Rafael Arutyunyan: “I saw that Malinin had the quadruple axel in him from the very beginning. I believe in the quintuple toe loop too, he can do it.”

Posted on 2023-08-01 • No comments yet


Translation of a big interview with Rafael Arutyunyan. About Ilia Malinin, Nathan Chen, Mao Asada and difficulties in work with Russian skaters.

photo: Global Look Press

source: sports.ru dd. 1st August 2023 by Maya Bagriantseva

Every time we try to have a call, you are at work. Do you ever take a break?

Rafael Arutyunyan: I love to work. Right now, I have kids from 15 different countries at the rink, some with quadruple jumps, some at an intermediate level, and I work with all of them. I have a successful business, but money is definitely not a priority for me; it never has been. Money comes when you work hard and put in a lot of effort. In three years, it’ll be half a century since I’ve started coaching, and not just somewhere nearby, but every day for 8 hours by the boards.

In three years, that will be during the next Olympics in Milan-2026.

Rafael Arutyunyan: Regarding the Olympics… I lived for 12 years with that. I saw a trolleybus and looked to see if there was a number one on it. In my mind, I only saw the number one. I’m walking across a crosswalk, and there, at the traffic light, the digits change, and suddenly I see an eleven, and I’m right on the zebra crossing. I was so happy that I made it on time! But now, I don’t see those number ones anymore. That’s it.

Did you ever share this to Nathan?

Rafael Arutyunyan: No, never. What? You can’t do that, especially because he was winning everything anyway. And when he suddenly became third in the fall of the Olympic season (at Skate America, behind Vincent Zhou and Shoma Uno – Sports.ru), I was happy and even took a sigh of relief.

As a coach, I felt that he was already heading towards this loss, and I didn’t want to interfere with it, because we needed this pause. I was afraid it would happen at the Olympics, and we already had a bad experience in Korea (17th place in the short program, 5th overall – Sports.ru). If that hadn’t happened, maybe I wouldn’t have been afraid.

After the bronze at Skate America, we had a serious conversation. Everything fell into place then, and I realized that nothing would stop him from winning the Olympic gold. Probably, it was already clear to everyone from the outside that it was basically a one-side game. But I’d rather not go into details about it.

So, you weren’t worried at all before the Olympics?

Rafael Arutyunyan: No, well, of course, I was anxious, but at the same time, I realized that Nathan would only lose if something extraordinary happened. And you know what? I’m glad that he won the gold exactly then and not earlier – because otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to feel its value. I’ve been working towards this for 40 years. Now, I’m absolutely content and enjoying life to the fullest, embracing all its blessings. I feel great.

I work at a super modern rink (Great Park Ice Arena in California – Sports.ru), and essentially, I am the head coach here. I have a team of 12 people – from Japan, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, and Russia. And we plan to expand.

Before I invite someone to join my team, I have to calculate it from a business perspective. Besides, California is not a cheap place to live; you need to earn at least ten thousand dollars a month just to get by. So, I have to make sure that I can provide a person with a stable workload.

You mentioned before that you won’t take on more coaching responsibilities. Do you find yourself having to restrain yourself from getting involved again?

Rafael Arutyunyan: Right now, I’m more of a helping hand to some figure skaters – like Ilia Malinin, for example. I provide assistance, but I think I do very little, and he appreciates it a lot. I only come in when needed and do very little in practice.

Would you want to do more?

Rafael Arutyunyan: No. I want to give as much as they ask for. I’ve been in this sports world for a long time, and I know that guys like him know exactly what they need. I rarely make mistakes because I see the person. Ilia is unique. And I know that he knows exactly what he wants.

He’s like a sponge, absorbs everything instantly. He takes from a single word, and sometimes even from a single glance. He’s a very smart guy. Yes, he’s generously gifted, but he also has a good head on his shoulders.

What about his physical data that allows him to do things others can’t?

Rafael Arutyunyan: I’ll put it this way: physics greatly depends on a head. Plus, he has a very high level of motivation. He’s like a locomotive, pulling himself forward.

Are you sure it’s not the parents and their ambitions?

Rafael Arutyunyan: Parental ambitions exist too. But ambitions differ from one another. Every child has a lot of energy; kids are incredibly resilient and active. It’s necessary to direct that energy in the right direction. It seems that his parents had that motivation – to direct that energy. Then the boy developed his own motivation – to become the best. He always wants to be better. His extraordinariness lies in his high level of motivation, and the task of adults around him is to help. To say the right words and not interfere.

An amazing incident happened last year. I’ve stood next to him at competitions for a long time, but I’ve never sat with him in the kiss-and-cry. And then, at the World Championships (where I came with completely different skaters), I stood somewhere off to the side.

Ilia usually asks me to be nearby if he needs urgent advice. So, towards the end of the free program, his dad turned to me and said, ‘Ilyusha asked me to bring you to the kiss-and-cry if he skates well.’

You see, he was trying to thank me for our work, but he was afraid that something might not go well in his performance, so he didn’t ask in advance. This speaks to the unique side of his character.

This year at the World Championships, he skated a phenomenal short program, came off the ice, and I told him, ‘That was so strong, thank you.’ Then, he took me by the hand to the kiss-and-cry area and loudly said, ‘This is thanks to you, you deserve it.’

So, it means he was raised well.

Rafael Arutyunyan: Yes, no doubts. His parents are very decent people, modest, but most importantly – decent. And that’s something I really like.

With Ilia’s family, we have a great team. There are still three years until the 2026 Olympics, and no doubts he’s a potential medalist in Milan, let’s put it that way. It requires good planning, a team of professionals in all areas – from nutrition to choreography.

But I really want all the benefits and glory to go to his parents. It’s enough for me; I already have everything I need. And they deserve it like no one else. I sat in the kiss-and-cry area at that World Championships, and I regretted that Ilia’s mom, Tanya Malinina, wasn’t there next to me. It was rightfully her place. They invested so much in this boy, it’s their life’s work, they are so dedicated to it. In general, I hope that his mom and dad make the right decisions because I can only advise.

From the very beginning of our collaboration, it was like this. I helped set a general direction, put up some markers. And their decision to turn to me for help was very right, I believe. He realized this himself, and that’s why he treats me that way.

Living in America for 22 years, I’ve learned patience. I can advise on something for a long time and patiently, and I won’t change my perspective because I know what I’m talking about. And if a person persists – well, what can you do, you can’t force someone to think differently.

So, it comes down to trust between the coach and the athlete.

Rafael Arutyunyan: Yes, of course. There are two ways to convey your point: dictate or convince. I live in a country where I can’t dictate. Perhaps dictating works faster, yes. And persuasion – you can wait for months and repeat, ‘I told you, look.’ You sow the seeds and wait for them to sprout. But when you convince someone, they understand that it’s their decision. Not imposed from above.

Ilia is not capricious in his work?

Rafael Arutyunyan: Not with me, no. Well, I treat him like an adult. And I respect him. For me, age is not important; what’s important is the ability to work seriously on the ice. On the ice, he is equal to adult athletes – in terms of work. He does things that others can’t. And I treat him as an equal.

Not from above, like a coach to a student?

Rafael Arutyunyan: No, of course, maybe even the other way around. After all, he pushes the boundaries of what’s possible; he jumped a quadruple axel, after all!

And there was a funny story with this jump. He did a triple axel, and I told him, ‘Let’s try a slightly different entry; I see that your axel is good, and this entry will help improve it.’ In other words, I didn’t reveal all the cards right away. But he immediately responded, ‘Let’s do a quadruple then, right?’ Then he turned to his dad and said, ‘See, I told you!’

At first, his dad didn’t believe me, but I saw that Ilia had the quadruple axel in him; we just needed to try a new approach. I’ve spent so many years on the ice; I see these things: a quadruple could fit there.

So, I replied to his dad, ‘Actually, he already has this jump. Let’s try with a harness, let’s pull out this quadruple.’ And after a month, they sent me a video of the quadruple axel.

Did you believe that it was real before Malinin?

Rafael Arutyunyan: Of course. I believe in the quintuple too, you just need to work on it. The question is whether it’s necessary or not. But I see that Malinin can jump a quintuple toe loop. Most likely, not just the toe loop. He can really do it. The difficulty of the quintuple is not in execution but in the danger of injuries. When Nathan and I were working together, we sometimes jumped quadruple toe loops in such a way that you could see – you could make it a quintuple. But we realized that it wasn’t really necessary, we had a different task.

A lot also depends on Ilia’s training location. I think if they could move closer to me in California, it would be easier and I could be more helpful. We have conditions, opportunities, and interested parties on our ice. The owner of the rink is a true fan of figure skating.

How often does Ilia come to see you?

Rafael Arutyunyan: Rarely now. It used to be more often because there were certain problematic moments. But now everything has been sorted out, he worked on many things himself. Mostly, he sends videos if there are any questions. Like a week before the World Championships, but it was just minor details.

After the season, he came twice. He choreographed both programs with Shae-Lynn Bourne, who also works at our rink. And we worked together, he did incredible things. It’s even scary to talk about: for example, he jumped a quadruple toe loop, landed, and then immediately did a quadruple axel. With a clean landing.

Did you like the programs?

Rafael Arutyunyan: It’s a clear step forward, one of many that lie ahead for him. And I will like it when he wins.

Do you agree that Ilia should continue with his space-themed content? After the World Championships, there were talks of abandoning the quadruple axel, for example.

Rafael Arutyunyan: Yes. You see, he wants it himself, he goes for it – even though everyone around him advises against it. Parents are against it, federation leaders are against it, even judges in private conversations advise him to simplify the content. And it turns out I’m the only one who’s for it.

Because there’s no going back?

Rafael Arutyunyan: Because it all depends on the calculation. He still has time to get everything in order, and now is the most appropriate time to try. The other question is that he needs to calculate very precisely when to stop experimenting. And he may need help with that. Because it’s very challenging; he’s a pioneer in what he wants to accomplish.

Have you already discussed the strategy with him?

Rafael Arutyunyan: It’s not enough to discuss it; it needs to be adhered to. And here, of course, there are certain difficulties. He’s a very ambitious and enthusiastic guy. It’s great, by the way, but it would be calmer if he experimented in close proximity to me, haha. I really want him not to miss his chance; he’s a unique talent.

When you first saw him, did you immediately recognize this unique potential?

Rafael Arutyunyan: No. I have an acquaintance who can see something in kids. And he brought Ilia to the rink. He said, ‘Look, an interesting guy.’ But I was probably fully immersed in Nathan at that time, so I didn’t pay much attention.

How old was Ilia then?

Rafael Arutyunyan: 9 or 10, very young, he could do not much. But later, when we started working together, I understood everything about him; he blossomed in our work together.

Will Ilia be able to handle such fame?

Rafael Arutyunyan: Perhaps that’s when he will need me the most. But I don’t think it will overwhelm him. You see, being extraordinary is normal. My task is precisely to show him that, then there will be no talk about whether it will overwhelm him or not.

Is there a risk that he will burn out? Should he be held back?

Rafael Arutyunyan: That’s why a good team is needed, one that will help him make the right decisions. He is motivated, but he lacks experience, so he will be feeling his way through. But I know what direction not to go – so I can help him with that.

Do you see potential for a long career in him?

Rafael Arutyunyan: Yes, someone like him can skate for a long time. He has a good body, favorable characteristics. It was more challenging with Nathan; he had a stiff body, but a flexible brain, ha-ha. He knew what he was doing, and I tried to plan everything well for him. When I started coaching him, I already had 34 years of experience. Even so, in Korea, I couldn’t convince him to listen to me; he was little and stubborn. On the other hand, had he listened to me back then, we might not have seen the Nathan Chen who skated in Beijing.

The problem was also that I didn’t fully understand the differences in mentalities, cultures – we often explain people’s actions from our own perspective. But in reality, everything can be completely different.

Is it easier with Ilia because of that?

Rafael Arutyunyan: Yes, of course. And it’s easier to deal with his parents. And sometimes I understand what’s going on in Ilyusha’s head before he does.

But he will grow, won’t he? What then?

Rafael Arutyunyan: Of course, he will change – and it’s not just about growth. The body changes every day; you come to training and you’re not the same as yesterday. So, athletes must constantly update their bodies.

When a ballerina stands at the barre in a class at the Bolshoi Theatre, it’s as if she loads her phone with new data and takes it with her into the new day. The same with figure skaters. Nureyev said, ‘If I miss one day of training, I know it. If I miss two days, my teacher knows it. And if I miss three days, the whole audience knows it.’ These are the golden words of a professional. A real professional sleeps, eats, goes to shows only to do their job.

Not everyone can do that.

Rafael Arutyunyan: Well, not everyone can win an Olympic medal either. And I think Ilia has the potential for that. It’s related to how long he wants to be a professional.

All the top skaters today are good skaters with great potential. And I want to go to the Olympics not like going to a casino, relying on luck. I prefer everything to be solid and reliable.

They say that it’s easier to go through turbulent periods with boys.

Rafael Arutyunyan: Sport is at such a level of complexity now that it’s not easy for anyone. When Michelle Kwan retired, she came up to me and asked in confusion, ‘Raf, I don’t understand what to do next. Before, everything was clear: wake up, warm-up, training, cool-down. What now?’ She was so lost until she figured it out and practically invented a new life for herself.

Did Nathan know? Was he bewildered?

Rafael Arutyunyan: Oh, he prepared in advance. He ventured into a very serious field – genetic engineering. He’s learning incredible things from a professor who is the best in this field; they both live in the future. They are working on the possibility of genetically correcting blood structure in the case of genetic diseases.

Yes, we all saw how he came to competitions with notes and textbooks.

Rafael Arutyunyan: Well, there, too, they have professors with their own priorities. What kind of World Championships? First, you pass all the exams and complete all the assignments, and only then you can go wherever you want. They never gave him any special treatment. They have their own championship.

There is such a thing as a generational talent, can we say that about Malinin?

Rafael Arutyunyan: Yes, undoubtedly. He is special. Chen was also special, by the way. I have encountered other special talents – they are all great, and I don’t want to mention names, but I am lucky to work with them.

I have never been involved in selection. No one has ever led the best and most talented to me by the hand. I have never been famous – neither as a skater nor as a coach. I worked with whoever was there. From the very beginning of my career, I took those whom others rejected. If they gave up on a skater, it meant they would send them to me.

I know perfectly well how to lure athletes. You pass by them during training and casually say, “Wow, you skated great today.” And it works, the person immediately lights up, and you open the door to them. But in my whole life, I have never used this and never acted that way; I have this silly quality. I can’t do that – I always think that the athlete is smart enough to come to me when they realize that I can be of help. I have been in the sport for so many years, but I have never lured anyone; everyone comes to me on their own.

When Mao Asada came to me, I had never spoken to her before. That’s why I ended up with these smart guys who analyzed everything and understood how I could be useful. Adam Rippon is another example – he came when he was really struggling and needed saving.

Or Jeff Buttle. He said, “That’s my last destination.” He said that if it doesn’t work out with me, he should quit. And then he became the world champion. So, taking only the most talented is not my story.

Everyone has their strong points. Mine is that I can take a person and make them better. And for me, that’s the most important thing. When you see the results of “before and after” and when everyone can see it. I get a kick out of such transformations. Sometimes, maybe only I see this progress, haha, but it doesn’t matter. The athlete has improved, they didn’t have it in their baggage before, and now they do.

But you don’t take everyone who comes to you, do you?

Rafael Arutyunyan: Yes, because there is a coaching ethic. If you selfishly think about your own success, then you should take five skaters, and someone is bound to succeed. But if you are a coach, then you should take one and work with them. And those who skate alongside should compete with this best one – and then they will improve themselves. But if you start pitting them against each other, it would be wrong.

Isn’t having several strong skaters in a group motivating for each other?

Rafael Arutyunyan: There is a tactic of sparring partners, but not everyone can work like that, not everyone fits together. You have to figure out who suits each other, so they feel comfortable. That’s the whole point.

Why didn’t you take our girls? After all, they approached you.

Rafael Arutyunyan: Yes, there were options to take them. But I have a strict position on this: I am convinced that Russian skaters can only be taken with the consent and approval of the federation. And work in cooperation with the federation.

Otherwise, they will be putting sticks in the wheels, right?

Rafael Arutyunyan: No, it’s not just that. The Russian Federation invests incredibly much in development them as athletes and, to some extent, has the right to dictate something to its figure skaters. Russian athletes practically have everything ready for them. When you take a foreign skater, they are their own boss. Yes, their federation steps in and helps at some point, but they made themselves, you know? And they are responsible for themselves too.

Russian athletes are raised and guided very patiently and for a long time. And suddenly, you come along and want to start everything from scratch… No matter how wonderful a coach you might be, even with a Soviet background – that is, having a general understanding of how it all works. Or even if you are a very good foreign coach – it won’t work. The situation with Zhenya Medvedeva is a very illustrative example.


Rafael Arutyunyan: Maybe. But it illustrates the situation very well. She could only succeed with a coach who knows how everything is organized there – down to the smallest details.

So, Brian Orser didn’t fully understand what awaited him?

Rafael Arutyunyan: Of course not, he grew up and worked in a completely different system. He couldn’t even imagine that he would face such a deluge of complexities, nuances, and hidden currents.

But I know one hundred percent what to expect. That’s why I say that all your skaters’ actions should be coordinated with the federation; that’s how it works there.

Let me give you an example of how I started working with Petya Gummennik. At first, Tamara Moskvina called me. She said, ‘Help us with Petya,’ and I got involved in the work. Even now, I see my adjustments in him; this year, he has already shown some small improvements. And we stayed in touch with them until the end of the season.

Through videos?

Rafael Arutyunyan: Yes, of course. Although we also know each other personally – he came to America once a long time ago, and we met. But when he asked me to work with him, I declined. For the same reason – I didn’t want to interfere without behind the backs of those who were working with him. But then, first, Tamara Nikolaevna called, then the director of his school, and we even communicated with Petya’s coach. And in my opinion, this is the ideal scenario. When everything is open, when the work is not done behind anyone’s back.

The initiative should come from the leadership because I’m sure that a Russian athlete cannot decide alone since they were initially part of the state system, fully supported. The state provides them with everything from the beginning. It’s not like in America: going to the rink costs 12 dollars, leaving it costs 20, haha, not to mention paying specialists.

Are you ready to continue with Gummennik?

Rafael Arutyunyan: The situation is complicated now, so much is uncertain. Who knows when and how it will all end. Petya has already learned a lot, and now we need to at least maintain the level he achieved.

His last season was extremely successful, don’t you agree?

Rafael Arutyunyan: I’m happy for him, no doubt. He even texted to me during the season: ‘I started earning prize money and would like to pay you the percentage you deserve.’ But I didn’t take money from him for consultations, so I told him he’s a young guy and will find a way to spend that money.

Still, he did the right thing.

Rafael Arutyunyan: Yes, of course. He’s a very good guy, and the fact that he wrote that to me says a lot about him. But I don’t communicate with negative people. It’s more enjoyable to work with good people, you know. That’s the policy I stick to in life – I see good people right away.

But one still hopes that you’ll coach some Russian girl. It would be incredibly interesting to see the results.

Rafael Arutyunyan: Yes, that would be interesting. They’re all amazing, they’re incredible. Yes, there are a few exceptional kids, and with them, you could achieve serious results relatively easily. But I’ll repeat: I’ll never take anyone without the consent of their coaches and leadership.

Let’s imagine you got the green light, the path is open – who would you choose?

Rafael Arutyunyan: I could take anyone from the top ten, haha. I don’t know how it would turn out for us, and what victories we’d achieve, but I can say for sure that working with such skaters is a process like no other.

I think sometimes they lack their own motivation.

Rafael Arutyunyan: Exactly! That’s the second thing with these girls. You need to be clear whether she wants to skate herself or if she’s being pushed by her mom or coach. And often, they were driven forward by words that you can’t use now. So, it turns out that you can’t use the methods they’re used to. Then it’s suddenly revealed that you’re a bad coach, but you just don’t know how to swear.

You seem never to raise your voice.

Rafael Arutyunyan: I do, but very rarely. Before that, I’ll say everything a hundred times, so I can lose my temper only if they don’t listen to me directly. But with years passing, I’ve become calmer, and athletes are more understanding, haha.

There’s also the delicate matter of age and maturing with girls. I took Mao Asada after she won the Grand Prix Final at 14, beating Slutskaya, and she couldn’t go to the Olympics due to age. And she came to me during that very pubertal period.

Everyone was telling me, ‘Aren’t you afraid? Everyone was scared to take her then – there was too high a chance of failure, and no one wanted to ruin their coaching reputation. But it worked out for us; I knew what I was doing.

It’s terribly regrettable that we couldn’t reach the victorious end together due to a silly misunderstanding. Suddenly, she started skipping training sessions and not coming to the rink, and she didn’t explain why. At that time, I was hot-headed and ambitious – I felt offended. I said, ‘Well, don’t come anymore then.’ Who knew that her mother was seriously ill at that time, and she could only receive treatment in Japan and there was an agreement within their team to keep it a secret.

I lacked the experience back then to understand that there could be a serious reason behind her behavior. She invited me to come and coach her there, but I thought she was playing games with me. I considered myself a super-experienced coach at that time: once the training plan is set, I believed we must strictly adhere to it.

So, I sent my assistant to her, and I was puzzled why Mao didn’t come later. Her manager didn’t hint or mention anything about the critical situation with her mother. If I had known, I would have gave up everything and came to her.

In the end, she went to the 2008 World Championships without me. She and Jeffrey Buttle won the titles then. I watched that championship on TV from home – I intentionally didn’t fly there, although Buttle tried to convince me to come. I just knew that when I arrived in Sweden, Asada would approach me, and I felt hurt. And I missed such a historic moment – one coach winning titles with both a boy and a girl at the same World Championships.

It was a tough coaching experience, but priceless.

Rafael Arutyunyan: Definitely. I realized that not everything is black and white, there’s also gray, blue, and all sorts of things. But I regret so much that I didn’t support her in such a difficult moment (Mao Asada’s mother passed away in 2011 from liver disease – Sports.ru). Yes, I didn’t know the whole truth, but I still regret it.

After the Olympics, we met – she ran up to me and said, ‘Raf, I will never forget what you did for me.’ Yes, I had a good career…

I don’t like the past tense in that sentence.

Rafael Arutyunyan: Well, most likely. I really want everything to work out for the boy we were talking about, and I will do everything in my power for that. Especially if Ilia decides to move to California. It’s a wonderful place with an ideal climate: you can swim in the ocean if you want, or ski in the mountains – all Americans dream of living here.


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