“After a fall I couldn’t focus, my ear was bleeding, but I was thinking about getting back to trainings in a couple of days” Dramatic story of pair skater Natalia Zabijako
Interview with pair skater Natalia Zabijako.
source: matchtv.ru dd. 10th January 2022 by Anastasiia Panina
Using the example of Natalia Zabijako’s career, we can analyze many problems that figure skaters face. Change of sports citizenship (from Estonian to Russian), moving from home to America to train at the age of 14, switching to pair skating, five attempts to find the right partner with whom you can win the medal of the Olympics and the World Championships. A severe head injury as a result of working on the most difficult throw of three and a half turns – some of the consequences have remained with Natalia so far. End of a career due to medical reasons – her partner Alexander Enberd was diagnosed with some heart problems and doctors stopped giving him admission to the competitios.
This interview is about the difficult story of Natalia Zabijako and the paradoxical desire to quickly return to where she could have died. About her personal Olympic experience and the feeling of devastation from the end of her career. About her views on ultra-c elements and her attitude to the “constructor” in the composition of sports pairs.
Your general physical training coach Vitaly Moskalenko once told me that you once held a plank on your elbows for 45 minutes. Natalia, I have only one question – how?
Natalia Zabijako: It’s true (laughs). I was about eight years old then, I guess. It was in the training camp, we had tests-competitions, who would do the exercise better. The prize was some lollipop. And I fought for this lollipop. I stand in the plank, I think about something of my own. Out of the corner of my eye I see – some have fallen, others have fallen, but I keep standing and standing. Then they tell me: “That’s it, get down and you’ve been standing like that for 45 minutes.” Now I’m thinking how this was even possible.
Many skaters can hardly endure the routine work of getting in shape in the gym. And you?
Natalia Zabijako: I love general physical trainings, I love to run. It was always easy for me to skate the whole program – I have a good endurance. It is clear that at the beginning of the season everything is difficult – you “die” after the second element. It was difficult for me to twist, for example. Long arms and legs – you must first spread them, then collect them. This requires sharpness, and this is easier for those who have a shorter muscle. But you can also train this.
Moskalenko also said that with your body you could become a champion in the 800 meters. Can you imagine this yourself? And what else, if not figure skating?
Natalia Zabijako: Maybe it’s not too late to try (laughs). Twice in my career I wanted to switch into athletics. “I’m tired of everything, nothing works out, I’ll switch to running”. Once at the age of 10, and then when I was 22, I guess.
Everyone speaks of you as a very well-read, educated person. Another example that you can combine sports and studies if you wish?
Natalia Zabijako: Perhaps the fact is that when I was at school, there were not so many trainings yet. The first eight grades, I attend all the lessons, skipping only physical education. In the 9th grade, I used to skip the first lesson a couple of times a week, because there was additional ice – before that it was only 50 minutes. And then I left for America and for the last three years I studied part-time. In Estonia, education is 12 grades.
How did you end up in America?
Natalia Zabijako: I was 14. I had to find a partner, because the one with whom I skated in Estonia ended his career. We started looking for the boy in Tallinn, but they just didn’t exist. One guy texted me – Seryozha Kulbach, he was training in the States. Invited to try. Parents didn’t want to…
Of course, they didn’t want to, their daughter was only 14 years old!
Natalia Zabijako: (Laughs.) Yes. Far, expensive, I’m still a child. But I said: I want, I want to go! They agreed and sent me there. At first it was hard, because for several months I lived with a Portuguese family. I almost didn’t speak English, and we communicated almost with gestures.
Then I lived for a couple of months in my coaches’ kitchen. They got into a fight with that family, and I had to move out. And then a Russian family took me in, I lived with them for four years. It became easier, friends appeared. But globally, all these difficulties did not unsettle me, because I was very focused on sports. There is an opportunity to train, and I will survive the rest. There was no time to be bored.
The role of a girl in pair skating is associated with a sense of fear. I know stories when girls without any opportunities in single skating refuse switching to pair skating because they are afraid of throws and lifts. Is there some kind of fear test that is done before switching to pair skating?
Natalia Zabijako: I didn’t have a fear test. I just always liked pair skating. I looked at the throws and lifts with amazed eyes, and in fact I found the first partner myself.
And since childhood, I have climbed garages, climbed trees, and I have no sense of self-preservation at all. Probbaly, the coaches saw that.
You have repeatedly fallen on the ice from a height and at high speed.
Natalia Zabijako: I think everyone goes through this. I fell when we were just starting to learn lifts – my partner stumbled on turns. But without much consequence. I fell from the twists so that I could barely walk with a sore knee for several months. I hit head on the ice – this is the most terrible.
I want to ask about this head injury after a fall from a triple axel throw. Can you remember when for the first time after it you thought something like: “So, I’ve been lying too long, it’s time for me to go on the ice”?
Natalia Zabijako: The first such thought appeared when I was taken from the ice to the nurse’s cabinet. I couldn’t focus my eyes, my ear was bleeding, but I was like, “Damn, no, it’s okay.” That is, I don’t understand anything, but I’m already thinking that in a couple of days I’ll go to training – I need to prepare for the competitions. Then the pain intensified, I was taken to the intensive care unit.
The next morning, when I came to my senses for a short time, I thought: “How long to lie here? Repair me faster, it’s time for me to go on the ice.” These thoughts were constant, the motivation to train just raised up.
After a ten-day resuscitation, I still stayed there, in the hospital, and then I was transferred to the Moscow region, to the forest for rehabilitation. And then I began to insist: “Guys, this takes such a long time, can I go home already?” But they didn’t discharge me before the prescribed time, and I just went crazy there. It was somewhere far from the city, plus there were almost no guests allowed there – a couple of times a week for an hour only. I was dying of boredom. I didn’t have a laptop with me, there was only one TV for the whole hospital, and there grandparents watched “Let’s Get Married”. I just wandered around the floors in anguish and waited for my return to the ice.
I want to summarize. After a hard head injury, did you think that in a bad scenario you could probably die? Did you want to quickly return to where you get this injury?
Natalia Zabijako: Yes. It’s a paradox, but I thought: “So what, finish, or what? No, it won’t go like that.” I also had a wild feeling of guilty towards the coaches and Sanya (Enbert) that we lost so much time because of me.
For an ordinary person it’s hard to understand.
Natalia Zabijako: In fairness, I will say that the first year after that was difficult. It was difficult to get into shape. The muscles were all gone. I skated around and was already out of breath. The head was spinning. I lay down on the bed in the evening, closed my eyes, and I have such “helicopters” – every day for a year. I had a constant taste of blood in my mouth.
Is it some kind of real damage in the oral cavity or neurology?
Natalia Zabijako: No one has ever answered this question for me. They just said something like it will pass or it won’t.
Have it passed?
Natalia Zabijako: “Helicopters” and the taste of blood – yes, but the hearing has not fully recovered. The sense of smell has improved, but not 100%.
As a person who was seriously injured while learning the triple axel throw, are you for or against quadruple elements in pair skating?
Natalia Zabijako: As for the quadruple elements, I do not mind – everything is developing. In any sport, things are now much more difficult than they once were. You just need to approach this more intelligently, train with some protection. Take into consideration natural abilities – someone has better abilities, someone has almost none.
That is, I’m definitely not against complication, but the program should not suffer because of this. Both in pair and single skating, when people run from element to element, this is not quite what I would like to see. Beauty is also very important. We need a story, images, musicality and interaction of partners.
Some coaches believe that the earlier a person jumps quadruple jumps, the easier it will be for him to keep them in adulthood. Would you draw such a parallel with pair skating? Can you imagine training a quad salchow at the age of 12, for example?
Natalia Zabijako: Now everything has changed. At the age when girls are now jumping quads, we only consistently trained doubles and moved on to triples. It is very important to develop good technique in childhood, and I’m not even talking about quads, but about triples. Then, at a transitional age, it will be easier to keep the jumps and even learn more difficult ones if necessary.
Before, skaters also switched to pair skating later at 14, 15, 16 years old. When you yourself know how to skate and do jumps. Now I look – the children are seven years old, and they are already skating in a pair. They still barely keep on skates, and they are offered to learn some kind of single throws. Maybe this is normal, but it seems to me that it would not hurt xthe partners to learn the basics on their own first.
I was on the show where you and Alexander Enbert announced your retirement, and then answered questions from the press. I was struck by yours absolute calmness. Like it was the easiest decision of your life. But in a recent interview I’ve read that you were very worried. How was it really? (interview was taken before Natalia announced her come back to sport)
Natalia Zabijako: Already after the World Championships in Saitama it was clear that we have to finish. We wanted to skate two more Grand Prix in the fall, we even choreographed a short program. But Sasha’s health did not allow him to train. We missed one Grand Prix, the second, and closer to winter it became clear that we would no longer compete.
The most terrible moment was just after the World Championships, when we talked with the coaches about that. Then I was very upset – I came to the room and sobbed there all day. I was not ready to leave sports, I wanted to skate at least until this Olympics in Beijing, and then how it goes. For me it was a blow. At first I thought about finding a new partner, and we discussed this with Nina Mikhailovna (Moser), with Vlad (Zhovnirsky), with Sanya (Enbert), but then I realized that it would be difficult for me to find a partner. I’m tall for pair skating. Olympics in three years. Even if a partner were found and we started to skate, it would be difficult to get into the national team – there is a queue. If you are nobody, you must first earn a name.
I was mentally recovering for a long time. After the World Championships, we still skated a little, went to the training camp. Sasha was constantly checked and went to the doctors, but he was not given permission to compete. Therefore, in the winter we choreographed a farewell exhibition program, and then we performed with it and announced that we were retiring. Then I already got used to this idea, and therefore looked calm, I guess. But it was hard on the inside.
Is the heaviness in your soul a regret that not everything has been done yet, or a fear of looking for your place in a new life?
Natalia Zabijako: At that time, rather feeling unfulfilled. We had the last season on the rise. I really felt the strength in myself that I can skate for a long time, achieve results. By age it was possible to skate for another five years. And here is the end. You can never be ready for this. While skating, you irrationally think that it will last forever. And then comes the desolation. Bitterness.
And after that weren’t there thoughts that you could compete now? Or can be selected for the team at the Russian Championships? There was no particular rise in difficulty in your absence, the content of the current leaders would be within your power even with a new partner, perhaps.
Natalia Zabijako: I often thought about it. But I came to undersetanding that there were very few chances in Russia to qualify for the main events, knowing the rules of the game. Even with a super skating, no one will let a new pair out of the queue.
With the pandemic that has hit the world, even if you managed to find a partner and started to skate, there was still little chance that something would have worked out. So many months of downtime, the cancellation of the competitions …
Natalia Zabijako: Yes, I also thought about this later, when I sat at home for three months in quarantine. In general, there is nothing to be done.
The phrase “I’m tall for pair skating” sounded. Tall – how much is that?
Natalia Zabijako: 167 cm. For life, this is a good height, but in the pair skating, usually the girls are all up to 160 cm, better even about 155 cm. And I am like that. It was always a big complex for me until the moment when I started skating with Sasha. I used to have short partners, and I was worried about my size.
Were you worried because of an internal feeling of non-compliance with these norms or external pressure?
Natalia Zabijako: I was worried internally that everyone was miniature, and I was long, and there was external pressure. It is believed that pairs look better when there is a difference in height. Elements are easier to perform when the limbs are shorter. So both in general.
Has it somehow affected your confidence in life?
Natalia Zabijako: No, sports are sports.
The figure skating community often sets you up as an example as a partner who has always kept herself in shape in terms of weight. Was it hard?
Natalia Zabijako: I had no problems with weight, I was always quite thin. But there was a period when my last partner in Estonia (Alexander Zaboev – “Match TV”) began to tell me, they say, “you are heavy.” I weighed then 44 kilograms.
So, heavy is 44 kg with a height of 167 cm, but then how much do “light” ones weigh?
Natalia Zabijako: I don’t know (laughs). In general, he said that it would not hurt me to lose weight. I started losing weight, I could stop eating at all, I lost weight to 42 kg. There were no energy at all. But they quickly talked some sense into me – it was a Russian family I lived with in America.
Moreover, the partner’s words angered me, because, in principle, our relationship was not very good. But for some reason, I started to lose weight anyway.
But why? Wanted to prove that you can?
Natalia Zabijako: Yes. As for the rest, it was not difficult for me to keep in shape. In our last season with Sasha, at the summer training camp, I lost weight, but more consciously. Dried up. I weighed 45 kilograms. And it was easy, because the loads are serious, plus I trained myself sometimes even more than I should have.
There is an understanding that light weight has its advantages – when you are lighter, it will be easier to jump. It is clear that it’s also easier for a partner. But you have to be smart and careful about it.
Your successful career in Russia was largely due to Nina Moser. Fans have different opinions about her. What is she like as a person and at work?
Natalia Zabijako: Nina Mikhailovna is a very open person. I understood this even when at the 2014 World Championships she invited me to her place, I skated for Estonia then, to talk about competing for Russia. I was very worried before this meeting. I don’t know, probably more than before the Olympics. I came to her, and she: “Oh, Natasha, come in, sit down, how are you.” It was very comfortable and easy with her. She is quite strict, like everyone in sports. Very organised. Always wrote us plans. Knows how to bring a person to the peak of shape at the right time. When I first moved to Moscow, she helped a lot with everyday issues. She is very involved in the lives of her athletes. She does not interfere into the personal, but if you need help, she will always help.
You had several sports partners on the way to the one with whom you managed to achieve great success. How did you perceive this “constructor”? From the outside, it often seems to fans that the replacement of partners is a rather painful moment.
Natalia Zabijako: As in life, in a pair, things does not always work out right away. I had five partners. And I don’t see anything wrong with that, quite the contrary. Sometimes people may not be right for each other. Or, let’s say, they teamed up at a young age: the girl grew up, but the guy didn’t, and it’s clear that continuing together is not an option. Or one is motivated, while the other does not want anything. This also often happens.
I often noticed this among young guys at our rink. For example, two pairs are skating, and they obviously do not fit each other – of course, they will have other partners. This is work. You need to look for a person with the same goals, who suits you. That’s the only way you can both get results.
The same goes for changing coaches. In figure skating, for some reason, they make a scandal out of this – a nightmare, the skater left to another coach! But I don’t see anything wrong with that. A team is a team, but an athlete has only one career. And first of all, what you do, you need it yourself. Therefore, if you understand that you need to change a partner, coach or country, act. You can only please everyone around by hurting yourself.
Team event in Pyeongchang-2018. Do you remember when you found out that you would perform with a free program?
Natalia Zabijako: Sasha and I just arrived at Match TV for some kind of interview about the European Championships. At that moment, we were informed that one of our pairs was not allowed to the Games, and we realized that we would be in the team event.
We were preparing for the individual competitions, so there was no shock and fear that we would not have time to prepare. There were a lot of different comments that we were unworthy, that it was not necessary to replace the other pair with us, but despite all this, I was glad. We have been going to the Olympics all our lives, and then there is the opportunity to perform for the team. I couldn’t say: “You know, guys, I won’t perform in the team event, the other pair should do it, and we will skip.” Of course, we took advantage of this opportunity.
Was there any difference in how you prepared, how you set yourself up for the team and for the individual event?
Natalia Zabijako: I didn’t have any difference, not only in the mindset for a individual and team event, but in general for any competition.
Well, what about the realization that this is the Olympics! The most important competitions of my life. Thousands of others dreamed about it, but it was you who got the chance. Didn’t it pressure you?
Natalia Zabijako: Really, no. It was interesting to be in the Olympic village, I liked the whole atmosphere. But at the rink, I abstracted from everything. I didn’t feel any rivalry, or the pressure of the federation, which was standing overboard. In general, I would say that my last World Championships was what the Olympics should have been for me. There I fully felt the importance of the moment.
After your words, it becomes at least a little clear to me how Kamila Valieva, at the age of 15, can have the last starting number at the most important Russian championship and stamp jumps without a single trembling muscle on her face.
Natalia Zabijako: This skill is developed from competitions to competitions. Kamila and our girls, they are just robots in this regard – it seems to me that they are not afraid of anything.
It is important that adrenaline helps. Sometimes it is for you, and then you can jump higher, you have a lot of strength and energy. And sometimes it beats so hard that you knees do not bend, you start shaking. I once had this – at my first competition representing Russia. Moreover, it was some stage of the Russian Cup in Sochi – not the most important competitions at all, but I was shackled with horror.
Skaters are usually individualists, the specifics of the sport are such. Has something changed in the team event? Have you started to communicate closer with other guys?
Natalia Zabijako: I will not say that we somehow communicated as a team more. Either each on their own, or in small groups, as usual. It is clear that at the rink everyone was sitting in this booth, cheering and supporting each other, because they wanted to win.
What is your most memorable moment on the Olympics?
Natalia Zabijako: Award ceremony. The competitions were in Gangneung, and we were awarded in the mountains in Pyeongchang. We went there, and there, well, I don’t know, minus twenty-five, I guess. Or minus thirty. Terribly cold. And one of the guys suggested: “Let’s go to the award ceremony without gloves! To look beautiful.” As a result, we held on to the medals with crooked fingers, they practically froze to them. It’s good that no one thought to bite or lick the metal (laughs).
Do you follow what is happening in figure skating now? What did surprise you from what you have seen lately?
Natalia Zabijako: In our pair skating, nothing surprised me, everything is somehow clear there. The guys, of course, are great in the sense that they perform the elements well – I mean the top three. But in terms of programs… I’m bored. I want something more modern, interesting. If I continued my career, I would do everything differently, not like before.
The Chinese (Wenjing Sui / Cong Han. – “Match TV”) are amazing. Their skating and the elements. The girl is all broken after throws and not only, but they return again and again. I remember them when they were very young. They are so harmonious. Previously, they really ran on ice, but now they fly.
It is amazing how our girls do quads. Lots of quads. I like the quads, I don’t like the rusch for elements. It is very difficult, and, probably, there is no other way to approach such a jump, but still I want to see more solid skating.
In general, I really liked Liza Tuktamysheva. You can see how she lives in the program, music, flows smoothly from element to element. It’s really nice to look at her.
Our girls exist in conditions of fierce competition. From the athletes’ point of view, competition – is it good or bad?
Natalia Zabijako: Healthy competition is great. When you are alone, there will most likely be no progress, and this is clearly seen in the example of small countries. But when there are so many skaters and all of them are so strong, it’s tough competition. Real hunger games. It is easier for them to perform on the world stage than to qualify in Russia.
You and Alexander had a fairly large team of coaches. Is it comfortable to work when there are many specialists? Evgenia Tarasova / Vladimir Morozov are experiencing something similar now.
Natalia Zabijako: When I moved to Russia, I was very surprised by this order of things, because usually one coach leads everything – ice, physical training, choreography. Here, we had different specialists for each type of activity. Moreover, there are different coaches for the physical training – one in the season, the second in the offseason. Different load, different exercises, different goals. I remember that a ballet dancer even came to the training camp and did choreography with us. In general, nothing bad – it develops you.m
Victoria Sinitsina / Nikita Katsalapov withdrew from the Russian Nationals due to an exacerbation of a partner’s back injury. From your own experience, tell me: how to survive a situation when, due to health problems of one partner, the other suffers too?
Natalia Zabijako: There must be faith in each other and that you will achieve the result together. Well, we must remember that it will be easier for any person to cope with difficulties when he has support. The main thing is to understand that now is dark times, such a period, but everything will work out.
How do the healthy partner usually train while the injured one is recovering?
Natalia Zabijako: When I skated with Yura Larionov, he also had an injury, he missed a couple of months. All these days I came to the ice and jumped, jumped, jumped. I don’t think I’ve jumped so much in my entire life.
When we missed European Championships with Sasha, in general it was hard because of uncertainty whether we would have the World Championships. I didn’t sleep well at night, in the morning I went to the ice a little alive, doing something. Then Sasha began to came to the ice too, but he could not perform any loads so that his pulse would not rise high. We just skated in circles, made individual elements. You don’t do anything special, you just wait. The healthy half of the pair needs to keep in shape in order to start working at any time.
What is your life today?
Natalia Zabijako: The ending of 2021 was very interesting. First, the Ice Age. A separate chapter in my life. So many emotions and new programs that touched me even more than some programs in sports. Second, I got divorced.
I am open to everything new. I hope for some ice shows and other projects not related to sports. I want to live, enjoy and develop. I see myself as an artist. I love performing, I love the cameras and the audience. T
If you could save figure skating from strict rules that limit creativity and diversity, would you do it?
Natalia Zabijako: Undoubtedly. There are many restrictions in sports. There are almost none in the show, and the audience appreciates it. It’s a paradox, but if you have a World Championships medal and Ice Age experience, then many people will know you as a participant of a TV show rather than a World Championships medalist. An amazing discovery for me.
You are from Tallinn, where the European Championships was held. Can you recall some story from childhood that would be connected with the city and figure skating?
Natalia Zabijako: I remember the last European Championships in Tallinn in 2010. I had already been skating in pairs for a year, having moved from singles, and I really wanted to participate in it. But there was another pair of Estonia, which eventually performed. I thought: well, not the last time, I will still succeed. And now the European Championships is held again in Tallinn after 12 years, but I have already finished (laughs).
Related topics: Natalia Zabijako Alexander Enbert
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