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Figure Skating - Coaches
Viktor Kudriavtsev: «TRAINING, THE AMERICAN WAY»
Viktor Kudriavtsev and Elena Sokolova
Photo© Alex Wilf
Viktor Kudriavtsev and Elena Sokolova

The ladies' event in 2004 Russian Nationals in St. Peterburg unfolded as a true triumph for Victor Kudriavtsev and his students: the podium belonged to Elena Sokolova, Yulia Soldatova and Kristina Oblassova – all of them Kudriavtsev's students. Oddly enough, two of the winning three skaters have left the coach at some point with no plans to return.

THE UNLUCKY FORMULA

- Did you ever expect them to come back?

Kudriavtsev pauses, as if listening to his own thoughts, rolls his fingers around the glass of water, gives me a piercing and focused look, and brusquely says “no.”

There are two thoughts that became almost a given during many years that I observed Kudriavtsev's work. He is one of the world's best technical coaches, if not the best. He is also the least lucky of them all. As soon as his students achieved a solid foundation of athletic knowledge, their departure was as predictable as high school graduation. It was almost as if a critical link in the coach/student partnership broke down as his charges matured.

I asked him once, very cautiously, if his students missed some attention on a human level. That happened shortly after Ilia Kulik departed after winning the Europeans, and perhaps the wound was too sore. “I'm not going to nanny them,” the coach muttered, and changed the topic.

I tried to stay away from the subject in our subsequent discussions, and it became even more touchy as time went on. Maria Butyrskaya followed Kulik's footsteps by leaving Kudriavtsev for Elena Chaikovskaya. In 1998, Yulia Lautova and Yulia Soldatova followed suit and left Marina Kudriavtseva for Chaikovskaya as well. The former began representing Austria; the latter was forced to assume Belorussian citizenship by the coach who alleged that such severance of ties with Russia will ensure the spot on the national team for Soldatova. The promises were enticing, and neither Lautova nor Soldatova had any inkling that Butyrskaya's success will turn out to be an exception rather than the rule, and that what was in stock for them was bitter disappointment.

In 2000, the only skater remaining with Kudriavtsev out of sometime large and the most competitive team in the country was Victoria Volchkova (after Sokolova went to train with Alexey Mishin in St. Petersburg.) Interestingly enough, when questioned by reporters who seemed interested in nothing but “Who's next?”, Volchkova kept repeating that she would never leave her coach as they have a perfect understanding.

In 2002, Volchkova began her season under Oleg Vassiliev's tutelage.

Although by then, Elena Sokolova was already back with Kudriavtsev – the first of many to return.

NOT ALL DEPARTURES ARE THE SAME

- Why wouldn't you expect them to return?

- For some reason, I couldn't believe that those who left could come to see the situation differently, and not simply understand that they not only enjoyed better conditions and more attention, but accept it as well. And returning to the old coach would mean just such an acceptance.

I spent much time trying to understand what happened and analyze the reasons for their departure. It goes without saying that internal competition in my team was always harsh. If you add everyone's selfish interest to this mix…perhaps, the athletes felt they did not get enough time. Although I always found time for one-on-one training. Even now, when Lena Sokolova is an accepted leader of my group, Soldatova, for instance, doesn't get any less attention. We are lucky to have enough ice team for everyone. In fact, even Zhanna Gromova with her skaters like Slutskaya, Dobrin and Naydyonov trained in our rink, and we made sure that Slutskaya and Sokolova didn't overlap in their ice time.

- Whose departure was the most painful?

- Sokolova, I think. I put too much effort into her. In addition, there was no real reason for her to leave. Lena consistently placed below Volchkova, but the real explanation was her less than professional training habits, and not any special conditions created for Volchkova.

- It seems like you created a reason for Vika's departure when you took Sokolova back.

- Our conflicts took root long before Lena's return, and it was more with Vika's parents than with her directly. They constantly interfered with my coaching. I recall that when she started skating with me, her mother told me at once to choose “beautiful but slow” music.

Vika is a complicated girl as it is. During all five years we worked together, she tried to force me into a style of skating most comfortable for her. In my opinion, her style should be entirely different.

When I saw that none of my plans or directions are being implemented, I thought that it is pointless to continue that which will not bear results. So I wasn't too terribly hurt with Vika's departure.

- Switching coaches usually means the conflict between the old and the new coaches. How difficult was it to maintain good relations with Tarasova after Kulik left?

- I always maintained good relations, even with Mishin, when Sokolova left. You see, skaters depart for different reasons, and they are entitled to their choices. For example, if a skater says they are tired of working closely with their long-time coach all the time, I totally understand their desire for a change of scene. In this case, the departure is entirely justified. And this doesn't mean that the coach should totally sever relations with his former student, especially if he wants the skater to truly develop.

At the same time, the skater's change of coaches should not affect anyone's financial interests, and should also be explained to the public to avoid gossip and speculation.

There is also a thing known as coaching ethics, which includes treatment of skaters who change coaches. It's hard to respect a coach who doesn't respect the rules of ethics. If you listen to Chaikovskaya, it seems that all her new students were victims of talentless coaches who by definition could not achieve anything. And this doesn't just include me.

- I recall being surprised when you continued not just being friendly with Tarasova, but helping her as well after Kulik left.

- It was Tarasova who asked for my help. What's more, she always asked my opinion whenever we would meet, and she asked for my advice regarding jumps and Kulik's programs as a whole. Of course I was hurt when he left. But even after his departure, I continued to see him as “my” skater. I invested lots of time and effort into him, so why not help him if he needs help?

- Did you share a then-common opinion that Tarasova is doomed to fail with singles' skating as she knows nothing about jumps?

- I understood perfectly well that she undertook tremendous responsibility when she started coaching Kulik. She really had a terrible time in the beginning, and I am sure she felt less than confident and afraid to experiment at time. Even when a skater has been taught to jump properly, he can still have problems, and it was during one of these times when Tarasova contacted me. I see this as a big coaching advantage when she was not afraid to admit she doesn't know something and asked for someone else's advice. The real issue is elsewhere. You see, Kulik didn't become less of a jumper when he trained with Tarasova, and neither did Yagudin.

RUSAKOV AND KLIMKIN

- Shortly before his death, Igor Russakov said that the top brass of the Russian Figure Skating Federation is putting pressure on him to give his Ilia Klimkin to Chaikovskaya. How did Klimkin end up with you?

- Igor and I were longtime professional friends. He was a good singles skater and always had individuality, imagination and creativity. He actually went and graduated from the theater school. Even my own son trained with Russakov at some point. I saw him as a serious coach and trusted him, and he trusted me. That's why he accepted my invitation to come and work at our rink as he didn't have enough ice time at his rink at the time. In addition, I thought that a younger coach like Russakov could in time assume leadership of my school as well.

- You knew he was sick, though, right?

- I didn't know how serious it was – I was sure he would recover. I was shocked by his death as I thought it was just a temporary thing. You see, he became ill seven or eight years ago. Then he went to France for a significant chemo treatment, and he improved so fast that no one suspected it would recur. He looked great and strong, he had confidence and lots of ideas.

Then last spring, he became worse. He went to France again, but the doctors couldn't do anything – I am sure they knew it was beyond treatment.

By May or June, Igor could not leave his house. I only managed to talk to him once, when he told me he couldn't work anymore, and asked me to look after Klimkin. Both of us were sure it was temporary.

It was only when Klimkin came to my training camp in Switzerland that I understood how severe Russakov's condition was. He lost a lot of weight and didn't have enough energy to even talk on the phone. You see, he never was in pain – perhaps if he felt pain, he could have started his treatment sooner and had more chances to recover. But no one had any idea, and then Igor didn't want to be seen in such a condition. He even stopped talking to Ilia, although he was the second closest person for Ilia, after his mom, all his life.

- How easy is it to work with Klimkin?

- Very easy.

THE AMERICAN SECRET

- Several years ago you predicted Tara Lipinski's win in Nagano, although she wasn't even 14 at the time. Can you explain the reason why we always hear that “she has some maturing to do before she can skate like a lady”?? All the while, the Olympic gold medal keeps going to 14- or 15-year old American skaters who seem to have no idea that they “need to mature first.”

I think that one of the reasons is that American skaters are heavily promoted in America long before they start winning. Evan Lysacek, who won JGP this year and the U.S.junior national champion,, started his training with me. Two years ago he won a very expensive car in a lottery, and it was no accident, but rather a specific even organized by the USFSA. An athlete who receives significant investments acts differently, and feels a totally different kind of responsibility.

Ladies' single skating is an entirely different subject. This discipline is a cult in the USA, and it dominates the rest to the point when the U.S. Nationals include up to 70 lady skaters in each age category. You need to start at dawn to give them enough time to compete, and that's how they grow up. Lipinski used to train 8 hours a day and did daily run-throughs of both programs. This would be entirely unthinkable for our skaters. American girls grow up thinking that becoming an Olympic champion at 15 is completely normal, while our skaters don't even think about these things.

- At the same time, many say that Russia has just as many talented children as America, and the recent Russian nationals are a proof of that. So where do all these children disappear?

- Do you know what the difference is between the American and Russian coaching of young skaters? The Russian coaches try to pack the program with so many triples that the kid starts bombing even the most consistent jumps. The American coaches at this level would allow their kids to include only the most consistent elements. That's why their kids skate with pleasure, they smile, they interpret music. This is the method I adopted in my school. I demand precision in execution of elements over everything else. I don't care if they can't do a triple, but I want them to do a proper double. We train them to be clean and precise from the very beginning, and to avoid an undue strain. They can graduate to more difficult routines later.

THE PERFECT WORLD AND REALITY

- Speaking of difficulty, do you believe that any of the present-generation skaters can perform all quads?

- A skater like Plushenko can do that. However, performing all quads separately and combining them in the same program is an entirely different matter.

- If you could design a perfect skater, who could be your model?

- That's an interesting question. I think I would take Yagudin's jumps. Plushenko is also an excellent jumper, but he doesn't have the same explosive power unleashed in a second that Yagudin does. I like Sandhu's spins. He has good and different positions, different from everyone else, and fast, too. As to steps and other small moves, I always enjoyed Kulik's style. Ilia consistently tried to create individuality in his skating, and it was never cookie-cutter. I recently saw one of his routines and it really impressed me as a coach. Although in performing a whole routine, I would prefer Yagudin. His style is extremely impressive and very masculine at the same time.

- I realize my next question would not be quite tactful for you as the coach of the World silver medallist, but assuming an American lady will win the Turino Olympics, who do you think this lady will be?

- Michelle Kwan.

- Why? Do you think she will get rewarded for “years of service”?

- Why do you say this? She skates very well right now. She is a phenomenal skater.

- What's phenomenal about her?

- First, the level of promotion that I mentioned before. Kwan became a member of the world elite when she was a star already. Although there is nothing extraordinary in her skating if you really scrutinize it in detail. Even her spins, which women generally excel in, are not as good as Plushenko's.

Michelle wins with something else - precision and subtlety in execution of her elements, and distinct musical phrasing. She also just started training with Rafik Arutunian, and Russian coaches work better than Americans.

- I think I heard that before – from Tarasova.

- It's true. After Tarasova had to let Cohen go, I heard from a very credible source that it was all planned in advance. The real reason has nothing to do with her mother or with Cohen's character. The real reason is that the American skating federation was unhappy that the most promising of their skaters trained with a Russian coach.

- What if Cohen never left Tarasova?

- Then I would have bet on her win in Turino.

2004

© Елена Вайцеховская, 2003
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