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Figure Skating
Irina Rodnina: «A NERVOUS SEASON AHEAD»
Irina Rodnina, Oleg Vasiliev and Alexander Zaitsev (left) in Luzhniki
Photo © Alex Wilf
Irina Rodnina, Oleg Vasiliev and Alexander Zaitsev (left) in Luzhniki

The Olympic season is usually considered to be a special one, but what is so special about it for the figure skater? Nobody can give the better answer than the three-time Olympic Champion Irina Rodnina.

- Irina, you happened to win the Games with different partners and different coaches. How did Olympic seasons differed for all the rest for you?

- First of all, the Olympics demand a very special nerves. For many, the Games are the end of the career, and some decide to stay in the sport for some time, but in any case, this is the top, the end of the certain work cycle, the period. All the bosses start to control you more and it makes you even more nervous. It happens everywhere. I haven't worked with our team for 15 years, but I saw twice how World Champion Michelle Kwan was getting ready for the Games, and I took a part in Jenny Meno - Todd Sand preparation. The same thing was going on there.

- Now is the time when the skaters and the coaches try to keep their work a secret. Do you think this is justified?

- There were always two different opinions about it. Whatever people want to show at the Games, they usually start to skate it at least a year in advance. Take Ira Slutskaya. She did triple-triple for the first time two years before competing in Salt Lake City. There is another theory - don't show your ideas before the time comes and show all the new stuff at the Games. If it's not technical ideas, they are creative at least. Many hide the music till the last moment, but that can come back to haunt you. Sometimes you find out when it's the most important moment that your choice wasn't unique. That happened at 1988 Games when the two gold medal contenders, Katarina Witt and Debby Thomas skated to the same music, «Carmen».

For both me and my skaters, I know that the short program is very important in the Olympic season. This is the main indicator of the skater's technical, physical, and mental shape. At the Salt Lake city, Alexei Yagudin's short programs was the decisive factor. That's where Zhenia Plushenko broke down. When I skated with Stanislav Zhuk's group, he always put the focus on this part of the competition.

- Why?

- The better you finish in the short program, the better draw you get. If you don't make the final group, your season is wasted.

- I recently talked to Alexei Mishin. He said, Evgeni Plushenko has two versions of the free program and at least two of the short.

- I think they made their choice a long time ago. If the coach and the skater are undecided, it makes the job more difficult. I speak from the experience. Only one time Zhuk made two short programs for us with Lesha Ulanov so we could pick which one of them skate at the competitions. Thanks G-d, that wasn't the Olympic season.

- What was the problem?

- Duplicity bothers me. You have to walk towards your goal like you've been enchanted. You should be like a horse with the blinders on so you wouldn't look to the sides.

- With the new rules, sometimes it seems to me that the music stops playing a significant role. There is no time for the characters, you have to rush to do your elements.

- I don't agree. Music sets a certain mood and color. Once we kept the old program with the only change being the final part of the music. Everyone started saying, «Yes! The last year was blah».

- Does it matter if the skater presents the new program at the Games or keeps the one from the last season?

- It's not the most important if the program is new or old. Every time I saw Ludmila Pakhomova and Alexander Gorshkov skate «Cumparsita», every time I took it as a new composition considering the mood, the performance, the relationship between partners. Remember Yagudin's «Winter»? You could watch that program endlessly. Just like at the ballet - people come to see the performers.

Once I complained to Zhuk that I had to skate in the old dress. He had a very simple reaction, «Irochka, if you worry about this, it means you allow your dress to be more interesting then what you show on ice». People start to discuss old and new programs where there is nothing more to say. You have to skate so the fans won't even remember how you skated that program the last year. If they remember and compare, that means you've made a step backwards.

- With the number of events that are on the international skating calendar, is it necessary to compete in all of them during the Olympic season?

- Everyone decides for himself. Sometimes declining a completion is often a defense of a sort when you realize you can't get «kill» everyone right away and be under this pressure for two-three months. On the other hand, it's difficult not to compete. In 1980, Sasha Zajtsev and I competed in the Games this way, because we missed a year when our child was born. European Championships was the only big event that we went to before the Lake Placid. Plus the USSR Nationals. When we skated with Zhuk, he always told us we always have to compete at the Nationals, sick, healthy, ready, or not. We always trained for it the special way.

- For the Nationals?

- We had to show the maximum when we were not in the best condition. You don't have to be in shape for the Nationals. Our swimmers show their best results at the Russian trials, so what?

- You are scaring me. Where does this knowledge of swimming coming from?

- I remember how before the Athens Olympics, we covered the entire Europe with medals. At the Games, we couldn't find our swimmers in the top 20.

- Many skating fans try to predict the Turin's results, in particular, the biggest chances for the men's gold are given to Plushenko.

- It's arguable. The Worlds show that everything can turn out differently.

- Yes, but Plushenko was injured.

- Then, remember last year's Europeans, where Plushenko lost to Brian Joubert, a little-known young skater, and lost Grand Prix to Canadian Emmanuel Sandhu? This is not a question of accidental wins, it's a question of being in shape. You don't have to be in the best shape, but you can overcome that condition psychologically and technically. Or not. Technically, Plushenko better than these two guys, no doubt, but in the most important moment, he couldn't get it together.

- Let's switch to the pairs skating. Most likely, Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao, won't have enough time to recover for the Games after Zhao's injury. Does it make it easier for the Russian teams to win?

- Yes, on one hand. On the other hand, when there is less pressure, it's not always affects your in a positive way. The scariest thing in sport is to relax. You have to feel someone to breeze in your back and you feet get hot. Only then you move forward.

- So, it was a loss for Plushenko when Alexei Yagudin left the sport because of the injury?

- Of course. Can't you see? In 1976, Zajtsev and I really didn't have a competition inside the country and internationally as well. At the Olympics, before the short program, I suddenly realized I didn't know how to get myself into competitive craze. I warmed up in a minute and a half and the rest of the time I was getting into everyone's way bothering them.

- So you would get in trouble?

- Yes, so I would get in the mood. Now the situation in the pairs skating is different. There are other Chinese teams, and the Russian rivalry is pretty high.

- Did you ever wanted to go the Games as a judge?

- Nobody would let me in there. During the Soviet times, I judges the USSR Nationals and realized that the judges fall behind very much, unlike the coaches and the skaters. They were always behind. What makes a high class skater and a high class coach? They always have their own vision on what to do and what direction to take. Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean, everyone was saying their programs break rules, but at the same time, their performances were accepted because they were genius. The same happened with Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin, Zajtsev and I. That's what being a person and a leader is all about. You can't say it about the judges. Mostly, they are people who either didn't make the National team, or placed below 20th in the international competition. Often, they are not very qualified and rarely speak their minds.

I saw all these discussions in the judges rooms where group opinions are worked on. In figure skating, the group opinion can't exist as a principle. I always could explain why I give a certain mark, but I'm not sure that most judges could do that. That's why we came to the strictly mathematical count of the results. However, I think figure skating simply can't have a perfect judging system. I would never believe that the system can objectively choose a winner when the system is not backed up by the professionalism of those who use it.

- The skater say that the new rules made them pay more attention to footwork and spins

- What do you mean pay attention? They were always there in the short program. In the free, everyone was doing what he was able to do. This way, every pair, every skater went their own way, but this is the most difficult thing to judge. Now, everyone is equal. Still, even in this situation, our skaters stay more technical and personable overall.

- Back to the Salt Lake City. If you were on the judging panel at the pairs event, who would you place first - Berezhnaya/Sikharulidze or the Canadians?

- Lena and Anton, of course. They skated the short program better, no doubts here. Judging the elements, both teams were equal in the free program. The Canadians were significantly loosing in the skating speed. This is one of the main criteria of the mark. You drive the car and you probably know how hard it is to do the maneuvers on the high speed.

- Officially, you are not connected to Russian figure skating now, but at the same time, on Monday, on your birthday, you are going to the Moscow Federation conference where the new president will be elected. Why are you doing this?

- How can you throw something our of your life when you did for so many years, when you have the traditions? Don't you care about everything your father had done is now forgotten in Russian swimming? For the last four and a half years, Anatoly Harchuk is a nominal head of the Moscow federation. He is also a head of the Dinamo hockey club. Maybe he doesn't have time for figure skating, but as a result our federation has no push, even so it had power at some time. We had unique skaters and good coaches. The work was done with both beginners and older skaters. That all gave results and helped bring children to our sport and open new schools.

Petersburg Federation managed to keep the coaches and keep the face, despite the difficulties. Moscow was always more dependent on the Russian skating federation management, and maybe that's why it suffered more. The level of the coaches is lower. Before, we were proud that our children coaches are the best in the World. After working in America, I can definitely say it isn't so anymore. Naturally, the country's break-up played a big role. Huge number of experts and skaters had to go abroad. The sad part is that even now, when new rinks are constantly open in Moscow and there are opportunities to earn by giving private lessons, many who finish their careers simply don't want to work and deal with the current management, and it's not only in Moscow, by the way. Ten rinks were built in Tatarstan recently, there are money to pay the coaches, but they can't find the people.

- Why don't you want to coach?

- I was on the National team for 14 years, I coached in Russia for several years, and over 10 years in America. So, why do I have to start proving myself again? Most importantly, who needs it? Isn't that ironic that a person whose experience is limited to groups on the open-air rinks is the biggest expert on the skating in Moscow, a city that has the largest number of Olympic and World champions? It is he who defines how the schools for children should work. That's what I call a lower level. Another thing is that this level is easily ruled and this possibly satisfies both Moscow and Russian skating federation.

- Maybe, you should've ran for the job?

- I have too much connection to our skating. If I set a goal to change they state of things, the changes have to be radical and have conflicts. I think it would make more sense to invite a person from the outside - independent, with big finances and desire to do something. The money are needed to rebuild everything we had before - run competitions in Moscow, create work conditions, run seminars and experience exchanges. It becomes prestigious now to invest in sports.

Several large companies came to me personally because they wanted to finance the skating. Naturally, I directed them to the Russian Skating Federation. What they do with it, it's not a question for me. In America, National and Regional Federations send a complete financial report to all their members once every two years. When I worked there, I regularly received these reports as a member of the USA Professional Association of Figure Skating.

- Back to the Olympics. You probably have predictions for the Turin. What do you expect?

- In that aspect, I'm like a woman who is expecting a child and absolutely doesn't want to know the child's sex. This makes the wait more intriguing.

2005

 

© Елена Вайцеховская, 2003
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