in London, Ontario.

He then became the first skater from Kazakhstan to stand on a podium at the World Championships.

And though many felt the result was controversial, that Denis was the rightful winner of the men’s event at 2013 Worlds, the silver medalist was graceful and grateful. And wrote a beautiful message to his fans – one of the many he would share with them over the years: “THANK YOU SO MUCH for your support. I am so proud to attain a new achievement for the figure skating history of Kazakhstan! It was my dream, my goal and, without you, it wouldn’t come true. Take care and always believe in yourself! Remember that you can always go beyond expectations. It is possible. I checked. Lots of love, Denis”.

And his two-part story of “The Artist” – the long program as a sequel of the short – makes for one of his career highlights, and a testimony of an open, innovative mind. He would do that again and again throughout the years: choose music with a meaning, skate programs as if they were personal stories.

Olympic history for Kazakhstan

And then there was that: his bronze medal at 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

But though Denis entered his second Olympic season as a World medalist and, so, a podium-contender, the start of it was rather harsh, as usual. He withdrew from his first GP assignment, Skate America, due to an infection, he only placed 4th at Cup of China and subsequent Four Continents – to find himself on the 9th place after his short program in Sochi.

That made him skate his long program – to Shostakovich’s “The Lady and the Hooligan” – rather early during the final day of the men’s event in Iceberg Palace.

It was a beautiful performance – fun, and free, and catchy, on the music – and Frank Carroll immediately spotted the quality of it. “Very good! Excellent!”, he praised Denis in the Kiss and Cry, and his student took the compliment with a soft smile, as he would often do.

It was premature to envision the results – plus Denis was always rather self-restrained in his reactions. Modest, we would call him. And this modest, brave, hard-working sportsman from Kazakhstan will win his country’s first ever Olympic medal in figure skating – and become, almost instantly, a national hero, surrounded by praises, prizes.

But the triumph only added him an additional layer of noblesse, more like a mantle – it didn’t change a bit of who he was.

Russian photographer Julia Komarova recalls a specific episode towards the end of the Olympics: “It happened after the competition, I think it was after the ice dancing event. It was already late, and we gathered in a big group, on the street, near Iceberg Palace. Soon, most of us had to leave Sochi. And we decided to have a photo together, as a souvenir. As we kept asking ourselves who would photograph us, Denis and his mother walked past our group, and he said: «I can take a picture of you». Of course, we all knew him, and we were delighted with such luck. He photographed us, and then we took a picture with him. In the memory of each of us this story remains. We were photographed by the bronze medalist at the Olympic Games. And many of us remembered him since young age…”

Denis had lived and trained in Russia for 7 years before moving, in 2010, into United States – and no better place than Sochi, on Russian soil, to witness his joy while stepping on the Olympic podium.

Sochi 2014: “That moment when the group tries to organize itself for a picture, and the bronze medalist of the Olympics offers his service as a photographer…” And here you have Denis inside the group he has just photographed.

World, meet Kazakhstan!

It was in 2013 that Denis started producing his own show, “Denis Ten and Friends”, and he organized the second edition after Sochi, bringing to Kazakhstan an incredible cast, made of wonderful performers, Olympic, World and European medalists: Mao Asada, Daisuke Takahashi, Carolina Kostner, Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin, Alexei Yagudin, Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, Joannie Rochette, Evan Lysacek, Brian Joubert, Stéphane Lambiel, Mirai Nagasu, Elladj Balde.

It was an encounter that made everyone thrilled.

A brilliant opportunity for skaters to meet Denis’ native country: pictures and videos from their journey showed them happy, enthusiast, sightseeing and eating local food while dressed in traditional clothes.

But also an occasion for the world itself to know more about Kazakhstan and its traditions – the shows were a powerful incentive for fans across the globe to travel to Almaty and Astana.

Plus: Kazakhstani people would become more and more familiar with skating – what better way of making friends with the sport than meeting some of its most glorious representatives?

And Denis was an impeccable host and organizer – and at a very foundation of a project aiming to contribute to the development of figure skating in his country.

This year in May he announced the third edition of the show – and the selected group of guests made, once again, people book their tickets to Astana: “Aljona-Bruno. Carolina Kostner. Jeremy Abbott. Kaitlyn-Andrew. Elena Radionova. Nobunari Oda. Vanessa-Morgan. Dabin Choi. Yan Han. Oleksandr Jean-Denis. Marie-Pierre Leray”.

The fans were invited to literally take part in the show – “Send me your video! Say hi to me! To Kazakhstan! To a beautiful show, other cast members! Your choice. I’ll check it out personally as I will also edit it myself to showcase you during our project” – and some of them recall Denis personally writing them back.

And he did have a heartwarming relation with his fans over the years, offering emotion, joy and thrills, and getting in return strength, support, enthusiasm; plus personalized gifts, starting with that black panther received in Turin, at 2010 Worlds, when he was just a newcomer onto the big stage, and continuing with the long line of Teddy bears (appropriately) dressed in his competitive costumes.

As you can see in this joyful photo taken at the end of his free skate at 2010 Worlds in Turin, the Teddy bear-story had already started – and Denis gracefully thanks the fans for their gifts.

“My fans are the best. So versatile, talented, creative! Devoted. It’s truly touching that so many have been sharing this sports journey with me. No matter if from a distance or by my side — wherever I compete. I always feel your support!” (November 21, 2017)

“Dear Fans, Your support meant so much for me in this challenging season. Thank you. So much. Sometimes obstacles become too big to overcome. But we should keep growing up, learn and get to be stronger. We should keep working hard and believe in ourselves. Let’s do it!” (February 16, 2018)

“I was born on a Silk Road”

The season post-Sochi was good for Denis, at least parts of it: bronze at Trophée Eric Bompard (his first Grand Prix medal), gold at 2015 Four Continents, and a second World medal (bronze) in Shanghai. An overall indicator of how his career might have been if he hadn’t been plagued by so many injuries.

Plus: the cat had turned into a prince.

Never had his programs looked so rounded, so beautifully tailored to fit him. Never had he looked so at ease while skating them. It was as if that piece of bronze featuring Sochi’s landscape, his Olympic medal, breathed a second life into his skating.

And for many, his short program to Lucio Dalla’s “Caruso” at Four Continents was the absolute highlight of Denis’ career. Oozing majesty and class.

And praises went to his free skate also – „The Silk Road”, to music by Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. And since he felt this was his story, Denis became fully invested in it. One with it even.

A nomad travelling through the wavy, golden lines of desert.

“I was born on a Silk Road. Silk Road, aka Silk Route, is a historically important international trade route between China and the Mediterranean Sea, which made a great contribution to the political, economic and cultural exchange between China, Central Asia, West Asia, India, Roman [Empire] and Europe. It was named Silk Road because silk was the major trade product which travelled on this road. Telling a bit more, the northern route travelled north of the Tian Shan mountains (also known as Khan Tengri in Kazakhstan) going through Turpan, Talgar (where, by the way, one of my training rinks is located) and my hometown Almaty. I was born and lived my whole life on a street called Zhibek Zholy which literally translates into English as «Silk Way». And by opening this fun-fact of my biography, I’ve just revealed the theme and music of my long program […]. Ingenious soundtrack performed by legendary Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, with musicians from all over the world including Kazakhstan and Korea. Multiethnic and «multidirectional» program will turn me into a nomad going through a lifetime adventure, discovering new world and acquiring hands-on experience. My choreographer says that the program’s character is actually me… She thinks we have a lot in common, particularly our life stories. Well… And I feel the same way too. I was born on a Silk Road”.

“I, now, have 2 alter-egos”

And it was that nomad, with traditional motifs on his costume, that surely served as inspiration for Otabek Altin, a character in the anime “Yuri!!! on ice”.

In this Japanese series that instantly became famous among the skating fans around the world, Otabek is a figure skater from Almaty, Kazakhstan, moving around to train, from Russia to America and Canada. Due to his results – a bronze medal at Worlds and some other medals in the Grand Prix circuit – Otabek is hugely popular in Kazakhstan, a national hero even.

See the resemblance?

On a journey to Japan, in December 2016, Denis discovered himself in the series – and wrote on twitter in amusement: “Denis YURI-evich Ten now has a slightly different meaning” – hinting both at his full name and the name of the anime. Plus: “If Otabek Altin happens to resemble me, his name is inspired from Sabina Altynbekova (Altin Otabek). Funnily, we met for a lunch yesterday”.

Portrayed as shy and quiet off ice, Otabek is completely the opposite while performing. The character’s creators got that right, and even found inspiration in Denis’ biography and old photos on social media: him riding a motorcycle, or taking ballet lessons as a kid.

Not to mention Otabek is often shown keeping a Teddy bear in his arms, wearing the same costume as his, while waiting for the scores in the Kiss and Cry. And this particular scene prompted another quick response from Denis: “Have you ever wondered what goes through the Ted Bear mind when he’s on TV? My boy looks kinda committed all the time”. And: “A man named Billy Milligan had 24 different personalities. I, now, have 2 alter-egos. Denis Ted [the bear]; Otabek. Which one to choose? What’s next?”

Well, Mini-Denis was next.

“I’m small. My heart is big!”

On December 24, 2017, Denis introduced Mini – the cartoonish version of himself – to the world. “Regularly, as the season develops, my Instagram dies. But this winter – there is a new one to be introduced! Please welcome @mini.denis! For more than a year, @dinara_butasheva and I have been working on the creation of this (and not only) project”.

Denis and Mini-Denis (Instagram)

Of course, the highly independent and full of personality Mini had done that already: said Hi to people already in October. In his own way, it goes without saying: “bored. how to use this app? does anybody know?”. A month later, he’d still be grumpy: “instagram has over 800 million users! and i’ve only got like what??? 4 followers! what’s wrong with you, world? is there any technique to build a bigger audience? for free, of course. FOLLOW ME! PLEASE!!!!!!!! SOMEBODY! HELP!!!!!!! IM A STAR!”

With the official shout-out from Denis in December, Mini would finally get the recognition he deserved: “new followers, welcome! how should i call you? insta-friends? insta-slaves? fans? anyways, i hope you’ll enjoy my life from a variety of angles. if you don’t enjoy, it’s okay too”.

In an interview to Kazinform news agency in January 2018, illustrator Dinara Butasheva would thoroughly explain: “There is a small creative team behind the Mini: Denis Ten and I. Denis is in charge of ideology, and I draw the visual character. Mini seemingly looks like a child, but he is in fact older. Like all characters drawn in chibi style, he has the cartoonish proportions that make him rather cute. But at the same time he’s independent, a grown-up. He has a fascinating family history, which he will be excited to share in his future posts”.

As for Mini’s personality and interaction with the followers, Denis was in charge of it, Dinara confirmed.

“good morning, folks.
i hope your day goes well so far.
mine started with a breakfast.
breakfast is my fave time of the day.
the other two are lunch and dinner.
what about you?
with love, Mini”

“last year was tough. for everyone.
but to make it better there was released an article about me by my creators.
they revealed a lot of facts that i didn’t like.
from now on i won’t talk to them anymore.
and please if you have any questions – ask me directly in the comments section or via DM.
don’t ask some @dinara_butasheva or @tenis_den.
they are not me. i am me.
ps. oh and the link for ENGLISH interview is in my bio.
pps. anyone seen my other shoe? can’t find it”

“i took a break from social media to think about life, business and geopolitics.
and you know what?
we’re living at an interesting but dangerous era.
so much is going on in the world – and you need to protect yourself from any of the incoming damages.
my weapon is smile.
smile is my weapon.
its contagious. when you smile, people around smile back. even dogs start to smile. but i dont have one. i dont have smiling cats, giraffes and burritos either.
instead, i have a smiling raincoat.
my rains aren’t sad anymore.
let’s smile together.
let’s not be sad.
even if it rains. or snows. or sucks. oops”.

“My goal is to skate with my soul”

Denis’ time and his creative resources seemed unlimited – he had started an MBA program at the Business School of the Kazakh-British Technical University, pursued his interest in photography (that’s how @d10world on instagram was born), had an essential role in the Kazakh delegation that bid for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, all of those while remaining thoroughly involved in skating.

But while he tried to stay competitive, and fresh, and innovative in spite of injuries, we might have lost track of him a bit, dazzled by the new stars of men’s skating and their ambitions.

In this new world of quads, and records, challenges, we might have left him fight his battles alone.

And so, at 2017 Worlds in Helsinki Denis came more like a trooper, and not so much a podium contender. And little did we know about a lingering injury in his left ankle. Accompanied at the boards by Nikolai Morozov, he would finish the event on the 16th place, his lowest ranking at Worlds, and he’d say that was “a year of change” for him.

He wanted to learn more about himself, while trying to remain true to his essence.

“My goal is to skate with my soul. The skating has progressed so much. The most interesting skater for me is the most balanced skater. It’s not the jumps or who can be artistic, it’s about who can do something special”.

And in a corner of the practice rink in Helsinki, a journalist from Bucharest, Romania, would rediscover just how special Denis Ten was. She’d feel miserable she forgot about him for a while, and then feel elated she found him again. In that temple of sound beneath the main arena, affectionately called “The Cave”, Denis was rehearsing bits of his long program, to Puccini’s Tosca, and you could see he had still so much to offer to the world of skating.

And though he’d finish the event on a low note, disappointed with how everything turned out for him in the season preceding the Olympics, you’d notice the spark.

“The Olympic Games will be totally different – they are magic and always full of surprises”.

He had all reasons to believe that. Plus, he madly wanted to compete in PyeongChang.

A symbolic return to Korea

As a part of the Korean minority in Kazakhstan, and as a descendant of the famous Korean general Min Geung-Ho, Denis felt Korea was his “historical home country”, and he surrounded every visit with layers of emotion.

He would be a precious guest in Yuna Kim’s shows, “All That Skate”, he would soak up the triumph, the euphoria of winning his Four Continents title, in 2015, in the Mokdong Ice Rink in Seoul – and he would even remember he got his first international medal in South Korea: silver at the Choir Olympics held in Busan, in 2002, when Denis was only 9 (and embraced multiple talents…)

A beautiful love story with the country his ancestors lived in, a story that needed one more episode to be complete: Olympics.

And so, being invited again in South Korea, in the summer of 2017, to a show in Goyang within the program of activities preceding 2018 PyeongChang, he was honored to say Yes – Denis would tell Tatjana Flade in a detailed interview for the ISU website. “Do you imagine how symbolic that is? To start the season with a trip to the Olympic country before the Games. Exactly at this show I wanted to debut my free program, to show for the first time my Olympic program, a composition especially for me, on home ice. However, as it sometimes happened, not everything went according to plan. I was able to show up for the show only on crutches”.

Preparing for it, Denis would fall and badly injure the ligaments in his right ankle – and since flying back to US could have brought additional damage, he spent the following two months in South Korea doing rehabilitation.

He would muse upon the meaning of it, while still in Seoul: “To keep my spirits up, I remembered that I always wanted to stay in Korea for a long time in order to delve deeper into this place. Obviously, the current reason for my break is far from what I wanted to keep me here, but nevertheless, as I joked with the doctors, ‘my dreams apparently have the habit of coming true’. Next time I will try to dream outlining my plans clearer”.

And this two-part interview done in August & September 2017 – before and after the injury – is maybe the most relevant piece when it comes to Denis’ state of mind prior to the Olympic season.

Besides, the conversation highlights once more the beautiful person that he was. The thinker. The philosopher.

“…thinking further, you realize there is never an ideal timing for unfortunate events. Things happen. And you only can take this real fact and move on. At times, life reminds me of the weather, when a sunny day turns into a thunderstorm and when the thunderstorm passes, a rainbow shines through. This doesn’t mean that tomorrow there can’t be snow, though. Apparently, this is my fate, to be at the helm not in clear weather but mostly during storms”.

Road to PyeongChang

Sticking to the original plan of putting himself in the position to compete as much as possible before Olympic February, Denis entered Cup of Nice and Golden Spin – and then astounded everyone with his class at Rostelecom Cup in Moscow.

And pay attention to this: he would struggle with all three jumping passes in his short program, and then miss some others in the long.

But who, apart from judges, noticed the jumps missing?

I didn’t.

I was too busy marveling at his buttery skate, the pure quality of his movement, his incredible musicality.

Music-wise, choreography-wise, interpretation-wise, it was obvious Denis hit the jackpot with the programs: the short, to uplifting Italian music, “Tu sei” by Vittorio Grigolo, and the free, again a story he would make his own, to “SOS d’un terrien en détresse”, performed by Kazakh singer Dimash Kudaibergen.

A golden package for his third Olympics.

“Well, you did rotate everything”, Frank Carroll joked in the Kiss and Cry after Denis’ SP in Moscow – and his student smiled, tongue out, looking at the scores. They did not seem worried at all – Denis had just overcome the biggest obstacle of all, the injury in Korea, and they had to keep on building.

There was still time.

At Internationaux de France in Grenoble, a month later, his jumping will still be a work in progress, and worries will start creeping at Four Continents in Taiwan: Denis will finish 15th, three weeks before the men’s Olympic event.

By now, time flied quickly, impatiently even.

On the morning of February 16th, doubling the quad Salchow in his short program in Gangneung Ice Arena, turning his triple Lutz-triple Toe combination into a triple-double, and getting no credit for his combination spin, Denis will see himself beneath the qualifying line for the free skate.

Shockingly, he’ll stop midway in PyeongChang.

“Can we go?”, he asked Frank Carroll in the Kiss and Cry after seeing the scores. No, they couldn’t – they had to stay until the TV camera moved on, and be statues of sadness.

“Obviously I am disappointed to not have shown my best performance today, and I am even more disappointed because I really gave it everything I had to prepare for this competition. Each day I woke up and I was in pain, but I woke up with the hope that it is a new day, with new achievements and a new fight. Today these hopes did not pan out”.

He was understandably upset. But, looking in retrospect, he must have known he had done everything in his power to be able to skate in PyeongChang.

And he did that, he was there, on the Olympic ice of his second home country, and this mere thought should have comforted him somehow.

But since this wasn’t the end of career he’d envisioned, Denis planned to stick around for one more season. He had announced his intentions to both Lori Nichol and David Wilson – and he was just about to come to work with Lori, in Toronto, at the end of July.

…except the stormy weather hit again.

And time had no patience with Denis’ plans and dreams.

SEE MORE: 10 years with D10