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Figure Skating - Coaches
Alexander Zhulin:
Alexander Zhulin
Photo © Alex Wilf
Alexander Zhulin

Four years ago in Turino Zhulin entered the small group of the top coaches after his pupil, Navka/Kostomarov became the Olympic Champions. He moved to Moscow from New Jersey, became a TV star thanks to a skating project and a demanded dancing coach. Last year his skaters Ilinyh/Katsalapov became the Junior World Champions, after which many, Zhulin included, predicted their bright future on the seniors level.

But the first appearance of the pair this season arose plenty of critiques. The general idea was: Zhulin is too busy with the sports non related project, his skaters did not train enough, hence the result.

We met in Novogorst, where Zhulin's group moved when their home rink in Hodynka (Moscow) was given for a Roxette concert. The only thing exceptional about Zhulin was a support on his left arm. He flinched:

- Broke my arm in the project. Now all the TV channels are asking for an interview about it.

- Condolences. About that and for the fact you became the most critiqued coach in the country, even though the season had not even really started yet. How do you feel about it?

- It's quite normal really. I realize how high the expectations of my pair are with the upcoming Sochi Olympics.. Ilinyh/Katzalapov indeed made a lot of noise last season, so of course now everyone think the show must go on.

As a coach that's what I want as well -for them to stay on the top. But one has to realize what switching to the seniors mean. It's quite hard from the technical point of view: the free dance is half a minute longer, it has one mroe lift. The short dance - «Golden Waltz» is hard technically, and, unlike the seniors, Lena and Nikita had never even danced it before in their lives.

I was not planning to shock everyone as it was last year with that couple. I realized quite well that we are not ready to skate the whole programmes yet. We were even less ready to look our best. Unfortunately that made a bad impression on many coaches, Tatiana Tarasova included. So that's where the talks about my doing nothing but the TV shows began. But.. I like the critique

- And the skaters?

- They were glad I took their side. Yes, as a coach am fully responsible for their results. I realize that at that point in time there are plenty of things to work on, including the female partner's extra weight, but spilling dirt on us everywhere I think is wrong.

I really like the saying «hens are counted at the autumn». I would like to be trusted a bit more, I guess. Not only me, but in general the coaches who showed some results.

- Even now you sound like a person alone against the whole world. Does it hurt that much to realize you are not trusted?

- Quite unpleasant. Though am glad at least my skaters trust me. And people who I work with: my 2nd coach Oleg Volkov and the choreographer Ludmila Vlasova.

I was trying to figure where the mistrust comes from. And I just don't get it. When the competitions begin it disappears - the relationship with everyone become more smooth.

- Think I can answer that question. This season many people, the press included, felt the Russian figure skating began to raise again. We really want to speed the process up - we're hungry for the results. Hence we think of the skaters as those who will bring the results.

- If that's the case than I have no reason to be offended. The skates such as in Novogorsk and Odintsovo are a good thing. You get to hear of all the miscalculations in steps, lifts, costumes..

- But your team had no costumes...

- Why? Elena Ilinyh skated the Free Dance in the ballet skirt.

- But she appeared in the short dance with a sweatshirt tied around her hips, which was considered a lack of respect towards the crowd who payed to be there.

- I wasn't there on the ice rink - was ill. If I were there I would never allow the skater to show up dressed like that on the ice. Why did it happen is unclear. Probably she wanted to hide something. She wanted to be the smartest, but it didn't quite work out for her.

- You once told me: «If one works for 24 hours a day there is enough time for everything». Do you have a feeling you are lacking time after all? I can just imagine how much effort the TV show must be and can't understand where do you gain the energy from.

- I was asked the same questions by many, yourself included a year ago. But you saw the results, right? Here is the answer. After all we are talking now in Novogorsk where the skates are and not in CSKA, where the show is filmed.

I work with my skaters for 5 hours a day. Everyone knows it. As well as the fact none of my artists can expect to get my attention during the practice. They have their own time. How to combine all that is my problem and it doesn't concern anyone

- Is it true that the French Figure Skating Federation is trying to get on the way of your working with Natalie Pechalat/Fabian Bourzat?

- I know the federation really wanted Natalie and Fabian to come back to France. They declined. They didn't even leave Moscow during the fires

- Do you have an explanation to their strong connection to Russia?

- One of the reason is that they were not taken care of in France. The main supplies of the federation were given to Delobel/Schonfelder, while Natalie and Fabian had to gain everythign themselves. Our work together began when they came to my summer camp and learned so much in one month that they asked to stay. They don't want to leave now because they know they keep progressing.

Their Short Dance this season was choreographed by Antinio Najarro - the one who choreographed the Olympic programmes for Anisina/Piezerat, later worked with Lambiel. Pechalat/Bourza worked with Naharro before, so when they told me they wanted to ask him to choreograph their short dance I had nothing against. Antonio came to Moscow for that.

I choreographed their Free Dance from the scratch. For Natalie and Fabian, by the way, it was the first experience when the coach creates the programme and not the choreographer

- What were you thinking about when choreographing the Don Quixote as the first seniors programme for Ilinyh/Katsalapov? Am asking only because I've heard some negative critique on the matter.

- As a choreographer for me it was quite risky to choose «Don Quixote». It is obvious everyone will be comparing their dance to the dance of Basilio and Kitri by the most brilliant ballet dancers. But first of all my goal was to try as many styles and directions in the 3 years we have before the Olympics. Second it's useless to judge the programme by it's current state. The ballet classics, among other things, demands clean poses and ballet dancing. Which is something that was not demanded at all from Elena and Nikita in their last year's programme «Schindler's List». The German who saved the Jews could be anything in the dance. Well, preferably with a good posture. While Basilio has to be a Basilio. Not to lift the shoulders where it's not needed. Our Kitri is not exactly fitting her role yet either.

- Was it needed to switch to the Seniors this year, even though they could have remained in Juniors for another season?

- If we plan to be high in the Sochi Olympics - yes. No one canceled the queue in the ice dance. In order to win the Olympics in Vancouver the Canadians Virtue/Moir skated for 4 years in the seniors level, while the Americans Davis/White just for 3. Was it the other way around it's not obvious who would had won.

- You mentioned many times the new rules do not allow to create a character on the ice. Do you think the Olympic champions and silver medalists lacked that?

- They didn't. But there are not so many skaters who can do that. Virtue/Moir - one of them. They managed to create the characters both in the Original and in the Free Dance. Though I can't really say I loved all their previous programmes. All and all in some of their programmes there was nothing but a brilliant work on the details. Hence compared to the others Shpilband and Zueva's skaters looked better. But if talking in numbers, the Americans and the Canadians run the 100m in 10.1, while the rest do it in 10.8. That's the whole story.

In general it's a property of a well learned programmes - the energy is so high that it's not really important what the skater actually skates.

While I like Davis/White's interpretation much less than Virtue/Moir's it seems that they and everyone after them follow the same pattern. Virtue and Moir do stand aside in that department.

- Which is what exactly?

- What I especially love is their emotional interpretation of the dance. It's their work not only as skaters but as the artists. Charlie White is first of all a sportsman, hence when looking at one pair you see the relationship between the man and the woman, while the other pair shows nothing but the 4th level of elements.

- Are there any coaches you loop up to?

- I respect Shpilband alot. To work in such a high level for so many years and to show a good result all the time is hard. The gold and silver in Vancouver speak for themselves. It means that he found something the others have not found yet, myself included. After all Navka/Kostomarov's victory was more than 4 years ago

- Perhaps the main secret is in the system Shpilband and Zueva created, in which everything is targeted towards a result?

- That as well. I said before I work with Ilinyh and Katsalapov for 4-5 hours a day. Shpilband works on the ice for 2 hours with one couple and for 2 hours with the other. Then the other people work with them while Shpilband earns his money coaching other skaters. I can't do that. Hence I only work with 2 couples.

- Is there any jealousy between your couples?

- No. I think it's a great team. You can't gain results without it. The skaters even skate differently when they are together on the ice. Elena and Nikita gain a lot from skating with the 4th couple in the world, while Natalie and Fabian can't stop progressing seeing how close the young ones get.

- I had a chance to see the amazing raise of the Figure Skating in the USA when you were skating yourself in various shows and then to see the terrible fall of the skating. As someone explained me back then - the public just had too much of those shows. Do you have a feeling the same happens in Russia now?

- I do. But the fall had another reason: once there were no more champions in the USA and Canada it was no longer interesting. The whole figure skating as a business collapsed in the USA. We don't have any fresh olympic champions in our country. For the show business it's not enough even to have just one champion. Only then the country will be interested in figure skating.

- So it would seem that with Lysacek's, Virtue/Moir's and Davis/White's medals the new raise of the Figure Skating in the USA is to come?

- May be. Though I don't think it will be anything like as in the times of Boitano and Kwan. Keep in mind that thanks to the new judging system many of the competitions are held with a half empty rink. I did mention before that it became hard to create a programme that would make the viewer think and feel

- Did you hesitate before signing up for another TV show season?

- Not for a moment. Especially since the Figure Skating Federation's contract with the Rostelecom was over. That was the coaches salary money. As you know I don't exactly live in the cheapest city to live in, so the contract with the TV is my means for life. Besides I have a child and a family to support.

- In other words - it's just a job for the money.

- Of course, it's not even nearly as interesting as it was at the beginning of the project, but that's understandable: in the last 5 years so many programmes were created. Not to repeat became impossible. I realize the viewers might be tired. Especially since the last season project was called «Best of the Best» while the new season - they are all newbies.

Despite all that I love my work there. This year we added the dances on the floor, which is a completely new thing for me

- The ice dancing training does include the dancing on the floor.

- Yes, but differently. When, for example, you are taking the jazz-class, it is targeted to create an ice dance later. When I skated with Maya Usova our choreographer was Guiseppe Arena. He gave us a really fast dance for 5 minutes so we would warm our bodies in a very unusual for us way with the unfamiliar movements. 5 minutes of dance with no stops for a fast music is a hard work. At first you almost die, then it becomes easier and after 20 repetitions you control your body so well that not only you can repeat all the moves but make some accents and feel the music.

In figure skating such trains is a huge help. While in the TV show the combination of the ice and the dance floor is confusing. The pairs can hardly remember the dance pattern on the floor, then they get to the ice where the steps are different, they loose their mind, nothing works and they have to shoot in 3 days.

- Have you ever considered what will become of your training career if the TV Show will be gone?

- I'll try to survive. If nothing will work I will consider moving with my skaters abroad.


© Елена Вайцеховская, 2003
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