`Her Blade, her speciality' by Igor Raush for itogi.ru
It was impossible to miss the pair in the World Championship that took place in Nice last week. In a great shape, looking young with a great posture they carried with them the romantic air usual for the ice dancers of the 70s, when the ice dance pair Natalia Linitchuk-Gennady Karponosov were shining in the international competitions. Later when they became coaches they raised a number of champions. For the last almost 20 years the spouses live in the USA where they work in the international figure skating centre. They talk to itogi.ru about the differences between the Soviet and the Russian figure skating schools, what is the impact of politics in sports, about the hard, but talented students and about the dictatorship of Natalia Linishuk.
VR: Natalia, your husband said he first started skating only thanks to the fact the known figure skater Alexey Ulanov was his neighbour. What about you?
NL: It was my mother's choice. She loved figure skating and at the same time didn't want her daughter just to hang around. Besides, I was an active child, hence my mother decided to use that energy for figure skating. I learnt how to skate quite fast and loved it. The only problem was to find the partner and the coach who would believe in me. I switched 12 coaches, one would teach me jumping to one directions, others to the other. I ended up in Elena Tchaikovskaya's group and it was obvious she was the coach I needed. It was in her group I had all my skating success.
VR: In her book Tchaikovskaya recalls how you were skating right behind Pahomova/Gorshkov following their footprints. Did the experienced skater mind a kid skating around them?
NL: They didn't have time for that - they were preparing to the Europeans. They looked at me curiously - who's that girl? Tchaikovskaya told me to watch Pahomova/Gorshkov and repeat exactly what they did. So I learnt the leaders' programmes and improved my skating technique. I've never heard a single bad word from Pahomova nor Gorshkov. They would sometimes ask me to turn their skating music on.
VR: In 1976 in Innsbruck, your first Olympics the ice dance was added to the Olympic games. Did you feel you were being part of the Olympic history?
NL: It was a huge thing, of course. I remember during the practise we were told ice dance became an Olympic discipline. Mila Pahomova, Sasha Gorshkova and I were so excited! But when we just came to Austria I became ill. We had to skate 3 dances - compulsory, original and free. We had 304 days off after the Original dance, which I spent in my room in bed. The first practise after the break was the morning of the original dance. I could hardly breath and couldn't feel my legs nor arms. The only thought I had in my mind at the evening during the competition was `I must not fall!'
Olympic history, indeed, with a 39.6 fever! The coach and the doctors were against my skating, but I took full responsibility. 4 years till the next Olympics in Lake Placid seemed so far away and no one would guarantee I'd be going.
VR: Not only that you went, but you won it. How was the competition?
NL: Just the arrival to the capital of the Olympics was quite original. Just before the Olympics we had an acclimatization meeting and just before the games we moved to Lake Placid. We took a bus - it wasn't far away. So we approached a number of buildings with high walls and a locked fence. No Olympic symbols, all seems to be dead. Apparently the driver took us to a prison. First we didn't understand - why a prison? Later it turned out that instead of building an expensive venue in the mountains which would be useless later the organisers preferred to put athletes in the newly built prison. The prisoners were supposed to take over right after the games, so we tested the buildings for them.
Our rooms resembled the train compounds - small, narrow, with 2 store beds. Tiny windows - a narrow line of glass from the floor to the ceiling. We had sinks in the rooms, the showers were common at the end of the hall.
A lot was written about the anti soviet hysteria that surrounded the games . It was hard to ignore if from the very morning there were people under your windows shouting `Russians, hands off Afghanistan!'. We learnt to ignore them, but it was still unpleasant. Though I was relieved but that episode: not long after arriving we noticed a man who was especially active during the protests.He was always there. Later we noticed him during the figure skating competition. He was rooting.. for the Russians! Standing, clapping, shouting something! It looked as if he was working for someone during the protests and after the job was over he would go to the rink and do what his heart told him.
IR: Do you remember anything special from the Olympics?
NL: You know, I recall many small details. For example I always tied my skates from the first attempt. You set your mind, put the costume, the skates and off you go. In Lake Placid I retied them a countless number of times - before the warm up, during ,after. For a skater it's uncharacteristic. We have a routine we follow - the same moves every time. It's not about supervisions, it's just automatic - things you perform thousands of times, they calm down, add confidence. So it seems my spirits were low. The nearness of the Olympic gold made even the `iron lady' nervous. This is what I was called by the British journalists.
VR: The Olympics in Lake Placid were shadowed by the defeat of a Russian hockey team by the Americans. Did it had any impact on you or other athletes?
NL: Overall we won the biggest amount of medals overtaking the Germans right in the end. Now it would be considered a great victory. But back then the hockey gold medal was considered the most important. Without it the success was not a success. The final games were towards the end of the games. In the Russian team there were talks about the money and boosts we'd receive, but right after the defeat they disappeared. I won't say the mood was generally bad, but the experienced people were upse.t They were right - we received national marks of honour, but lower than we could had expected.
VR: You didn't even met with the general secretary of the party?
NL: In general back then it was less common inviting athletes to Kreml as it is now. For example I can't recall a single meeting with Brezhnev. Though he was very fond of sports and loved both hockey and figure skating. I think the only one who could approach him were Rodnina/Zaitsev. They were skating in Medeo once, when all of the sudden Brezhnev who was in Kazakhtstan back then showed up. They had to perform an exhibition immediately. I was representing `Dinamo' and used to meet the minister of the internal affairs Nikolai Schelkov. He was genially interested in the sports.
VR: You told once when you first started skating with Karponosov you were looking up to him since he was an experienced skater by then. When did you first thought of him as a spouse and not only a skating partner?
NL: It took a while. First time I saw it in Gena's eyes when I was marrying my first husband. Though I only realized it later, first I just thought he behaved weirdly. He came out much later, when our career was coming to an end. We realized that we can't go without the other outside the sport as well.
His proposals were very romantic. I said it in plural in purpose - there were several. But being a married woman I couldn't say yes. I eventually did when Karponosov said it was his last attempts. We completely retired, which was important for me - I'm not fond of mixing professional and private life: the closer you are to the partner the harder it is on the ice. I remember several married couples who would throw their rings during the practise in each other faces. I didn't want to be in that situation myself.
VR: Can the coaches influence their skaters' private lives?
LN: What do you mean? I can't forbid anything especially in our liberal times. But I can tell them what I think, without hurting anyone's right of freedom. I must.
VR: When Alexandr Zhulin left his spouse Maya Usova to go to Oksana Grischuk who was training in your group did oyu tell her what you thought?
NL: Actually at that moment Grischuk wasn't training in my group. I coached her since she was 11, but then she decided to try something new ,left and was skating with Evgenii Platov. When all that story with Zhulin came out her new coach threw her away and she was alone. She was almost desperate. Her mother and aunt came to Gennady and begged him to take her back: they knew I wouldn't even speak to them. He agreed and tried to convince me. `No way' I would say `Take her back'. `Why should I?' `She is practically your child, you worked with her since she was a kid. Beside, she is in an awful state' he explained. In the end they convinced me.
VR: One might assume your point of view and your husband's differ. How do you divide the responsibilities?
NL: Gennady works more on the technique, I'm with the artistic part. Though Karponosov's point of view on the idea of the dance, on it's expressiveness is very important for me.
I would also listen to what the skater has to say, but the final decision would be mine. It's why I'm called a democratic dictator. Elena Tchaikovskaya did the same at the time. We were welcomed t o her place, would drink tea together, but still there was a distance between us. It's the right way: there should be a distance between the skater and the coach. You can't be best friends with your pupil.
V:R In the last 20 years you live and coach in the USA. How did that happen?
NL: In the beginning of the 90s the state of the affairs in sports in general and in figure skating in particular was quite poor. There were no sponsors, no finances, the federation hardly functioned. We had Grischuk/Platov, Krylova/Ovsiannikov and Lobacheva/Averbukh in our group. We were treated quite well, but asked every day: when will you pay for t he ice? If you don't pay tomorrow we'll kick you out the day after tomorrow. Tomorrow came, there was still no money and the talk repeated. It was a hard situation. And then all of the sudden the Americans offered to move there to their international centre. We set a condition: we'll only move with our pupils. The Americans allowed to take all 3 pairs, paying for everything and giving free ice. We feel there quite at home now.
VR: Many Russina coaches who just like you, worked abroad are coming back to Russia. Would you follow their example?
NL: Right now there is offer. We could come back to a certain rink. Besides, we are working for the Russian sport in the USA racing the Russian skaters there. We might come back in the future. What is needed? The right offer and the interested side.
VR: You called the pair Domnina/Shabalin the skaters of the 21st century. Were they your most talented pair?
NL: Certainly one of the most talented. Unfortunately because of Maksim's injured knee they couldn't train to the top of their ability. It is still a painful issue for me. Shabalin came to our group already injured. If I knew who was the person who let him participate the Europeans 3 weeks after the surgery I'd tear him. It means he started training 2-3 days after the surgery, which wasn't even the first one on that knee! But I never asked the guys about it, it was unethical and I didn't want to spread salt on the wounds. In the end Shabalin ended up being almost handicaped. He would skate with a titanium knee protector about 40-50sm long, which would hold his leg. He couldn't even sit down, lain on the injuried foot. He still can't really.
VR: Ilya Averbukh is known for being the harderst of your pupils
NL: (laughts) I guess. No, he wouldn't contradict me, that was not an option. I can recall just one time he didn't listen - that year they were becoming a strong team, were 4th in the Worlds and were getting close to Krylova/Ovsiannikova and Grischuk/Platov. They decided to choose their own free dance music. I was very much against, but they wouldn't listen. When I became too tired fighting with them I agreed. The season was a failure, the federation blamed me.
Ilya's main problem was mental. Before every competition I would talk to him and set him in the right mood. Aquiantences were surprised: who do you manage to motivate him? In the practice and the competition it were two different people. Besides, he was a bit lazy. Ira Lobacheva had to control him and help me taning her husband and partner. About a year and half after they retired from the competitions I met Ilya in some event. He approached and said `you know, I realized sport and I are incompatible' `Ilusha, I always knew it'. Nevertheless his titles speak for themselves, our work was not for nothing. Even now his programmes, like my other pupil's programmes have something of me. It makes me happy.
VR: I know you thought very highly of Anna Semenovich
NL: I still think Semenovich/Kostomarov could become Olympic champions. They had everything ,but patience. Though think Anna is not sorry about leaving sport - she became quite successful in another field. I've never heard her sinigng back then, but guys who were friends with her said she has a pleasant voice and sings karaoke.
VR: Your current Russian team - Ekaterina Pushkah/Jonathan Gureiro is in your group from almost the very beginning. How did they draw your attention at the first place?
NL: They were so colourfull, beautiful, but had no idea how to skate. When we first met and spoke I looked them in the eyes and saw : yes, they can. They were so eager to work and progress. Thought the first half a year of working together was hard: we spent most of the time correcting their technique. Sometimes I tell them it would be easier to teach them skating from the scratch. In the Russian nationals in December they skated decently and showed they are pass the inicial stage. When we are back from the worlds we'll continue working on the basics with them ,which is the base for the future quality of the skating. We'll work on technique and the elements. You can't become a champion without.