Elena Vaitsekhovskaya speaks to Eteri Tutberidze, coach of Julia Lipnitskaya and Sergei Voronov, former coach of Polina Shelepen:
Her pupil, Julia Lipnitskaya, has made quite a splash in the world of figure skating, having won the Junior Grand Prix final in the end of 2001, and a few months later - the world junior championships. But it was followed by a very unsuccessful year, filled with endless injuries. That's why Tutberidze, out of pure superstition, refuses to tell anything about her most important pupil's preparation until the first competition of the Olympic season. It is how the subject of our conversation was (unofficially) defined: not a word about Lipnitskaya.
EV: Eteri, two years ago you said that you consider yourself a very lazy person, only interested in work-related things. Work meaning junior skating. Since then your interests had probably spread to the senior level. Do you follow what is going on there?
ET: Of course. I watch, I try to figure out what an athlete must possess in order to fight for the podium.
EV: And what is it?
ET: I would say that it is complex. It's proper appearance, certain jump set, and also every jump must have unique entry and exit. The athlete should not be like everyone else . You definitely have to find something special about him. So that when he goes on the ice, everyone would immediately understand: he is one of the kind. It's like Yuzuru Hanyu, doesn't he have his own style? He is like a beautiful girl on ice, with soft lines. Even though his arms look somehow carelessly thrown, but it looks so natural when he does it… Or resilient and bouncy Florent Amodio. It looks like he's even jump-walking.
EV: But Hanyu constantly struggles with his free program, not being able to make it until the end, doesn't he?
ET: The thing is, when an athlete skates his programs better than others, he gets tired more. Even if it is in training. There must be, of course, functional reserve, which, I agree, Hanyu sometimes does not have enough. Maybe he just cannot make himself skate due number of run-throughs at practices.
EV: I heard something different: that Japanese skaters do a lot of shows before the start of competitive season.
ET: It is quite another story. [In show numbers] jump content is watered down to triple toe loops. And what is a triple toe loop? You can do 7-8 ones in a sequence. And it does not guarantee that you just as easily will do the rest at competition.
EV: Could you analyze, from your point of view, the main strengths of the top three in ladies singles today, Yuna Kim, Carolina Kostner and Mao Asada ?
ET: Who am I to analyze their skating ?
EV: You are a coach who is going to try to defeat them, no?
ET: Well... to some extent it is true. I like many things about Yuna Kim. The way she jumps, starting the first jump in combination at the blue line and ending near the board. She has amazing transitions. She is very beautiful, with great, I would say, sense of posture. Knows exactly how to do this or that gesture, how to look. For me, she is undoubtedly number one now. No other athlete, in my opinion, is in the same league as an all-around champion.
EV: Kostner ?
ET: Amazing skater. When you see her skating live, you can forgive her anything. Because she is constantly "in the program". And she is so confident that she is the best and the most beautiful girl out there that you start to believe it too. She charms the audience. On TV screen, this magic is lost. It becomes instantly noticeable, for example, that she doesn't have any transitions between the elements. On turns, Carolina very powerfully gains speed, and then skates across the rink on two legs, alternating hands. And she starts combination not at the blue line, like Yuna Kim, but almost by the board.
If any other skater did it, I think she would be punished severely. But Carolina gets away with it. Perhaps because she is, in a sense, a skater of an "old" generation. It is extremely difficult to change jumping technique in such situation. Plus her huge speed, which she maintains from the beginning to the end of the program. On the other hand, if Carolina did more complicated transitions between jumps, she might not be able to maintain this kind of speed.
EV: Everyone is already accustomed to the fact that Carolina's costumes are usually made by famous designers. In your opinion, are such costs justified in figure skating?
ET: If an athlete feels comfortable in such costumes - why not? In fact, there were Carolina's costumes that I didn't like. Her gray unitard, if you remember, it was so roughly pulled over her boots, it constantly jarred me. What other athlete could afford it? But Carolina went out on the ice with such regal look that everyone admired her. I think this is a certain kind of skill.
EV: What is Asada's charm?
ET: Firstly, she makes it look so easy. You never see her getting tired. Even during step sequences that make everyone tired by the end, Asada is gaining speed. But it is not the speed and the power of Kostner or Yuna Kim, of course.
EV: What gives her power to do triple axels, then?
ET: Good rotation and lightness. It must be Mao's Japanese genes that let her keep a childlike body - something that our girls could never do. But if you look at the traces of her landings on ice, you'll see that almost all her jumps are underrotated. While Kostner, for example, comes down on an entire blade. But Asada has a great ankle work: she lands on the toe and so quickly turns out ... Why are you smiling?
EV: I imagine you spying on the ice with a flashlight ...
ET: No, it's much easier. When you stand by the board during practice session, you have a full view of one-third of the rink, which is in front of you. Especially when practice takes place on fresh ice. A year ago, in China, I specifically looked at landings. Sore subject, as they say. The fact is that in junior skating underrotations are very strictly punished. So everyone tries to land backwards instead of turning out on ice.
EV: Were you surprised by the intention of the two-time world champion Miki Ando to return to the sport after having a baby?
ET: I've seen Miki many times when she was training with Nikolai Morozov. To come back to the sport in general is very difficult. No one is waiting for you, and most importantly - judges do not forgive comeback skaters the mistakes they would forgive those who skates their last season. So I don't even know whether Miki has enough courage to make this step. She is a very powerful athlete and very sexy. It is appealing. She can just stand for a few seconds on the ice, throwing her hands to the judges, and you feel crazy power and passion she exudes at that moment.
If Ando manages to get together her triple Lutz - triple loop combination and the rest of her jumps, she will certainly be able to fight for a medal. Although the first who came to my mind after the three leaders, whom we discussed, was not Ando, but Akiko Suzuki.
ET: She is very strong from a functional point of view, has a rather complex program with many elements in the second half. Accordingly, when Suzuki does everything, her technical score is very high. She is definitely not Kim or Kostner, but somewhere nearby. It is clear that she cannot be fast as Kostner - just Carolina's leg is almost longer than the entire Akiko. But Suzuki is very hard working - behind her every success there is great work. I have tremendous respect for such athletes.
EV: Had you, as a coach, changed after your skaters moved to senior level?
ET: I used to be more impatient. I tried to get maximum result at every practice session. And I was very upset when I saw that my skater couldn't accomplish what I require. Started to yell, scold. Now I understand that forcing the athlete to train will only result in him getting hurt. As long as he does not want to work, forcing him to do something is pointless.
EV: Why did you agree to take Sergei Voronov to your group?
ET: I was asked to do so. I was very worried when I gave consent .
EV: Why ?
ET: I think it is difficult to fight for the podium with Sergei's jump set. And it is too difficult to learn other quad jumps at his age. Adult athletes have learned skills, their own technique, which is very dangerous to change. You can break everything and get nothing in return. Yes, now Voronov has learnt triple Lutz. But it is an achievement just for himself. And what is a triple Lutz to the world of figure skating ? Clearly, not a victory.
EV: It is such a situation in Russian men's skating now, that there is only one athlete to claim the single spot on the Olympic team - Evgeni Plushenko. Do you think anyone else can fight for Russian National title, if Plushenko skates with at least one quad?
ET: I don't think it is likely. Zhenya will probably do two triple Axels - it was always an easy jump for him. And that, complete with quad, will be enough for him to win. In general, I honestly do not know, is it necessary to compete with Plushenko?
EV: In what sense?
ET: I don't really see any other Russian athlete who could fight for the Olympic podium. All of them are fighting mainly to get in top ten. Yes, Maxim Kovtun has triple Axels and two different quads. But at the level we're talking about, almost everyone does. You cannot count on the chance all other skaters fall?
Plushenko is still good enough to fight in the team event, where Russia could well win a medal. This, I think, is the most logical bet. Especially as a team event is the first in the Olympic program .
EV: Evgeni is much more of an old generation skater than Kostner. Probably you could say about him as well that he is accustomed to long jump entries, has limited transitions. At the same time, I see that he is still interesting to you as a figure skater. Why is it so?
ET: I see him differently. It's really hard - to learn at his age something that children learn at four or five. But you can say something to a child hundred times, and he will repeat an element hundred times. Adults always have this thought etched in their subconsciousness: "I won't do it, because I can't." This is why many people refuse to learn at all.
When Plushenko skated at his first Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, he could not even sit properly into the sit spin - he didn't need to. And there was no edge change in the camel spin either, for the same reason. So now when I see him trying to do on the ice complex variations of some positions, as a coach I understand the amount of work invested in it.
EV: Were you upset when Polina Shelepen, who won five Junior Grand Prix event under your tutelage, left your group?
ET: I was upset for another reason. I coached Shelepen since she was four, and everything that we managed to achieve together was not because of, but in spite of. First, Polina never had any ambitions in sport - I did. That was me trying to prove that my athlete will jump, and will win. Although everyone tried to convince me otherwise. Polina was too tall, uncoordinated, "viscous" - completely unsuited for jumping. Yet she started to jump. In the last two years, we had a very complicated relationship. I knew that sooner or later Shelepen will leave, in fact, I was ready for that. And I was upset because my long-term and actually very difficult work had so quickly gone into the sand. Well, and I, of course, was upset on personal level that Polina, having decided to change coaches, didn't even consider it necessary to at least come to the rink with flowers to say "thank you."
EV: You know, I often come to the conclusion that when athlete and coach part their ways, it can be very difficult to maintain warm feelings toward the person who led you to the result. Because athlete intuitively associate with that person not the most pleasant memories: hard work in training, the need to push yourself every day, to overcome, to endure pain, to give up some pleasures ...
ET: That's true. Of course, it is much easier to not put the girls on the scales, not take away their food, not force them jog... Of course, children don't like it and often seek someone to complain to. Not everyone understands that if a coach yells at you, it means that he loves you. It means that he sees something in you that other athletes do not have. I was in such situation once during my life in sport. Catching every look, and all I got was one comment per week. That was really sad.
It is very important what the parents's position is. They should explain to the child that what coach does, it is for the child's good. And they must understand, since they came in such a hard sport, they probably did not come just for nothing, but for the result. And if it is so, they must be patient.
If the parents just take the child's side, the coach will always lose in this confrontation. And skater's life in sport is so short...