`I always go against the flow' Simonenko's interview with Vasiliev for r-sport (check the original article - there are some cool photos)
Vasiliev - the 1984 Olympic champion and the 1988 Olympic silver medalists in pairs with Elena Valova. The coach who took Totmianina/Marinin to the top. And a person to talk to endlessly. He spoke to the r-sport journalist Andrey Simonenko as part of the R-sport olympic project, telling about becoming an olympic champion and coaching the champions.
AS:When have you started thinking about the Olympics and were you dreaming about winning it?
AV: Never dreamed about it. Tatiana Totmianina on the other hand had that dream since she was 5. There is a video of her - a little girl standing on a chair and saying `I'm an Olympic champion!'. I never had that. I started skating just like most of us because I was a sick child. I would get pneumonia 3 times a year and the doctors recommended outdoor sports. Figure skating used to be outdoors only back than, so I took it up. I had fun, but hardly anything else. Even when I became not bad as a junior it was still a far cry of dreaming of the Olympics. I didn't even glance in that direction. I was competing on the juniors level and that was it. I never wanted to skate in a pair. Tamara Nikolaevna Moskvina offered me 3 times to join her group and I declined every time. Only after 4th time I agreed, but then she put it in a way I couldn't say no.
AS: How did she put it?
OV: She bribed me. Softly, nicely, but bribed. I had no choice but to say `ok, I'll try'. I did. The first try out with the partner was not successful, since Larisa Selezneva, who I skated with for 3 months and I didn't agree on anything. We fought all the time till we lost the voice, though at least we didn't hit each other. 3 months later Tamara Nikolaevna broke the pair. When I started skating with Lena Valova I still didn't think about the Olympics. There was a work - very interesting yet very demanding. When I switched to pairs I was 180sm tall, yet I only weighted 72kg. I had a hard time lifting my partner, who was just 36-38kg. I had to build some muscles, which was quite a big work. I also had my studies. So no, there was no Olympics in the sight. I first started thinking about it probably in 1983. We won the silver in our first Europeans in Dortmund and I realized, that we can compete not only on the USSR or Europeans level, but on the worlds level. I turned out to be right - in March the same year we won the Worlds in Helsinki and I realized our next goal is the Olympics. The medal. A gold. But still it wasn't a dream. It was a well defined journey from March 1983 to February 1984. We knew exactly what we had to do, how to work and what we should avoid in order to be where we wanted to be. The Olympic medal dream was in my head for 1.5 months. Since January 1983 till March 1983 - from the Europeans to the Worlds. The rest was work.
AS: I have an impression many skaters are afraid of the Olympic dream. It puts too much pressure on them. Seems you managed to avoid that having the dream for just a couple of months. Came, saw, won?
OV: More or less. Lena and I had a very fast career take off. Till the end of 1982 we didn't think of any championships. Yes, we were skating and competing, but we were from St. Petersburg and not Moscow, which back then was a disadvantage. Actually it is today as well... There were lots of Moscow pairs who were ahead of us, were better than us and had the federation's support. Yes, we did our job, but till a certain point it wasn't too productive. Then it happened that we missed the Russian nationals in 1983 because I had a broken jaw, after which thanks to some political manipulations of our beloved coach Tamara Moskvina we came to the Europeans. From the Europeans to the Olympics it was a short way. The only hardship was to stay away from the temptations which were quite attractive in the USSR. See, any manager of any kind would love to be pals with the potential Olympic champion. They all wanted to talk to you, to take you out etc. It was hard to avoid. But Tamara Nikolaevna, with her vast experience was able to guard us from that and we could focus on our first Olympics preparations.
AS: The 1980 ice dance Olympic Champion Gennady Karponosov said he saw the medals table just before the Free dance and realized their skate with Natalia Linichuk would decide whether the USSR would win in the allround medals count. He was shaking when he realized that. Had something of the kind ever happened to you?
OV: Definitely not. First of all the pairs skating is at the beginning of the Olympics. It's the first competition. There was no pressure. We just had to do our job. But 1984 was the beginning of the USSR falling apart. The heads of the government were dying one after the other and one of them died exactly during the Olympics. So we couldn't laugh, could wear fancy cloths etc etc. There was a global ban on any fun. I generally have negative memories of those Olympics because after skating a clean SP and a clean LP we couldn't show the positive emotions. It was forbidden.
AS: I.e. you had to hold t hat ban in mind while skating?
OV: Yes. We had to think not only of our skating, but of our behaviour as well. But looking back I think it worked for our benefit. There was no superexcitement. We were shielded from everything and could just focus on training and performing.
AS: Can you recall what were you thinking when you went to the ice?
OV: Yes. Our sbs jump in the SP was a 2loop. When I switched to pairs I used to do the tripple easily. The double was a trouble. I would do a double once, and then single it, single, then double... The amount of popped jumps was sometimes higher than the good ones. So my goal was to concentrate and land that double loop. The rest was less hard and less important and I didn't have to think about it. So going into our SP I was only thinking of doing that jump. After it was over the rest was easy. When we came to the LP leading after the SP I was calm. I remember thinking towards the end of the skate I should avoid doing something silly on some easy element. Just to finish the programme as well as we had started it. Which Lena and I did - we skated both programmes well, not giving any trouble the coach or the judges.
AS: It seems back then you could win the Worlds without having a reputation and a name, which is not the case now. Was the judging more fair back then?
OV: I don't think it was easier then than it is now. Picture yourself you keep someone under a huge pressure and then release. All the energy that will burst out... This is what happened to us - we were kept under the pressure of the inner politics in the USSR figure skating, but once we were set free we were so much better both technically and artistically than any of our competitors, that the judges couldn't help but seeing it. And yet during our first Europeans in Dortmund the marks varied from 5.3-5.4 to 5.7-5.8. I.e. some judges were judging us as new comers, some saw something new and fresh in our skating. So it's not as if it was easier, but the competition within the country made us a good pair.
AS: By the way, Gordeeva/Grinkov also shot, just like you....
OV: Yes. The competition in the nationals was much higher than internationally. You also have to take into an account that Worlds 1981, where Vorobiova/Lisovski won just about 10 pairs competed. I.e. Irina Konstantinovna Rodnina, with all the respect, killed the pairs skating during those 10 years she won everything possible. Other countries' federations understood there was no point investing in pairs skating - Rodnina would beat them anyway and the pairs skating was slowly dying. When we started competing on the worlds level in 1983 there wasn't many pairs yet. It was the same for Gordeeva/Grinkov. Now there are strong competitors from Canada, USA, Germany, China. Some very good pairs from Italy and France. Back then it was a couple of competitors from East Germany, one from USA or Canada. That was it.
AS: A silly question, yet everyone keeps asking everyone - what had changed when you came home with the Olympic gold?
OV: Nothing. We received 500$ from the government. There were no cars nor apartments. We had a choice - either to work till the next Olympics or quit and look for a job. We were young and decided to keep skating. But there were no changes. We were recognized on the streets and in the stores from time to time. Taking the state of the things in the USSR back then it was a good thing - it was easier to buy a good meat in the store or manage to find something which was not sold in the stores. That was it.
AS: So you competed for another 4 years. Why did you decide to retire?
OV: We became more mature towards the next Olympics and the country changed so much that it was possible to go abroad and work there legally. And earn foreign money, not just rubels. Lena Valova and I were the first athletes who signed a contract with a foreign company without loosing the citizenship. Belousova/Protopopov did the same, but they left the country. We first worked for a year in Igor Bobrin's theatre and in 1989 signed a contract to work in the USA. We understood we had to change something in our lives before the 1988 Olympics. When we understood how serious the competitors were Gorodeeva/Grinkov - they would beat us from time to time, so we decided we should do something else. We couldn't really skate till we were old fighting for the 2-10 places. So a year before the Calgary Olympics we decided to retire after.
AS: More or less that time the NHL players started to leave the country - Fetisov, Larionov...
OV: Right, Fetisov, Larionov, Makarov are the athletes who competed at 1988 Olympics. We all became friends then. We spoke about our future and realized we can't work the way we did before. The world was changing and the money our friends were earning in the USA and Canada were much better than what we were offered. We loved our country and didn't want to leave. We signed the contract first, then Larionov, Fetisov. The money we were offered was a joke, even the juniors, I think, earn more now. But we had to start from something. Skating in the shows was a new things for us and we understood we had to be the pioneers. Even though money wise the work was not very rewarding it was very interesting.
AS: Could you imagine being a coach back then?
OV: Just as I didn't want to skate pairs I didn't want to coach. I saw how hard, unrewarding and stressful that work is. We retired, became professionals and skated in the shows from 1988 till 1995. Then Lena had a child and we skipped a year. I dragged her back on the ice in 1996 and we skated till 1997. All those years I didn't want to coach. At all. During the break - in 1995-1996 my friends and I tried various businesses. Starting from importing bananas from Finland to selling elite cars. We did all we could to earn the money, but there was no satisfaction. I understood it was not what I wanted to do in the future. And then I was offered to couch a pair in Latvia. I decided to give it a try. But the pair... It was Oleg Shliakhov with his new partner. Just a year after Shliakhov put his blade in Elena Berezhnaya's head. When I received the offer I called Tamara Nikolaevna to ask her opinion, since she coached Berezhnaya/Shliakhov. I also called Alexandr Vasilievich Matveev, who was their choreographer. Both relied: Oleg, if you really want to end up in jail or have problems for the rest of your life - go for it. Otherwise - don't. The thing is, Shliakhov was diagnozed with some mental problems. Even though in a daily life he was a normal guy he was lacking something mentally and he was ill. It can be controlled now, but back then there were some vitamins and pills which made things a bit better, but not heeling it. After Tamara Nikolaevna told me all that I thought for a day and called the Latvian federation to agree. Why? I decided if I can handle a mentally ill athlete and can do what the federation asked me - to get them to a certain place in the Worlds, I can coach any other pair. It was an experiment, a challenge I set to myself. I made it. There was not a single incident during my practices. Shliakhov never hit his partner, there was not a single situation out of the ordinary. The guys went to the worlds, were placed where the Latvian skating federation aimed and everyone were happy. The federation offered me to continue working with them, but I declined. I decided the experiment was over, I gave them enough time, said thank you and left. I came back to Russia nad understood I can coach but I didn't see anyone interesting to coach. Then thought about France. You know Paris and all... I approached the head of the French federation and asked whether they would be interested to have me work with their pairs during the season. They were. I worked for 2 years near Paris with the French pairs and French singles. It was a very interesting work and I think I would still be there had the French federation not have financial problems. 5million dollars went missing from their accounts. It happened during a weekend, people came to work on Monday and there was no money on their accounts. The investigation started, the accounts were frozen, the salaries were not payed. After not being payed for 2-3 months I couldn't go on volunteer in Paris - it was too expensive. Lena and I started skating together again. If you recall all that Kerrigan/Harding scandal boosted the interest in figure skating and the shows all over the world were packed. Only a lazy wouldn't work back then. But then Lena was one of those people who don't care about the money and in December 1997 she told me her husband and her decided she should stop skating and dedicate herself to her family. Of course, I couldn't say anything against. 3 days later I landed in Chicago and 20/12/1997 is the beginning of my USA life. Chicago became my 2nd home. Despite working for the Russian federation from 2000 to 2010 I felt much more comfortable in Chicago.
AS: During your first years of the coaching work what were you doing more- improvising or using what you learned from your coaches?
OV: When I was working with Shliakhov there was no time to improvise or use someone's experience. It was walking on the eggs every day. Any mistake, a wrong word, not looking for a second could cost too much. I didn't have time to recall what Tamara Nikolaevna Moskvina or Igor Borisovich Moskvin taught me. It was just 2 athletes in not easy situation and one coach. Hard work during 6 months one on one, with no one else on the ice. That taught me a lot. Not those who were working side by side, but the work itself. The work in France was interesting but... see, it's France, life there is different, no one is stressing. Everything was calm, beautiful, slow lunch on Champs Elysee. Seriously, I would still be working there today if it wasn't for the money problems. It was a great time of my life- I loved Paris, not particularly hard work with the skaters, who, by the way, I'm still friends with, but I doubt I learned anything new there. Work in Chicago taught me discipline both in finances and in time management. I.e. working with the skater giving him 100% of my attention. During my first months in Chicago I worked with no days off and my first lesson started at 5.45. It was a group of 12-16y.o. kids leveling from novices to juniors. I would wake up at 4.15, leave home at 4.45. After three months of suce paste the stress turned into an illness which in the USA is called `shingles'. It's a virus that causes chickenpox when you are a child and remains `asleep' in your body, but at some point it can spring back and cause skin problems and itchiness. I had it on my face. I didn't know what it was when I came to the hospital. I had fever, I wasn't functioning and they just said very matter of factly `oh, you have shingles'. As if they said `oh, you have a running nose'. The ran some tests, put me in the hospital for 24 hours with drop counter and that was it. The doctors still don't know much about that illness, but they know for sure the stress causes it. Waking up at 4am every morning, and still having a night life... I used to sleep for 3 hours at the most and working in a foreign language, it was very hard. But I learned a lot during those 3 months. Later the normal work was not so hard for me. Waking up at 4.30, going on the ice and seeing what is wrong and teach - it was was not so hard anymore. But I have to say those 3 months had their toll. I was married for the 2nd time back then, my wife didn't like the USA and I didn't have a job in Russia. We would fly to meet up during the weekends in Paris. She would fly from St. Petersburg, I from Chicago. We would leave on Friday, spend Saturday/Sunday together and go back. It was stressful as well. The flight tickets were not that expensive and we could afford it once in a couple of weeks, but such a life became the beginning of our parting. We were divorced in 2000, the child remained with the mother and I stayed in the USA. Alone. So if I have to answer who was my teacher, I guess it was life itself. Of course I use some methods I learned from Tamara Nikolaevna and Igor Borisovich, who taught me to do the triple jumps. There are little things, some exercises, but I think it's about 30% of what I know. The rest I learned from my own experience.
AS: When you became ambitions as a coach?
OV: When I decided to work with Totmianina/Marinin. Before that I was just working with kids, which payed t he bills, but that was it.
AS: Were you bored?
OV: No. I just wanted to prove myself I can do that. That I can take the athletes as high as I was myself. I set the goal - to be the first. It was hard, though the skaters were very talented, interesting, though not easy to deal with. But I spoke to them and understood their goals were the same as mine and I decided to go there. I didn't imagine how hard the journey would be. It was incredibly hard. But very interesting.
AS: What was the hardest and did you have moments when you wanted to drop it all and walk away?
OV: I didn't have such moment. The skaters did. There was a moment when Max Marinin wanted to go back to Russia and I had to have a very long talk with him to convince him to stay in Chicago. As for me... Every day was hard because we had to overcome things - the `can't' and the `won't'. We were skating alone, there was no sparring partners, which is the same as improving yourself while being in a single detention room. It's hard. It was the first time I was trying something like that, I was almost blind walking through, recalling how did Lena and I do, what did Tamara Nikolaevna do. What worked and what didn't. I used it all working with Totmianina/Marinin. But again, let me stress it: it was not only hard, but so very interesting.
AS: Was it very different from what you did in Latvia or France?
OV: Totally. A different level of stress, different goals, sometimes I couldn't fall asleep after a day of work - I was going through things in my head. And then there was still my work with the kids - I still had to pay the bills and during the first 1.5 years work with Totmianina/Marinin I was not payed. I put them with the families, so they didn't have to pay the rent for a while, though it wasn't very convenient - it was far from the ice. So I had to pay for the transportation - it was my car, the petrol. The ice time was not free. The food - they had to eat well to be able to skate. I worked from 6am till 8pm. First with the kids, then 8-10.30 with Tanya and Maks, then kids again. Lunch break 12.30-13.00, Tanya and Max from 2pm again, the kids would come after school at 2 and I would work with them till the evening. It was a daily marathon during all those years. I have to say nothing except for the time I spent in France was easy. I was always walking against the float. It's hard.
AS: I remember at some point Totmianina/Marinin wouldn't make any mistakes at all. Everyone understood they were the favourites for the Olympics. Did it become easier than?
OV: No. First I had to get them to that level. Speaking of which, they were a great pair when I took them. They were 6th in the Worlds. But every step on that level is very hard. When you get so high you understand you can't stop and it becomes even harder. You have to move on, but move where? For a young coach and for the athletes who have never been on such a level before it's hard to find the right direction and make another step. It's hard to find the right people who would be 100% dedicated to the common goal. If you check the Russian specialists you can count on one hand the real professionals who love their job.
AS: When you came to the Turino Olympics were you comparing your state with what you felt when you were competing?
OV: Sure. When I was competing everything was easy. You step on the ice and you know what you can or can not do. Right before the skate the coach tells you his final words which sets you in the right mood and off you go. Here, on the other side of the border, you have to find those words. That's hard. Totmianina admitted after the Olympics it was the words I said that allowed them to skate flawlessly. The practice before the LP was bad. Tanya fell 4 times - she didn't fall that many times during the whole season! I had to find t he right words after the 6 minutes warm up before the LP. If you find the words - it works. If you don't then... well, you are not a really god coach then.
AS: Is it a secret what you told them?
OV: I told t hem what Totmianina and Marinin needed to hear that moment. You see, I would tell one thing to Totmianina, another Mukhortova and a completely different Volchkova. I didn't have to tell Suguri anything - she was communicating the cosmos and didn't need words. When you work with an athlete you understand which words they need and how those words would effect. The longer you work with the skaters the more chance you have to find the right words and use them at the moment of need.
AS: How much the result depends on that?
OV: 50/50. Unlike what people usually think the athletes are not stupid. They know their abilities, their bodies. The problem is that the stress, the adrenalin is confusing. And the athlete can't always get into the right mood when needed. But at that level - he is like a good car. Any small change can make a huge difference. Why Maks Kovtun couldn't do what he had to at the Worlds? Surely not because Vodorezova or Tarasova couldn't find the right words. It was because he is not yet `a great car' but a `beetle', which still needs lots of work. I.e. first we build a good car and then we try to win with it, and then at the very last moment we do the right adjustment which allows the maximum speed.
AS: Why it didn't work with Volchkova? Your partnership started great: she finally won the GP event.
OV: It was the best season of her career, if you take out the pneumonia she had, which made her miss the Russian nationals and prevented her from skating well in the Europeans. She did her best result and showed her best skate in the Worlds that year. And yes, indeed, she won her only GP event. It was the result of our work. Why couldn't we continue working? It was not because of me or our work. It was not because we couldn't find a common language or, as many wrote, was a tyran and got her to a state. She met a guy in Chicago, got married. During the offseason she came to me crying. She understood working with me would benefit. I offered her to look for a solution - perhaps spend some time in Russia and some in Chicago. She said `no, I have to go'. It's a shame - there was a huge potential. I have a video of her doing a 3F with a split before the jump. She is flying horizontally for more than 10m. A huge potential.
AS: You were also working with Fumie Suguri...
OV: That was harder. The Japanese mentality differs from ours. But even despite that there was some progress. I believe that work gives results anyway.
AS: After Totmianina/Marinin became Olympic champions you were facing decisions to make?
OV: I was very tired. When Piseev came to me in Turin and asked what are my plans I said I wanted to take a break, then gather a group of young skaters and see what I can do. I was interested to try, since I never worked with young skaters before - I was either working with kids or the top skaters. I was interested to work with the juniors who had a future. But I had to face the Russian reality. Our juniors were so uncontrollable and so unorganized that half a year later I dismissed the whole group. And decided to take a break. I went to St. Petersburg, was minding my business, then on the way to the airport when I was flying back to Chicago I got a phone call from Piseev again. `Oleg, we have a situation with Mukhortova/Trankov, I want you to get them in order'. I knew what the situation was, of course. I replied: Valentin Nikolaevich, my flight is in 1.5 hours. I will think about it and get back to you within 3 days. I was thinking whether I should go back with the hard to deal with skaters where I was not so long ago, or should I just say no, thank you, and just keep working with the American kids making money for my retirement. I was torn for 3 days, but the adrenalin was high and I decided to try. 4 days later I came back to St. Petersburg. I met in for a coffee with Mukhortova and Trankov and we had a talk. I listened to them, explained how do I see our work together and we began.
The first year was successful. Then the hardships on the personal level began. Between Trankov and I. He is an extremely talented athlete. But he is a very hard to deal with man. He was fighting me very hard, but I decided if I decided to give it that project a try I will go till the end. There were also problems with the federation - when I agreed to work with the pair I was promised help, yet there was none.More than that, when I turned Mukhortova/Trankov into a good pair ,with good elements and more or less stable skating they were always placed lower than they should had. That was the federation work, which bailed on other skaters. When the skaters have a clean skate and their competitors make mistakes and beat them - it doesn't help. It was especially painful during the Olympic season when Mukhortova/Trankov were misjudged at the Europeans after skating so well.
AS: Was Maksim's fall on the Olympics a silly mistake?
OV: I'm sure it was a result of the Europeans. They were devastated with the judging at the Russian nationals and the Europeans, even though they skated so well. They stopped believing in justice and in themselves. Such a lack of belief and a conflict between a skater and the coach combined with the stress from the Olympics had to come out. It came in that jump, which he never failed to land.
AS: Could you have done some things differently with Mukhortova/Trankov?
OV: I think so. I'm not an ideal person and I make mistakes. But I'm not working alone. Trankov was in contact with the choreographer, with the physical coaches, the sponsors. First everyone were positive and nice to him. Then a bit vary. In the end everyone who worked with me wanted nothing to do with him. He was so negative, no one could stand it. Matveev, my choreographer is a very positive person, but he couldn't work with Trankov at all. Maks is a complicated person. He can get into your soul without your noticing so deep that you think he is your best friend. He then explodes inside you and turns you into nothing. Its just that I never let anyone to get into my soul, so I could over come it. The others couldn't.
AS: If you could turn back time to 2006 when Piseev offered you working with them, what would you have done differently?
OV: I would decline working with them.
AS: Was working with Maria and Maksim harder on you than working with Totmianina and Marinin?
OV: Yes. During the 3 years with Mukhortova/Trankov I wasted more energy than in 6 years with Totmianina/Marinin. I was then working with Mukhortova/Blanchard and things went well, but he couldn't keep up. I retired, because I was `falling apart'. My back hurt, my knees, other things. So I took care of my body and spent 2 years doing that.
AS: The last question: do you want to go to Sochi?
OV: I will be there anyway. My Italian pair (Della Monica/Guarize) will be there. It's a `tourist' trip - they will be fighting for 10-12th places. But I'm no longer and adrenalin addict. It took me two years to take care of myself and I feel comfortable now.
P.S. The conversation took place in March 2013. In May 2013 Oleg Vasiliev came back to St. Petersburg and started working with Katarina Gerbold/Alexandr Enbert. To be continued?