Rafael Arutunian interview with Elena Vaitsekhovskaya: "I know that Plushenko knows…"
He coached Russian champion Alexander Abt, the U. S. champions Sasha Cohen and Michelle Kwan. Two of his pupils - Mao Asada and Jeffrey Buttle - became World champions. When asked about himself, he says simply; "Skaters call me like 911 - when everything is beyond bad".
Cohen, Carroll and Nicks
RA: She was still a baby… - Arutunian stops for a moment and smiles to his memories. - But it was her who "produced" me to Lake Arrowhead after Frank Carroll had left - recommended me to the owner of the rink. Even though I refused to coach her. I was already an American coach, I couldn't take an athlete without her former coach's official consent. I remember Cohen laughed and said: "What, I brought you here and you say no?" But she offered to talk to John Nicks who coached her in Los Angeles. Nicks was already over 70, and he got into the car and drove himself up to Lake Arrowhead to meet with me. He said he liked my work and he didn't mind if I worked with Sasha along with him. And she started coming to work with me. And a year or two later she said she wanted to leave Nicks and work only with me. I said no.
EV: You didn't want to violate the American ethical code?
RA: No. I was my own idea of ethics that mattered to me. How could I take an athlete from a person who trusted me with her? If I said "yes" to Sasha, I would never be able to live with that.
Cohen left anyway - first to Tatiana Tarasova, then to Robin Wagner, then went back to Nicks, then quit skating altogether. After some time she called me and asked if I would help her prepare to Vancouver Games. Started training, but then changed her mind. She said she didn't have as much time as I thought was necessary.
EV:Kwan came to you after Cohen?
RA: Yes. At first, she needed just help with technique - she lost all her jumps at that time, and her condition in general left a lot to be desired. We worked together for two years. I remember Oleg Epstein called me from Detroit and asked: "Rafik, is it true that you yell at Michelle at practices? The whole city talks about that".
I indeed was very strict with her at that time. But I have to say that she is an amazing professional. Both at work and in her attitude. Once she came to practice just 15 minutes before the ice time, and I said that she should warm up better before skating. Michelle looked at me and said: "What do you think, I was drinking tea at home?"
Turns out she had a gym at home and she always prepared thoroughly for every practice. Warming up, stretching. It's just that she was already very injured when she came to me, so we had to work around that. But even that way, there were times she couldn't do anything - just skated in circles.
A lesson for life
EV: Have you ever regretted that you stopped working with Mao Asada?
AR: I still do. Last time I worked with her was in the end of December 2007: first at the Grand Prix Final, in Turin, where she placed second, having won the free, then at Nationals in Japan. After that, I went to the U.S. We agreed that Mao would come to me on January 14th. We had the preparation to the Worlds in Gotenburg all planned out, but she didn't come in time. She asked by phone if I could come to her. I couldn't, because I worked with Jeffrey Buttle. But I sent my assistant to Japan. Ad told Mao that I would still wait for her in Lake Arrowhead.
The thing is, Mao never could properly train in Japan: too many distractions, like any star would have. Mao didn't like that, she would close off, and it transferred onto the ice… It ended when I told her ultimately that either she comes back, or we don't work together anymore.
It wasn't until much later that I found out Mao's mother was diagnosed with cancer at that time. Her family kept it secret, and they didn't tell me anything. Of course I would find a possibility to go to Japan if I had known. Or at least, I wouldn't make such an ultimatum.
It had taught me a lesson. A coach never should make a decision without full knowledge of the situation. Asada didn't leave me, I made her quit, even though she didn't want to until the very last moment. Even at the World championships my name was in her protocol up until the beginning of the free program. Mao must have thought I would come to Gothenburg with Jeffrey Buttle and will be by the boards when she skates. And I didn't come to Sweden at all.
AR: Because I realized I would have to be by the boards and thus continue my relationship with Asada. So I didn't go at all, out of principle. Like a fool. I don't think there was any such case in the history of figure skating: two of the coach's students become World champions, and he isn't even at the rink.
Coaching role models
EV: Why had Buttle finished skating competitively so early?
AR: He came to me and said: "Sorry, I can't make myself do it anymore". Unfortunately, it happened not right after the Worlds, but in September, when it was already too late to get strong skaters. So for a while I just busied myself with whatever work that was at hand. Now I work with Ashley Wagner, who was also sent to me by Nicks.
EV: It seems that American coaches like you for some reason…
AR: I was thinking about it. Maybe it is because I never tried to steal their skaters: I never had any preliminary talks with any of the skaters I coached. And in America, they pay attention to it. Everything is very clear cut in this sense. I think, none of the American coaches would survive in Russian system.
EV: You don't work at Lake Arrowhead anymore, do you?
AR: No. I worked there for 12 years, and I left on September 1st - to Michelle Kwan's rink. The Lake Arrowhead centre was closed immediately after my departure - the owner decided it wasn't profitable anymore. Michelle now works in the White House, she got married, is doing great. Her father manages the rink now. When he found out I was leaving Lake Arrowhead, he called me: "Just say what you need for work, and come at any time."
EV: You said once: "I'm not Frank Carrol". But are you any worse?
AR: First of all, I'm much younger.
EV: Is it a bad thing for a coach?
AR: You see, for me Nicks and Carroll are very special people. All-around role models. The example of coaching attitude. Like when Nicks decided to send Ashely to me, in the beginning of July, he called me and said that he wanted to come and tell me some things that he thought I needed to know as a coach. I tried to talk him out of it: he is, after all, 84, and the road to Lake Arrowhead can make even much younger person get dizzy, But he still drove up, with his daughter in the car just in case. We talked for an hour. I know that Wagner still goes to him for advice. When he found out I was moving out of Lake Arrowhead, he offered his help - he is a co-owner of one of ice rinks. I was flattered because Nicks is a legend of figure skating. Same with Carroll.
I know that he knows
EV: You now work with a skater who can become a US champion and go to the Olympics as an American first number. Do you feel the responsibility?
AR: It's not about that. The base of a season is made in April. And Ashley came to me in summer. Everyone says she became better. But we definitely were limited in time. In general, I must say, two years is not enough to make the work of a coach truly visible. For example, I worked with Buttle for four years. And I was rather hurt to read one of American journalist who had written that Jeffrey went between raindrops and finished first. Jeffrey, even without a quad, outskated people who were supposed to be ahead of him.
EV: What do you your opinion on such situations in general? Evan Lysacek's win in Vancouver, for example.
AR: It's simple; if there is a system of points, the question how you get the points is secondary. If you don't like it, make another system, where quad would cost a million. And then there is no question what to do. What else? For example, this year, 14 year old Nathan Chen won two Junior Grand Prix events, with all triples, except Axel. He placed ahead of a 18 year old Japanese who has two triple Axels and a quad. The thing is, my skater gets pluses on all the elements and does four jumps in the last minute of the program.
I think that quad should be like a cherry on top of the cake. If there is one, it's great. If there are several, even better. But if there isn't any, a cake is still a cake. But I have to say that to do one quad jump nowadays is a shame. Plushenko, in his prime, had four of them, and they were different. I know for sure that 10 years ago he tried quad Lutz and quad loop, as well as quad toe and quad Salchow. Several attempts were very successful.
And as for the others, who kind of competed with Plushenko - quads was like going fishing. Like when you sit with a fishing rod and wonder whether fish would bite, and if it does, whether you'd be able to pull it out. Of course, for Plushenko quad Lutz and quad loop were just as much like fishing, too. But he could make a quad toe in his sleep, that's why he was unreachable for so many years. Now he isn't. Now the situation in men's figure skating is completely different. And he knows it better than anyone. Just as he knows if he is capable to fish out anything in Sochi or not. I won't discuss it, but I know he knows. The guys like him, like Lysacek, like Michelle Kwan, they know.
EV: How do you see the ladies event at the Olympics?
AR: it's hard to predict anything. Everything is possible outside of the top two.
EV: You give the top two to Yuna Kim and Mao Asada?
EV: And the fact that Asada often underrotates, doesn't it bother you?
AR: Show me a protocol you saw it in.
EV: Are you saying that judges see the ice at different angle?
RA: It's quite simple, actually: when it becomes difficult, all the skaters start underrotating. Sometimes judges see it, sometimes they don't.
EV: In other words, the ISU is so interested in Asada as a skater that they give her green light?
RA: You said it. As for me, I suppose that Asada is just a big figure skating icon for judges. Mao, unlike Kim, didn't quit after the Olympics, she is capable to capture an audience in any condition. She has triple Axel, after all. It is, on the one hand, a unique element in women's figure skating, on the other - it's a reproach to all the coaches in the world. It's not right that no one else does this jump. I think it will change in near future, and I think it is most likely to happen in Russia. There are just too many strong girls. Someone is likely to try to make a breakthrough using difficulty. I would like to find a girl who wants to do this jump.
EV: So come back, why don't you?
RA: It's too late. I'm already used to comfort and good weather.