Brian Orser: “As a mature skater, you’re not gonna win every competition. Pick your battles”

No doubt about it: interviewing Brian Orser is always a precious, insightful experience, a door opened to his mind and work philosophy.

And this particular conversation, taking place in Moscow, during this year’s edition of Rostelecom Cup, is no different – providing valuable lessons for whoever plunges into it [and we most certainly advise you to do so].

One of those lessons concerns longevity in skating, and working with adult skaters in a way they understand they need to be the best at the right time, growing from every competition that take part in.

Yuzuru Hanyu proves to be, of course, a great example: “This is the first time Yuzu has won two Grand Prix in one season. He’s twice Olympic gold medalist, he’s twice World champion, but he has not won two Grand Prix in one season before. And I’ve been with him – this is, I think, season number 7. And, most of the time, we’ve won one. And there was one season in particular when we didn’t win any – but then he won the Final. In some years he didn’t win the Worlds, and he’s never won the Four Continents. But he certainly picked the right ones, didn’t he? […] I think that’s just a very good reality, and it’s a good lesson to other adult skaters”.

And especially to the ones that only recently joined Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club – because apart from Yuzuru Hanyu or Junhwan Cha, the coach talks warmly, candidly about Evgenia Medvedeva and Jason Brown. Their two unexpected students coming to Toronto for this next Olympic cycle, who are now in full process of transformation, embracing new skills, new habits, and trusting the new way.

Because you’ll notice a line repeating in Brian’s answers, almost like a chant, a leit-motif: “We’re just doing what we’re doing”, with the natural addition: “If we stick to what we’re doing, things evolve by themselves”. And Brian shared some of the guiding lines of their work at the Cricket Club, the very essence of it, in our previous talk – “beautiful, effortless skating, transitions, choreography that makes sense” – and now he’s focusing on students.

And so this interview is about them. Just like he does in Toronto, making himself available for each of his athletes, he’s now taking the time to talk about their efforts and their common journey.

by Nadia Vasilyeva/Moscow

Nadia Vasilyeva: We ended our last discussion, at Europeans, in January, with Junhwan, and how much potential and talent he has, but then he was facing a difficult period with growing pains and injuries. The beginning of this season seems very good for him so far, he medaled in both his GP events and, actually, in every competition he entered this season. Did you see it coming?

Brian Orser: Yes. He turned the corner this season. Starting in summer – I could see just a different person.

Last year at this time, Grand Prix time, he was… His body was growing, he was broken, his timing was all messed up. And there’s nothing you can do about that. You just have to persevere, keep pushing through. And he believed in that, and he believed in me, and he didn’t panic.

A big turning point was his Nationals last year, to make it to Olympics. Because they took three events last year – they took the total score for the three boys in Korea that could go to the Olympics. First of those was in July, and it was terrible. He was like 30 points behind. Second one was better, he was 5 points higher. So then he was 25 points behind, so at his Nationals he had to win by more than 25 points. And he won by 26. So he just made it.

And then he went to Olympics and he did a really good job. We’ve been having some troubles with his quad Sal, but we had to go for it. But now everything is back. He kinda grew into his body. This summer, when we started, he was like a different person. He was a mature young man, very serious, he was committed to his choreography, and programs, and training. And so far this season it’s been really incredible.

So a lot of hard work just paid off?

Yes. But something changed in him.

Maybe it’s the experience of the Olympics?

Yes, I think probably the Olympics did that for him. The Olympics made him a big boy. It did something. It does something to everybody. And not just athletes – coaches, journalists. It changes your life when you get to experience the Olympics. And for him it did change his life, I believe, in a positive way. And now we’re seeing some great things. He may even make it to the Grand Prix Final. [the interview happened on November 17; at this point we know Junhwan not only made it to the Grand Prix Final, but won the bronze medal in Vancouver – Ed.]


What do you think are Junhwan’s strongest sides, his most precious assets? He seems to have it all.

He does. He has work ethic, he has a great look – the fans really like him, and there’s shyness. He’s a handsome kid, he’s quite popular in Korea now, and in the skating community. People like him, he’s likeable. And he does some really great things. I think the new system – the +5/-5 – is good for him. Because he’s a great spinner, he’s got great steps, very good jumps – I wouldn’t say great, but very good jumps.

There might have been some debate about him deserving more in the components score, and not getting it still. Does it bother you, or do you think it’s because he’s a relatively new skater on the circuit?

He’s relatively new. And I think with every competition it’s gonna get higher and higher.

I think a lot of these discussions after competitions with judges… – you know, they have these round table discussions – and I’m sure his name comes up. I’m sure they talk about some of the great things, like ‘you’ve seen that Korean boy, that was a great program’, or something. I think we just have to be patient and keep skating well. Then he’ll be a major player. We have a chance to make it to the Final – then he’s gonna be with the big boys and that’s gonna be great. And I think he has a big chance.

This year you have two new and rather unexpected students: Jason and Evgenia. Was it as unexpected for you as it was for the rest of the world to have them join your group?

Yeah, it was unexpected. You know, and also unexpectedly, I lose skaters.

I had a really good junior boy that left me. And I’ve had him since he was 7. [Brian is obviously referring to Stephen Gogolev – Ed.] And he’s really good, and going to the Grand Prix Final in junior level.

And that’s disappointing. That happens. So, unexpected that I’ve got two great skaters join in, and unexpected that I lost one really great skater. But I just keep doing what I’m doing. I’ve had a lot of people that wanted to come.

Yeah, you must have a lot of people asking to join your group. How do you decide whom to take in, what are you looking for in a new student?

First of all, I have to make sure I have space. I teach different than they teach in Europe. In Europe you have groups, usually a group of 8, or 10. And in North America you teach just one-on-one. So I have a skater for 30 minutes or maybe an hour, then another for an hour/30 minutes – depends on what they need.

If I have, let’s say, 5 sessions a day – that’s basically 7 or 8 skaters. So if nobody leaves this means I can’t take anybody. Because I wanna make sure I have enough time for each of these athletes. I have to be available for them.

So with Javi not skating this season so far – he might do Europeans, but that’s another part of the story… And then Tursynbaeva – she stayed in Russia. That was a choice that we made together, that she would be better off staying here, there was no hard feelings with her…

So that was two spots – Javi and Tursynbaeva. So there came Evgenia and Jason.


But I don’t work with Jason that much. It’s mostly Tracy Wilson and a couple of our other coaches.

And that was the deal from the beginning. Because I knew with Evgenia it would take a lot more time, of my time. So when Jason first asked me – I said No. I had an offer with Boyang Jin as well. And I was a little nervous about taking him [Jason] on. I said No, and then he came and skated for a few days because it was already planned. And then Tracy just fell in love with him, and she was like: “Can we keep him?” And I said: “Okay, Tracy, if we keep him – you have to take care of him” [smiles jokingly].

And so she did – and Jason surely acknowledges Tracy’s work, energy, efforts; here you have them, all three of them, in Grenoble, where Jason won the silver medal at 2018 Internationaux de France.

And it’s a big project – like Evgenia. It’s a big project when they move from a long-time coach. So he left his coach from a very long time – but it was on very good terms. She supported this change for him at this stage.

So, right now, I kinda oversee everything, and help him sometimes. But it’s been a nice addition. Because he’s a really nice person, he works really hard, and I think it’s nice for the other skaters to see this quality of skating, and his artistry. You know, he’s a skaters’ skater. Good skaters always kinda like watching Jason Brown skate [smiles]. He does all those beautiful transitions, beautiful lines. It is nice to have him around.

Jason is known to have very high components score, he was called “king of transitions” since he was a junior. So do you and Tracy want to keep on focusing on that, or do you want to work more on his technical side?

We’ve been working on technical for him. Because he needs to up that. We’ve had a change in his technique, a little bit. So that’s been challenging. He’s been skating for a long time, and it’s hard to change old habits. But he’s getting there, just working with a new choreographer, and showing things that he’s strong at… It’s still Jason Brown, you know. He just doesn’t have his ponytail anymore [laughing]. That was first thing on the list: Get rid of the ponytail. If you’ve gotta make a change – you’ve gotta make a change, a drastic change.

So how would you evaluate his time in Cricket Club so far? How much has he changed, apart from the ponytail?

For him it was more about getting him to take on some responsibility and experience some independence. Making some of his own decisions. I think in the past everything was done for him. And now we’re helping him to take ownership of what he’s doing. We had to teach him some new things, and it’s hard to let go of some old things. But he’s getting there.

Is that why you weren’t so sure about taking him in, because he’s got so much with him of his previous school, previous training, so much of his own ways?

Yes, because with an experienced skater it’s a really big task for a coaching team. I just didn’t know if I have the energy for that, and the time. But his main thing was really to skate with Yuzu and Junhwan – he wanted to come and skate with our team. So that kinda allowed me to give the other the responsibility – Tracy and the other coaches. I can kinda watch. So it’s not really my project [smiles]. But I can help.


Evgenia also has a lot of her old school and her ways with her….

I’ve always said with the new skaters it takes a year and a half to embrace our style of coaching, and training, and what we’re trying to achieve. With any skater, not just her. I mean she’s skating great. But quite often old habits show up. And it’s hard to let go, and I get it.

But I’ve had that same thing, the year and a half thing, with Javi, with Yuzu, with Gabby Daleman, and it was almost to the day. So if they can persevere that year and a half, and we just keep plugging along, and keep teaching what we teach – it’s a pretty quick rise.

But after such huge career that Evgenia had, is it hard for her to get used to this change of rhythm?

Sure. And I’m sure she questions it. It’s different, but hard work is hard work. And she worked hard! There’s no question about that.

And she’s done some great things in figure skating. And now it’s time for a different direction. And it’s been a big drama, and I don’t understand why. But I’m just gonna keep doing what I’m doing. And I’ve got nothing bad to say about the other camp, because she is an amazing skater. She’s learned some great things. So I’m gonna continue with that, and do things the way we do it. I want it to be a good experience for her.

She is extremely talented indeed, and she seems to have it not all, but almost all of it. What do you think can make her even stronger?

I think it’s just gonna be her maturity as a young woman – the skating needs to be a vehicle for that. We have to find the right vehicles for her of skating the programs and, at the same time, teach her some new skills. But she needs to find a platform for her, as a woman, as a beautiful woman, and a mature skater – and it will take time. It will take time for her to embrace that.

Are you gonna make any changes in her jumping technique?

I think it’s not even a matter of changes per se. With the maturity, you know, you’re not a 15-year old girl anymore… Your center of gravity is different, your balance is different. So we work with that. It’s not a question of her technique – because she has very good technique, great technique. We’re just building on that.

She came from the system of… Well, this is why she’s so good, but it’s a lot of repetition, repetition, repetition. Which is what you have to do with young skaters. But as you mature as an adult, your body can’t take that. So you have to trust a new way.

So you are now trying to turn quantity into quality?

Yeah, exactly! That old saying [smiling]. That’s pretty much it. But I just don’t want anything turned around and misunderstood, because I have been misunderstood in the past, and there was no intention for that. Because I’m amazed at what this other camp does with the skaters. I’m amazed and I don’t know how they do it.


What was your first impression of Evgenia, and did it change much after few months of working with her?

Things changed pretty quickly. Because, you know, she was skating with Yuzu, she was skating with Junhwan, and she was skating with Jason – all of those things happened when she first arrived, we did a lot of stuff as a group, a lot of skating skills. So she picked up on that pretty fast.

That’s why it was important that she comes and starts in June. Things moved on pretty quickly, and as planned. She was accepting everything that we were doing. But I can see the difference in her skating. Maybe it’s because she’s more mature, but in my opinion she’s much faster than she was – that’s my main thing, the speed and the flow. Of course, there’s only so much you can do, it’s only been a few months.

Yes, you must have a long-term plan for her…?

Well, I’ve got the year and a half thing. But, of course, we don’t just wait a year and a half – we work hard during that.

But do you have some things to achieve by a certain time…? Or do you think in terms of competitions, in terms of next Olympics?

Well, of course, her goal is the next Olympics. But if we stick to what we’re doing, things evolve by themselves. Everything just evolves. It’s not like we achieve a certain stage and then we go – Okay, now we start doing this. We’re just doing what we’re doing.

But like I said to Tracy the other day, we were working on a certain section of her program, and [Evgenia] kinda came out of the corner, came around to do a triple Salchow and, without her even knowing, she was going so fast, and she had a bigger stride. And she wasn’t doing it for us – she was just doing it. In one little part. And I grabbed Tracy’s arm, and I said: “There, look! She gets it! In just one little part, she gets it!” And she’s not even trying, all she thinks about is the jump. So there’s gonna be little moments like that where you see the evolution of what we’re trying to do.

So for you it’s the process, and then competitions and medals just sort of happen…?

I think so, yes. Of course, we wanna do well every competition, and we have to learn from each competition – and I learned a lot from Skate Canada. I mean, I don’t need to go into that, but I personally learned a lot about her.

Yeah, that must have been a roller coaster for both of you…

It was a roller coaster. And she’s talked about it, I’ve talked about it. And I didn’t just dismiss it, because we need to figure out what happened. And I did, and we talked about it, and she went out and did the long program, and she won the long program. And it still wasn’t her absolute best, but we figured it out. It was a big learning experience, more for me.

And we continue learning as we go along.


How did your other students react to the new additions to the group?

I think everybody embraced the new additions. Someone’s gone, someone’s in, you know. We all work as a team, we support each other. And she’s a nice girl, she’s polite to everybody, she’s courteous, she’s a hard worker. And same with Jason.

But your students don’t interact that much on the ice?

Nope. We do some stroking classes together, but everybody has their own agenda. Everybody’s got their own plan for that session. So Evgenia’s plan is different than Jason’s. Jason’s different than Yuzu’s. We’re all kinda getting to the same place, but coming from different directions, perhaps.

It’s not cookie cutter, like a factory. And it’s not my way.

Every athlete is different, different personalities, different cultures, different styles. And we, as the coaching team, we have to adapt to them. As long as we’re working hard, and everyone’s on time [chuckles]. You have to be on time. That’s my motto – on time and work hard. And we make adjustments – every week, every day. With the common goal to skate well and compete well.

Sure, it would be fun to win every competition, but… And the thing is too, as an adult skater, boy or girl, you’re not gonna win every competition. This is the first time Yuzu has won two Grand Prix in one season. He’s twice Olympic Gold medalist, he’s twice World Champion, but he has not won two Grand Prix in one season before. And I’ve been with him – this is, I think, season number 7. And, most of the time, we’ve won one. And there was one season in particular when we didn’t win any – but then he won the Final. In some years he didn’t win the Worlds, and he’s never won the Four Continents. But he certainly picked the right ones, didn’t he? [smiling]

Yeah, if there’s gotta be some competition you’re not gonna win in the season – just make sure it’s not the Olympics.

Right. Just make sure to win the Olympics.

But I think that’s just a very good reality, and it’s a good lesson to other adult skaters. Because as a really good young junior, Jason won just about everything, Evgenia won just about everything… Javi – not so much [laughing]. But, you know, when you’re a young hotshot you usually win everything.

Yes, but then again, it’s very important to learn how to lose.

And to grow from it. And to focus on the next one, and to be better at the next one. And to be the best at the right time, as a mature skater.

You look at someone like Carolina Kostner: she’s been a World champion, she’s been an Olympic medalist, and she certainly has not won every competition. And she’s had a looong career.

Same with Yuna Kim. She’s won the Olympics with me, in 2010, but that year she didn’t win the Grand Prix Final – and that was just before the Olympics, in December. Two months before the Olympics, she didn’t win the Grand Prix Final, in Korea. Mao Asada beat her. But you know what? She didn’t panic. Other around her panicked. I didn’t panic.

[Brian remembers the atmosphere around the result of the event, but his memories seem to interblend here, and a correction is needed: Yuna Kim won the Grand Prix Final before the Olympics, in Tokyo, in December 2009; she had won the GPF silver a year before, in Goyang, South Korea, finishing behind Japan’s Mao Asada – Ed.]

She was kinda relieved, to be honest. Because she knew that she’s gonna be at her best – at that point, four years with us, she knew she was gonna be at her best at the Olympics.

She won the World Championships in 2009. And before that, she was third twice. And then, before that, she was the junior hotshot. She was Junior World Champion, she won all the junior Grand Prix, she won the Junior Grand Prix Final.

As a mature skater, you’re not gonna win every one. Pick your battles.


So how does Yuzuru feel after finally winning two Grand Prix?

I haven’t talked to him yet. [the interview took place right after men’s free skate in Moscow, during the medalists’ press conference – Ed.]

He was just so relieved to get through this, because he hurt his ankle this morning on practice. And it was pretty bad. And there were treatments, discussions, change in the order of elements, figuring out how are we gonna get through this. And he didn’t know how he was gonna feel until he got back on the ice for the 6-minute warm up. I was really proud of him. So I think he’s probably happy that finally he’s won two Grand Prix in one season, but, you know, season’s not over.

In summer I understand the decision about his future wasn’t that clear, whether he’s going to continue competing. Now we see that he decided to go on, and looks so fresh and motivated. How does he manage to find his motivation now, after he’s got it all, won it all?

It’s amazing for me, I don’t know. He came back, and he was like a new person. I don’t know what it was. We had our meeting, and he said he wanted to skate for another year. He just said: “I just don’t feel like I’m finished”. He loves to skate, he loves to compete. He’s driven, every day. It’s kind of his life, he loves it.

But this season was different than any other season – something opened up in him. Some freshness. He got a second wind. But it was not only about doing the work, it was about, I don’t know, his outlook on everything. Being around him was… Something lit. Maybe that was two gold medals lit in him, I don’t know! [laughing]. That would maybe do the trick, I guess.

But it was just a real pleasure for everybody, me especially.

The process so far has been really enjoyable – because he’s enjoying it. And he’s not so manic. ’Cause he’s been manic in the past, ’cause he’s so driven. And almost to a fault. And now he’s kinda taking the time to smell the roses, and to look around and work, and train, and enjoy his gift – and he has a gift.

And it’s so good for figure skating.

Could it be that now, after winning two Olympic gold medals, he’s skating not for some goal, like another gold medal, but for the sake of skating, the process?

Yeah, I think he’s skating for the sake of skating. He’s skating because he’s really good at it.

He had said it himself that he would like to be able to do a quad Axel in competition one day – those were his words. There were some times when we had worked on it – right now it’s not the time, ’cause we’re competing. And I’m a little nervous about injuries. You know, as we saw today… It’s a pretty tall order – but if anybody can do it, it will be him. He always has a new challenge, so that’s a technical challenge.

Then there is – well, we changed it tonight – but he does quad Toe-triple Axel. And he did that in Finland, at the last competition. That was a first time, and it’s pretty spectacular when it happens.

He just keeps challenging himself. Even being a two-time Olympic medalist, he’s not ready to just ride the wave. He’s trying to create wave. And it’s pretty cool for me to witness it. I’m not fueling it, I’m just there for him. It’s been nice, it’s a real privilege to be with him.

I remember when you weren’t that excited about the idea of the quad Axel during our previous conversation – have you embraced it now?

I’m still a little nervous. I’m embracing it because he’s embracing it. And I will support him on that, and we have to make sure that he’s physically stronger than he is now. He’s strong, of course, but there’s certain things you need to work on physically off ice to be able to manage this incredible feat, of four and a half times in the air. So I’m embracing it because he is. And I’m not pushing it, I’m following his lead.

This year, his programs, his music choices were inspired by his own skating idols, Evgeni Plushenko in the free program, and in the short, Otoñal, famous program by Johnny Weir. Can they be considered tributes, or just inspired music choices?

Oh, no, I think they’re tributes.

He admires both of them. And they couldn’t be more different, Johnny and Plushenko, such different styles [smiles]. But they’re both very passionate, that’s one thing that’s common about them.

And I know that was really important for Yuzuru here – it’s unfortunate that he was injured. He really wanted to knock it out of the park with his free program in Moscow, as a tribute to Plushenko. He was even working on his Biellmann spin [laughing]. ’Cause he’s done it in the past, but he’s getting older [and] it’s harder on your back. But the other day he was like: “I think I might do my Biellmann just as a tribute, for Plushenko”.

That’s another challenge!

Yeah! But it’s nice that he respects skaters from the past. He has nice things to say about them. And probably not just them, probably [about] others too.

Sweet, blue Otoñal and a comeback to the “origin” of his passion for skating – Yuzuru Hanyu performing his tributes to Johnny Weir and Evgeni Plushenko at 2018 Grand Prix of Helsinki


Did the new changes in the scoring system regarding the Grade of Executions affect the way you build programs and train your students?

Yes and no. We’ve always worked on transitions and connecting steps, and now, when they only have 4 minutes for the free program for the men, all that work that we’ve done, I’m so happy we did that.

Because in order to show transitions and show choreography – you have to do it at the same time as getting ready for your jumps. You don’t have a choreographic section where you can stand and catch your breath, and interpret the music. You have to be moving to the next jumping pass, you should be doing choreography as you’re getting ready for your triple Axel.

You kinda have to kill two birds with one stone. And that’s the challenge for a lot of skaters. And with our skaters, they’ve been doing it all along.

So it’s easier for them to adapt?

Yes, I think it has been a little bit easier for them to adapt.

And I like the +5/-5 because you have to be consistent. And there is not a whole lot of room for mistakes. I don’t think anybody’s skated great tonight, so Yuzu was the best of them. But when we’re at a World Championship – he’ll need to skate better than he did. Like his short program – you gotta have positive GOEs on every single element. Spins, step sequences – you can get a lot of points for those alone, and that’s great. But then you can get a -5 in triple Axel, and that’s – ough! [makes an unhappy face]

Maybe the new system is trying to balance out the risks? Because previous system really encouraged a lot of risk…

Yeah, I mean, it’s sports, so there needs to be some risk involved.

But I think where it’s going to help is to save the television audience, who don’t know a lot about the technical part of figure skating, but they love to watch it. And they see somebody who goes out there and skates cleanly. And they’re like: “Wow, that skater was amazing! Wait, what, she’s third?! But the other girl, who came first, she fell! I don’t get it!”

And I think with this system, most of the time, the ones who’re you gonna see on top of the podium at the big events it’ll be the ones who skate clean. And then you’re gonna have an audience at home, tuning into the television and watching it, [and] saying: “Oh, that Russian girl was amazing! Oh, and she won! And she should have won, she skated the best! Too bad for the other girl, wherever she’s from. She fell, and she’s not first”.

I don’t know if that was the motivation, but I think that’s gonna be the result. A lot of people I run into on the streets – they just don’t get it. They’re like: “How come that person won?” And I try to explain to them, like: “Well, they did a quad Lutz, and that’s worth so many points…”, “But they fell!”, “I knooow”… [smiling kind of apologetically]

But the 4 minutes for the free skate – that makes it harder, kinda busier?

Yes, it makes it harder. Even though there’s one jump out, it’s harder for these kids to get everything done, including the choreography.

You have to do choreography, you have to do three spins, you have to do step sequence, you have to do choreo steps, and there’s jumping passes – it’s a lot to do in a short time, and you have to be in a really good shape.

Because now you don’t have the rest. They used to do like two minutes or something, then they’d have 15-20 seconds of just “choreography” [makes air quotes gesture] – and then they would do a minute and a half at the end. It was much easier. But now you don’t have time for that, for that choreography part, “the resting part”.

[interview by Nadia Vasilyeva/Moscow, intro and editing by Florentina Tone, photos by Mila Iutskevych,
Natasha Ponarina, Julia Komarova, Askar Ibragimov]


Evgenia Medvedeva: “I want to reach my full potential and become the best possible version of myself”

Brian Orser (at 2018 Europeans): “I’m all for moving the sport forward – but I am also all for beautiful, effortless skating, transitions, choreography that makes sense”