«OLYMPIC CHAMPIONS POP JUMPS, TOO»
|Photo© Alex Wilf
The skating gala of the Grand Prix event in Moscow went on for longer than expected this Sunday. This is why Evgeni Plushenko was a bit late for our meeting in the hotel lobby, and he came straight from the skaters' bus. «I need a few more minutes, if you don't mind – just to drop my stuff off in my room and change. Is this OK?»
While I was waiting, I had a chance for an unscheduled conversation with his coach Alexei Mishin.
- Did you miss the gala? Oh, that's a shame. Zhenya surprised me by skating much better than is ready to skate right now. We in are in the middle of a difficult time right now. As you may know, last year we had to deal with a juvenile bone disease – it turns out that the growth spot on his major hipbone was not quite closed yet, so from time to time it became inflamed when overloaded by skating. Although Zhenya began his winning streak a long time ago, in fact, his first medal at the Worlds came at 1998, and he skated like an adult, it is only now that his muscular development became complete. His entire body structure has changed – he is a fully grown man now. And this causes some problems.
- As for me, let me tell you that at the press conference your student admitted missing his rivalry with Yagudin – the struggle they had going for many years. Before, Plushenko always used to say that Yagudin is just one of his many rivals, although everyone and their uncle knew it was not true.
- You see, I always taught Evgeni to avoid reporters if possible, and not blab to them indiscriminately. This policy has its own pluses and minuses. Some of your colleagues did not exactly give him the most flattering reviews. On the other hand, if Plushenko started talking about himself a lot when he was still a kind, he would have become jaded by now. Perhaps it was my guidance that allowed his personality to grow up. Actually, here he is, don't let me interrupt.
I said goodbye to Mishin and turned my recorder on.
I NEVER DREAMT OF BEATING URMANOV
- Let me ask you another question about your rivalry with Yagudin. Was it harder to skate then, when you were fighting head-to-head, or now, when you have virtually no competition?
- For some reason, it's harder to skate now. Although I can't really say it was ever easy, even when I just started to train in earnest. I needed to break through the crowd, learn difficult elements. I needed to win, even when I had to skate through injuries. You see, if you lose a competition, you'll never be able to prove that you lost because of your injuries.
- What motivated you when you started training with Mishin? Did you want to win big, faraway titles, or did you want to become noticed in the group of Mishin's skaters?
- The environment in the group was such that I felt compelled to catch up with senior skaters like Urmanov, Novoseltsev and Tataurov. I tried to do the same things they did, warm up the way they did, do the elements they did. That's why I always said that I was lucky to be a part of the group where one can learn forever just by watching the others.
Of course, I never thought about beating Urmanov in the beginning. I started training with Mishin when Urmanov was already Olympic champion, and what did I have at the time? My little-boy kind of skating? I mostly thought about beating Yagudin, as he's only a few years older than me, although later on I beat Urmanov as well.
- It seems that the new judging system cemented your position as a sole leader of the men's field. It did, didn't it? It made your winning margin over your rivals so high that it cannot possibly motivate you to achieve even higher scores.
- I don't know what to tell you. I like the new system. Finally, the judges are not looking just at the jumps. Before, I knew that as long as I complete the jumps, I don't have to do anything else. Now I have a chance to show that I can do more than jump.
JUDGES DON”T ALWAYS GET EVERYTHING
- Many skaters said early in the season that the CoP made them change their programs significantly. Did you have the same experience?
- Certainly. We paid more attention to our spins. For instance, we added another spinning position where I do something like half-doughnut, half-Biellman. We also planned to add a spin to show that I can spin on the outside AND on the inside edge. This plan was ultimately abandoned, as the doughnut spin alone just looked better. We did add a new step sequence.
For some reason, at Skate Canada this step sequence was classified as Level 1, i.e. a simpler element. Although I can honestly say that's the most difficult step sequence I ever did. So naturally, when we came home from Canada , this was the first thing we changed. We just left the easiest types of bracket turns, and this resulted in Level 2 classification. For some reasons, the judges consider brackets, hooks and such the most difficult steps.
- Perhaps their reasoning is that ever since the demise of compulsory figures, these elements are not really taught any more?
- I never had to do figures, but I can do them anyway.
- What other elements, in your opinion, are underestimated in this new system?
- Serpentine steps. If you recall, I have a sequence in the Biellman position (and I'm the only senior skater who does that), followed by the steps. And suddenly I heard someone saying, what the hell is he doing? That's very easy, that's a Level 1 element!
- And why is it that you still do your Biellman?
- What do you mean?
- I don't want to be rude, but this spin is obviously getting harder to do every year. So the question «Why?» does come up. Your programs are difficult as it is.
- First of all, I love knowing that I'm a first male skater to do this spin, and no other senior skater has done it yet. Secondly, it is somewhat a brainchild of my Mom – she thought I could do it, and she helped me stretch so that I can do a split. It's not that it's harder to do right now, but I mean, come on, my back problems aren't exactly a secret. Sometimes a nerve gets pinched, then spinning becomes painful.
- A couple of years ago your coach said that your steps and spins are no less difficult than your jumps. Is that true?
- I know many skaters who find it easier to jump than to spin. Or easier to spin than do steps. I can say that I find everything easy to do.
- Is that so?
- Not really.
ALL ERRORS COME FROM INJURIES
- Actually, that's not what I wanted to ask you about. During competition, one of the most prominent figure skating experts and your greatest fans, Victor Ryzhkin, said that the program construction is on the main requirements for the win. What he meant was construction of the program in a way that lets a skater do the required elements and still get some rest in between the jumps. Another thing he said was that your jump problems in your Nizhinsky program resulted from too much performance drama.
- For ten years now, my coach has been developing my programs in a way that takes care of this requirements – meaning I can have a break after each jump before it's time to set up for another one. My new program is very taxing. I think that's one of the hardest programs I ever did, both physically and emotionally. As for «too much drama», well, he's just thinking out loud. You can talk about my «excessive focus» on the character and my discomfort with this program till you're blue in the face, but the real reason is much more simple.
When I was skating Carmen two years ago, I had no pains or aches. This year, I have a serious meniscus injury. I didn't skate for a month and a half, and contemplated surgery. At least that's what my doctors recommended. But we started to train regardless, and I started to get in shape, although much slower than I would have liked. So all my errors come from my lack of shape, not from too much drama. The errors come from my bad leg.
- I always thought you can do triples in any condition, practically with your eyes closed. OK, quads are different, but on Saturday you doubled two triples, and I couldn't help but think that everything is not peachy.
- Of course, when I'm out of breath and coping with pain, and only thing I can think about is «don't you dare jerk this leg of yours around», anything can happen. Even Olympic champions pop jumps.
- Does the emotional part of the program get easier with training?
- Of course. The more you practice, the easier it is. You know when to breathe in or out, and feel much more comfortable, and them emotions don't take as much energy.
- Can you describe how you feel when you are skating at the peak of your form?
- I feel completely comfortable. I feel very relaxed and do whatever I can. For instance, at my morning practice, I do a quad lutz, quad toe, quad salchow, and during my evening practice, I do a complete run-through, and still feel comfortable and full of energy.
- The music market these days offers tremendous variety for your programs. How do you choose your music? And can you enjoy music without thinking about skating?
- If I like a certain piece, I automatically start thinking about how it would look on the ice- aha, a step sequence here, a pause here, a jump here. That's OK. Figure skating is my job.
- Can you skate to Russia 's national anthem?
- Why not? I don't know whether that's the right thing to do, though. I never thought about it.
PETRENKO, THE KING OF ARTISTS
- I hear Mishin has a large collection of skating videos. Have you ever watched them?
- Certainly, more than once, including the tapes of Mishin and Moskvina. I also watch Petrenko, Urmanov, Yagudin, and earlier recordings, such as Nepela and Chetverukhin.
- Which skater do you like best?
- Petrenko. I always wanted to be like him. When I began to develop my own skating personality, Boitano, Browning, Urmanov and the rest were still competing. I watched everyone, and liked Petrenko best. I considered him the most artistic skater. He also had a superb triple axel with incredible air time. Triple axels like that are hard to find even now. Although Petrenko couldn't do steps like Browning or spirals like Boitano.
- Are there any other elements performed by other skaters that you would like to do?
- I am attracted to new things, mostly to jumps. Quad lutz. I want to do all the quads.
- Including the axel?
- Let's not even mention the axel, shall we! I never tried it. Although early in the season, when I felt well, and did lots of jogging and off-ice training, I seriously considered adding a new quad to my arsenal, either a lutz or a salchow. And then my knee troubles began and these plans fell by the wayside.
- In figure skating, there are skaters who never medalled, but are still revered by the fans, and then there are Olympic champions who don't leave much of a memory. Which would you like to be?
- I would like to think I've already left a memory, although I'm only 21. I'm not going to lie – my number 1 priority is Olympic gold. And if I don't win, well, I'll keep on entertaining the audience.
- I f you don't win the Olympics, would that be a big blow?
- Of course, I always dreamed about the Olympics, and Olympics only, even when I was very small. I watched TV and thought about only one thing – winning, at some time in future.
- How do you feel about many young skaters watching you in the same way now?
- I like to be a role model. It was my goal and still is.
- How often do you have to do what you have to do, vs. what you want to do?
- I always do what I think is a right thing to do.
- Do you have to give up much for the sport?
- Yes, especially now that I'm injured. I tell myself that skating is my first priority. I'm not going to die if I don't play tennis for a year. Although soccer was hard to give up, I always loved it to death. Mishin would always get on my case because the guys and I used to play soccer for warm-up, and finish the game after practice. But Mishin was unhappy about me wasting my energy for God knows what. And he was concerned that I can get injured.
- Did you ever get injured?
- Yes, I tripped.
- Do you ever have serious conflicts with Mishin during practice?
- No, what's the point? If I can't do something, it's not the coach's fault. When I get angry, I get angry at myself.
- Is there a part of your personality that annoys you?
- Well, it doesn't annoy me…but I love to sleep, and hate morning practices. Particularly during competition, when one needs to be up at five or six. That's the most annoying and irksome thing for me.
- Is there a competition you remember above all others?
- The first professional competition when I beat Petrenko. I was all shook up. I was so ashamed, you have no idea. And then he came up and said, don't fret, it had to happen some time.
A year later, I beat Browning and felt very uncomfortable. I also remember my first winning Worlds in Vancouver . The way they greeted me, and the whole ambience. But my favorite thing is to skate in Russia , as the audience here is unlike anywhere else in the world.
YOU CAN”T DESCRIBE VICTORY IN WORDS
- I think Elena Chaikovskaya said one that victory is a very personal moment for an athlete, and no one can live it the way the skater does. Can you tell me what you feel when you win? When you finish skating, and you know you won, when the audience rushes to its feet?
- Gee, you are describing it now, and I am already getting goose bumps, and your answer is right here. When the audience gets up, well, man, that's everything. I can give up a lot for a moment like this. And I get a similar feeling when I am on the pedestal and the national anthem is playing.
- Did you ever burn out in competition?
- Yes, in Minneapolis , during Worlds in 1998. I came to win, and I was supposed to win. I was prepared better than anyone, and I knew it. I did quad after quad, and quad-triple combo in practice without fail. But I was in second after the short program. I came to my room, and began to think about doing a quad combo, and a quad single, and then an axel. I ended up falling asleep at 3 a.m. , and I didn't get enough sleep, and fell apart completely.
- How do you feel about your fame?
- I'm not tired of it yet.
- Does it make your life more difficult?
- Well, I'm not exactly a rock star. It doesn't take much time to take a picture or give a couple of autographs. And it only happens during competitions. When I'm back home, I go shopping, I work on my house, I talk to my builders, I buy furniture. I'm pleased when they recognize me and invite me to the theatre or other places.
- Your theatre and museum excursions – which Mishin adores to talk about – do you do it for fun or because you have to?
- I first came to the ballet performance when I was 12, and I fell in love with the whole ambience. It was a totally new feeling, and I remember it to this day. If I had time, I would go to the theatre more often.
I HAVEN”T MADE ENOUGH MONEY FOR A SAILBOAT YET
- Do you ever worry about not getting a good education? This happens to many athletes.
- I can get any education I like after I'm done with skating. As to books and plays, I make time to read and see everything I want and have to. When I needed to read a book about Nizhinsky, I made time.
- Because you had to, or because you wanted to?
- Because I wanted to. I was amazed by his life. he came to a ballet school with his mom, on a whim, and he got accepted. I talked to many ballet people, and they said Nizhinsky advanced his art by 30 or 40 years, including motion and dance technique, although he wasn't understood by everyone. When I read it, I thought that this would be a dream role in history.
- How important is the support of fans for you?
- It's important to any athlete. For instance, one skater gets people to yell «you're the best!» and the other doesn't. The one who does will have a better time skating; it's like getting a second wind. Fans meant a lot to me. I am pleased to see banners and posters they bring, and I skate for fans most of all.
- At the same time, some people find you cold, inaccessible and arrogant.
- I am sure they won't let me get they way, for as long as I am skating in Yubileyni. Sometimes I am running to practice, and I don't say hi to someone, and what I hear immediately is hey Plushenko, come back to earth.
When I was younger, I used to be upset when I heard unpleasant things about myself. I used to it now. Everyone has opinions.
- Do you dream about figure skating?
- I do. I dream of jumps, skating, difficult elements…
- Do you have any dreams unrelated to the sport?
- To build a house on the lake, to have a little boat by the shore, and lie down, watch the skies, rest after skating, traveling and hassle. Or just to sleep.
- Why not a sailboat, then?
- I haven't made enough money for a sailboat yet.