This interview was meant to be about Brian Orser’s own journey at the Europeans.
After all, he’s been a part of it for almost a decade now, their histories intersect – Brian travelled with Spain’s Javier Fernández at the Europeans for the first time in 2012, in Sheffield (when his other European student, Georgia’s Elene Gedevanishvili, was winning her second European bronze), and then he went on accompanying Javi in different European cities hosting the event for the following seven years.
Each year, a European crown for the Spaniard and his coach.
[Brian and Tracy never ruled out this competition for Javier, even when his schedule was hectic. “The Europeans is huge and it’s important to Javi, so we had to keep Europeans”, Brian mentioned in a previous conversation.]
And in Graz, this January, the chain didn’t suddenly break: 17-year-old Ekaterina Kurakova, representing Poland, made her debut in the continental competition.
Behind the boards, a smiling, familiar face.
And so this conversation was meant to be about him, the Canadian coach who became one with the event – and, in parts, it was just that – but it turned out to be, as always, a story about Brian’s (European) students, old and new.
And it was something else as well, you’ll notice for yourselves: the very essence of Javier Fernández’s career, the short, yet emotional version of it, as told by the most appropriate story teller.
The dream it was.
The confidence that was instilled in Javi after winning one or two or three Europeans.
“Once he started to win some championships, his confidence came up – and he started to feel like he belonged. Yeah, like he belonged to be there with the big guys, the Plushenko-s of the world”.
And Brian’s answers, when it comes to his most prominent European skater, have a certain air, recreate a certain atmosphere – the joy, the satisfaction, the nostalgia – and no better place for this journey into memories than the mixed zone of just another European Championships, the first one in the post-Javier Fernández era.
And we talk, of course, as much as (the limited) time allows it, as much as the coach is willing to share, about Evgenia Medvedeva, the prospects of her career, the happiness, the comfort she has found in skating like a woman – about what she brings to the sport.
And a big part of our conversation concerns Brian’s new student, Ekaterina Kurakova – the interview takes places at the end of Ekaterina’s free skate in Graz, a butterfly skating to “Le Corsaire” and then filling the mixed zone with joy, enthusiasm and smiles.
[After debuting in Europeans (and how long has been the wait – changing citizenship, from Russian to Polish, Ekaterina had to sit out one year, be on her own, train on her own in Poland, before finally joining TCC), the 17-year-old competes this week in her first Junior Worlds, in Tallinn, Estonia, and, two weeks after, “another big push”, the Worlds in Montreal].
Asked about the ladies skating at the moment, Brian shares a few thoughts on the matter – he’ll work within the current demands of the sport, without abandoning the principles of his coaching system – and then he brings Elizaveta Tuktamysheva into conversation.
You’ll see why at the very end.
interview by Florentina Tone/Graz
Brian, you’ve been almost a permanent presence at the Europeans: you came here eight times with Javier Fernández, from the Europeans in Sheffield, in 2012, to the Europeans in Minsk, last year – and this is a long story indeed. Does it feel strange to be here, this January, without him, without Spain’s jacket and without the most prominent skater of the men’s event?
[smiling] Yes, it is strange… but it was also exciting that they crowned a new champion – I watched the men’s event here. And it was a good run for Javi, and I’m so proud of him. But it was time for him to move on, it was time for a new champion.
What do you remember the most from the times you accompanied him at the Europeans, from the first time he won? That was in Zagreb, in 2013 – and what I remember vividly is that he ran to hug his parents right after the medal ceremony, the first thing he did after winning a historical gold medal for Spain…
Yes, everybody was so emotional, and his teammates were so proud of him, and everybody was crying… It’s a big deal, you know, to be European champion – it’s something very special… It was like a dream.
It was a dream come true for him.
And every other European after that was just as exciting.
But my favorite one was the last one [2019 Europeans in Minsk]. Because I knew that was his last one, and I knew how important was for him, so it was pretty special.
»» See below: JAVIER FERNÁNDEZ AT THE EUROPEANS, 2013-2019 – A JOURNEY MADE OF EMOTIONS
We were lucky to have Javier Fernández for so many years at Europeans, in the world of skating overall, and we have the Cricket Club, you, Tracy, to say thank you to, for making him competitive – and keeping him competitive for all this time. But how was it to work with Javi? Now that he’s been away for a while, maybe memories have settled somehow….
I think the most important thing for him was that he knew that we believed in him. And then he started to believe in himself.
Because at first I think he was just lost – he didn’t have any structure, he didn’t have any kind of direction.
So it was actually pretty easy for us, just to get him settled in Toronto, give him a schedule, have a plan, try to stick to the plan the best we could, have goals…
And once he started to win some championships, his confidence came up – and he started to feel like he belonged. Yeah, like he belonged to be there with the big guys, the Plushenko-s of the world. [smiling]
And I think it suited him, you know? It fit.
And I think he enjoyed that – and then he was onto the World Championships and in Shanghai [in 2015]… it was a dream. And for Spain too. And I think it was encouraging to athletes around the world, in figure skating, that if you set your mind to it, you can do it.
And he had a good team behind him, and lots of support from the federation, and from the government, and from his coaches [smiling], and his family – everything was just right.
Do you miss him here?
I dooo, I do [Brian prolongs the answer], it seems so strange. I do miss him. I have great memories, those seven years when he was winning went so fast – but we stay in touch, and I see him every once in a while.
Is there someone ready or readier to follow into Javi’s footsteps at the Europeans? You mentioned that you watched the men here…
Oh my Gosh, there are a few that, you know, need to take hold.
I know he didn’t skate well here, but Kévin [Aymoz] is definitely someone that could be a European champion for a number of years. And the two Italian boys, both of them [Matteo Rizzo and Daniel Grassl], and the Russian boy [Dmitri Aliev] that he won. He is great. And I was happy he put it together.
And I think when you win a championship like this, it’s something that takes over your body, and you wanna do it more and more, hopefully. That’s what I’ve felt, anyway [laughing].
“SHE BROUGHT CHARM, AND SHE BROUGHT ENTHUSIASM, SHE’S A HARD WORKER”
Brian, tell me a bit about your student here, Ekaterina Kurakova. She joined TCC at the end of 2018, so you’ve been her coach for a year or so…
Yeah, for about a year. But we haven’t had a whole lot of time together, just scheduling and competitions, and she’s been in Poland a lot – and so I’d like to get her back in Toronto and get some more time with her, and work on the technique.
But this has been a good experience for her. You know, when you do a championship, it’s a lot different than a Junior Grand Prix, it’s a lot different than a Challenger, and I think there’s a lot that she learned here, so she’ll grow from this, and we have lots of work to do.
She’s in your one-year-and-a-half plan, right?
It hasn’t been quite the year and a half, and we hadn’t had enough time together-together, but she’ll come back to Toronto after this, and we’ll push hard for the Junior Worlds, that’s the next thing for her, and then the World Championships in Montreal, another big push…
What should we expect from Ekaterina?
This result [at Europeans] is a little lower than we were hoping for, but then we take this information and we go back, and we train, accordingly.
And this is something that athletes need sometimes, you know? I mean, it was still a good skate, she skated well – she just got some calls that will get us back to training, and we will fix the things that we need to fix, that’s all.
What might be her qualities, what did she bring to the table when she came to you – apart from her sunbeam smile, of course?
Oh, she brought charm, and she brought enthusiasm, she’s a hard worker – and I would like to see that maybe, by next year, to be definitely a Top 5 here at Europeans. And Top 10 at Worlds.
Those are very doable, realistic goals – but I think, for her, she just needed to be this one time at a championship. That’s totally different. And she’ll learn from this, I believe that’s the type of person that she is – she’s gonna dig in deep and we will get some work done.
THE NEW EVGENIA: “SHE’S NOT DEFINING HERSELF BY A SCORE OR BY A RESULT – SHE’S DEFINING HERSELF BY WHAT SHE’S BRINGING TO THE SKATING”
Now onto your most prestigious European skater at the moment – how was Evgenia Medvedeva’s season before the abrupt disruption of it?
The season was going well. Especially in Moscow, at the Cup of Russia, she was great!
And things were really starting to come together, training well, working hard, so it was really unfortunate, her boot-situation. And there was nothing we could do about it.
[Due to one of her boots breaking during practice in Krasnoyarsk, and after performing the short program with the same damaged pair, Evgenia Medvedeva withdrew from the Russian Nationals in December – IS note]
So the season has definitely come to an end for her?
Yes, it’s over for the season.
But she’s on her way back to Toronto actually right now [January 25] – as we speak, she’s on a plain to Toronto. So we will meet and come up with some kind of a plan.
From the coach’s point of you – Evgenia has been in Toronto for more than a year and a half now – how do you see her improvement? To us, the progress she has made, in all areas, is very out there: the speed, the jumps, the flow…
Everything. [smiling] Yeah, but that’s it – you just said it: the speed, the confidence…
One thing that she has said, and that we have noticed, is that she just loves being a woman, she loves bringing that women’s figure skating.
Sure, she can do some very good tricks – but now it feels to me that she has embraced her body and what she has to offer to the sport. So that’s exciting – I mean, it makes me happy to see that she has embraced that.
And that she’s not defining herself by a score or by a result – she’s defining herself by what she’s bringing to the skating. And I was happy to see this year that we had a couple of really good skates.
But in the light of how this season has been, with all the quads brought to the scene?
Yeah, I know, but you know what? We do what we can do.
We can’t get hung up on all the quad-stuff – we have to just focus on what we can do, and be realistic about it. And, sure, she does want to keep working on the quads…
Look, I am not obsessed with this idea, but from the way this season has gone so far it almost seems mandatory that, in order to be competitive, you have to have a quad… Not to win, to be competitive even…
We’re talking Top Three, because those are the ones… [smiling] I mean, for real.
And then there’s the Japanese girl that has a nice triple Axel [Rika Kihira], and there are some other skaters there are quite competitive. So, yeah, that’s where the sport is going…
But do you agree with where the sport is going? The ladies skating, I mean, because the men have had their story with the quads… Do we want the ladies to go there as well?
I don’t know. [smiling] I’m all for being competitive, I’m all for that. [pausing] …I don’t know.
But, you know what, wherever we’re dealt, wherever the rules are, whoever we’re competing against, we do the best we can. And that’s all we can do.
If I start complaining about the system, complaining about the age, or complaining about quads, then my energy is going somewhere that’s negative. I need to be positive for the athletes and do what we can do.
Do I want her to be competitive? Yes. Are we gonna work on the quad Salchow? Yes.
And, you know what, Tuktamysheva, I mean, she’s the perfect example. That she has learned this as a woman, as a young woman. She has done this. So that’s possible.
Brian smiles and finishes by saying: “So I’m gonna sneak out now”. But no chance to do that, actually – there’s this queue of people waiting for us to finish talking, and the first one that approaches the coach wants his signature on an album with a picture showing Brian Orser as a skater, during his competitive years.
And then Ekaterina Kurakova has finished her interviews and comes nearby. And Brian smilingly jokes: “Are you still first?”, “Yes”, she nods in excitement – she’ll finish her first Europeans on a very encouraging 10th place – and all three of them, Brian, Ekaterina and Polish coach Sylwia Nowak-Trębacka smile for the journalists in the room.
And then Brian would vanish behind a curtain – he’d fly to Toronto the following morning, with just another edition of the Europeans in his pockets.
[interview by Florentina Tone, Graz/photos by Julia Komarova, Natasha Ponarina, Ksenia Nurtdinova, Alberto Ponti, Florentina Tone]
MORE TO READ:
Stéphane Lambiel: “Do it. Show us your colours!”
Brian Orser: “I’m all for moving the sport forward – but I am also all for beautiful, effortless skating, transitions, choreography that makes sense”
Brian Orser: “As a mature skater, you’re not gonna win every competition. Pick your battles”
Evgenia Medvedeva: “I want to reach my full potential and become the best possible version of myself”