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Figure Skating - Coaches
Oleg Vasiliev:
Tatiana Totmianina, Oleg Vasiliev and Maxim Marinin
Photo© Alex Wilf
Oleg Vasiliev, Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin

No skater has such a heavy burden of responsibility like the Russian pairs have, especially at the Olympics. In 40 years, our country never lost the battle for gold. In Turin , this burden will be on the shoulders of Tatiana Totmianina, Maxim Marinin, and their coach Oleg Vasiliev.

At 2005 Worlds, Totmianina and Marinin won the top award the second time in a row. A year before, the Russians got the gold not as much due to their own wonderful performance n the free program, but because their rivals, Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao couldn't compete for the victory after the short program. The victory in Moscow-2005 was more impressive but was a little marred: because of the injury Zhao received during the competition, former World champions had to withdraw before the final performance.

Ironically, it often seemed that the fans at Moscow 's event were a lot less interested in the champions' skating then they were interested in Totmianina's return to ice after a bad fall early in the season. Despite numerous interviews, a lot of things stayed on the background, particularly how seriously the skaters and their coach betted on the pre-Olympic season.

Lori Nichol, the most expensive choreographer in America , was involved in working on the free program to «Scheherazade». Vasiliev and his skaters paid her about $20,000. Naturally, they could've not imaged that the fall will erase a lot of plans, both in sports and business, and as a result, the huge expense wouldn't bring any profit. In addition, their budget was seriously hit when they had to pay out of their pocket for flying to several competitions. To cover the debt, Totmianina had to sell her car, and the entire team, the coach including, financially starved the entire season. In addition, no one could say when the injury consequences, the constant headaches and the dizziness after the long flights, would disappear and whether they would disappear at all.

They never talked about it out loud. Tatiana said once, «What's the point in complaining? I won't feel better if I complain...»

Totmianina and Marinin started the Olympic season earlier than everyone else. In reality, they simply didn't finish the last one. Following the Collins tour, they came back to Chicago in May, and started working on the new programs and planning the future elements. Their first appearance at the test skates in Novogrsk was enough to realize that their Olympic programs would satisfy the highest requirements.

The only thing is, the day before the team performed in Novogorsk, Vasiliev suddenly said, «This is our last season. The decisive one. Tania and Maxim will leave the amateur competition, no matter how the season goes».

- Do you want to turn pro so much?

- This is not it. And it's not because whether or not we want to stay in the amateur competition. Tania and Maxim are almost at the edge of their psychological abilities. When the skaters have such a tough fight for the top for four year, it takes a big toll on them. Every year they lived in skating is like five.

- Can you define what does it mean to train the skaters who are contending for the top in the Olympic season?

- On one hand, there is almost no difference from any other seasons. We have to build our programs exactly the same way - the programs that would satisfy new rules and requirements. The work schedule is almost identical to the regular one, only moved a little, because the main event is in February, not March. Overall, it's the same work.

Picking the costumes and the music is another story. We have to take into the consideration where the Games are held. So, we decided to pick Romeo and Juliet them for the free program. I'm almost sure that someone else would have the similar thought, so we did everything possible so our program would feel unique even if it won't be the only one [using this theme]. For example, we asked famous Hungarian violinist Edwin Marton to write the music just for us. I've sent him the information about the program - things we would like to emphasize, how the entrances to the elements look like, how long the certain combos are... Working with Marton is easy in this regard. He collaborated with Evgeni Plushenko a lot and he knows the skating specifics. When the music for the program is written this way, the skates don't have to squeeze their skating in the limitations of the music and make them feel more comfortable on the ice.

When I've got the first music cut from Marton, right away I saw it was exactly what I wanted, even though the sound in the room wasn't too good. When I've heard the recording in the arena, the last doubts disappeared.

- Maybe it would've made sense to write the music for the short program as well.

- Short program is not the final performance. The music selection is not as important there.

- However, I know that the Russian Figure Skating Federation was very concerned that you with Totmianina/Marinin, and your former coach Tamara Moskvina, with Obertas/Slavnov, accidentally picked the same music for the short program for your teams - «A Snow Blizzard» by Sviridov.

- I've heard Obertas-Slavnov already changed their program.

- Then, what's the problem if, as you say, the music in the short program is not very important?

- Because there are constant questions, guesses, and assumptions about it. Olympic season is nervous enough by itself. You are constantly watched by the [Federation] officers, the press and television. You have to control your actions and words more, and it turns into the additional psychological pressure.

- When you were skating, did you ever have to change the music during the season?

- Twice. During our first season with Lena Valova on the National team in 1979, the national Federation didn't like our free program, «The Picture from the Exhibit» for whatever reason, and we changed it right before the Nationals without arguing. A similar incident happened in 1983, before the Europeans. Our music for the short program was criticized so much in the press that Moskvina decided to makeover the composition. It wasn't easy for Lena and me, but during those times, the coach's word was the law.

- You came from Chicago to St. Petersburg in the middle of August. As far as I know, you are not going to return to USA in the near future. Does it have anything to do with the importance of the upcoming season?

- We came to St. Petersburg in August for several years before as well. The guys have a short vacation, and I have to take care of the things that were on the backburner for a year. I send my child to school on September 1st. So, there is nothing unusual about our visit. There were several reasons why we didn't fly back. One is the test skate. Some love them and some don't, but no doubt, they are necessary, especially in the Olympic year. We have to show the programs, hear the feedback from the judges and the management, so we could understand how successful our summer work was and what corrections we should take.

Since there was only a month between our visit to St. Petersburg and the test skates, flying to America in the early September and coming back didn't make any sense, considering Tania's injury last year. The long flights are still the big problem for us - Tatiana doesn't feel too well two-three days after and she needs more time to get adjusted. So, it would've not been smart to have unnecessary stress one more time.

- Does that mean if you had to make long flights to compete at Grand Prix events, you would completely decline them?

- I wouldn't exclude that possibility, even though we need competitions very much. We have to make sure that all the ideas that are put into the program would bring the results we fought for. Of course, it's dangerous to show all your cards early in the season, but in our case, that is something that we have to do. We can't afford the risk of keeping everything secret to the last moment and then come to the main event to find out that the work wasn't done as well as we thought. I think we got lucky this season - Tania and Maxim got the events they wanted: Paris and St. Petersburg . They have time to prepare for them and fix the things that might need extra work before the Europeans if necessary.

- Totmianina and Marinin's both programs are noticeably more difficult. Where do you take the new elements from while you are in the sport where everything was thought out long time ago?

- It's hard to say. Every element is somehow based on the rules' requirements. The small details come from the mistakes sometimes, from what we see in the ballet or from our rivals. It all becomes some combination of incoming information, recreated with consideration for skaters' qualities and abilities. Comparing to the last season, we made 11 out of 14 free program elements more difficult. No changes were made to two jumps and one throw. The second throw is done from the footwork sequence, shortening the setup for that element and making the throw more «showy». So, we tried to get to the maximum level of difficulty.

- How hard was this process?

- You know, I train in Chicago wearing the skates. I still do some things better than my skaters despite the long break from skating and my age because all the skaters of my generation went through learning the compulsory figures. The hours, months, and years we spent on it staid in the muscle memory for the rest of the life. Totmianina and Marinin didn't have that school. Tania, for example, didn't know the difference between the basic elements, the ones we learned when we just started to put our skates on. Now, the technical requirements went so far that we have to work on the compulsory figures again. First of all, the rules demand all those figure to go via the footwork sequence. Second, if you haven't learned them, you won't be able to do more difficult things that are necessary to, let's say, move the certain combination from level 2 to level 3.

Also, Maxim has a very interesting habit; every time I offer something, he always says «no» first. It doesn't matter how realistic that offer is. Since it's not the first year we worked together, I'm used to it and I know that he will say «yes» tomorrow. He just needs the time to realize it all. That's why I'm not annoyed by it anymore. This summer, the guys learned more than in previous three-four years put together.

- Was there any reaction in your circle when you've herd that your biggest rivals might not be going to Turin at all?

- Of course. We discussed three options. First: Hongbo Zhao is really so injured that he won't be able to skate at the Olympics. Second: this is a trick, a reason not to compete at pre-Olympic events, so all the efforts would be towards the Games, and having a shocking surprise for all. And third: the injury is really, but the famous Chinese medicine can treat it in 2-3 months, not six. We discussed all three options and none of them would take us by surprise. Anyway, I'm not as worried about the competition as much as I'm worried about my skaters doing everything we planned, meaning both elements and psychology.

- What about after the season is over?

- The free run. Now, the money in figure skating are significantly less than before, but in any case, Totmianina and Marinin don't have a lot of choice: it's either skate or coach. It's easier to skate, any skater would tell you that, even though the competition in pro very big. You miss six months or a year because of the injury, having a child, or whatever reason, and you can lose your spot forever. It's a cruel world. I remember when Lena Valova and I turn pro, we haven't won one title because it was the different skating with different requirements that were hard to adjust to. Tania and Maxim skated in Champions on Ice for three years. Maybe it would be easier for them. They clearly know what needs to be done to be in demand. However, when they skated with Collins for the first years, not that it was hard to watch, but... It jumped out that they were amateurs.

- And what are you going to do?

- I'll either take young skaters and would try to get them to the highest level like Tania and Maxim or I'll earn money by coaching everyone who wants it. It's more profitable in America . What I do now makes me feel that I'm moving the figure skating in different direction. It's prestigious and it brings a very special joy, even though it doesn't leave time for anything else.


© Елена Вайцеховская, 2003
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