Alena Kostornaia: “Shows are fun and cool but the life of an athlete who works for high results is different, in terms of dedication and emotions. And I like it.”
Interview with Alena Kostornaia. About her first steps in pair skating and plans for the season.
source: RT dd. 11th September 2023 by Elena Vaitsekhovskaya
Performances in ice shows don’t bring as much adrenaline as competitions. This was stated by former European champion in single skating, Alena Kostornaia, who is now competing in pair skating with Georgi Kunitsa. According to the figure skater, she enjoys the life of an athlete who works for high results. The former single skater also shared her thoughts on why it was easy for her to switch to pairs, talked about the challenges of her initial steps in the new discipline, and explained why she’s not afraid to take the coach’s side in disputed work situations rather than her husband’s.
A year ago, when you teamed up with Georgi Kunitsa, you switched from being a single skater who can do everything on the ice to being a figure skater who can hardly do anything in pair skating. Was it psychologically challenging to deal with this?
Alena Kostornaia: After I had a problem with my leg, I found myself in a state where I couldn’t really perform anything in single skating. Not because I couldn’t, but because the injury wouldn’t allow it. So, “I can’t” there and “I can’t” here were roughly the same. It’s just that in pair skating, I saw certain chances to pull myself out of this state of helplessness. In singles, even if I healed my leg, I probably wouldn’t have been able to put together a competitive free program content, not one that would put me in the twenties or thirties places.
How big is the difference between single and pair skating in terms of muscle work?
Alena Kostornaia: It’s very significant. At first, my hands hurt a lot from lifts and unfamiliar holds, especially near the elbows. They still hurt, actually, but much less. But when Georgi and I were just starting to learn pair elements, and consequently, had to repeat these same lifts many times, it was very painful. I had to endure it constantly. Plus, one advantage of pair skating is that there are now places in our programs where I can actually rest. You skate, skate, die, then suddenly, you catch your breath, and it seems like you can go on living. In those lifts, which are mostly about maintaining a static position, I hardly do anything at all. The most challenging for me is the “candle” lift which we have in the short program. There, you have to maintain balance and constantly control how to bend, straighten, and do all of that in a way that doesn’t disrupt the balance.
How difficult is it for you to do full run-throughs of your programs in training right now?
Alena Kostornaia: It varies. There are days when I realize that there will be no run-throughs because I feel so uncertain about myself. And then there are days when I don’t plan on doing a full free skate, but my condition allows for it. On such days, we can spontaneously decide, “Shall we go for it?” — “Sure, let’s go!”
I must say that our coaches pay very close attention to how we feel. Occasionally, Sergei Sergeyevich (Roslyakov – RT) even says that we skate too much.
That’s not something you often hear from a coach.
Alena Kostornaia: Well, the thing is, I got used to doing a lot of run-throughs, even when I was a single skater. I used to the idea that there could be a short program run-through in the morning, a free skate run-through in the evening, and that I could be asked to do some pieces another 25 times. In pair skating, of course, it’s not like that. So, when after an unsuccessful run-through, I first said, “Let’s do it again,” everyone on the ice just looked at me with eyes wide open.
Was the adjustment period to the new coaching staff challenging?
Alena Kostornaia: No, I wouldn’t say so. First of all, it’s very easy to get along with Sergei Sergeyevich; he’s an entirely non-confrontational person by nature. Plus, we’ve known each other for a long time. We met thanks to Dasha (Pavliuchenko – RT), and even back when I was competing in juniors, it often happened that the Roslyakov group coincided with us at training camps and competitions. So over time, I started to see Sergei Sergeyevich as a close person, almost like family. He even came to one of our group’s training camps in Novogorsk and helped us with a longe.
And if you were to ask the coach whether it’s easy or difficult to work with you right now, what do you think he’d say?
Alena Kostornaia: Probably 50/50. I wouldn’t say that working with me is especially difficult, but I don’t think it’s easy either.
How many times since you started working with Gosha in pair skating have you wanted to quit everything?
Alena Kostornaia: There was definitely one time. We had just started working together at a training camp, and there was a huge workload that I had never experienced before, and nothing was working at all.
And this is coming from someone who endured the demands of the “Khrystalny” for many years.
Alena Kostornaia: The problem was that the new loads were fundamentally different. Not 25 billion jumps and run-throughs but work that I was completely unaccustomed to. Before every warm-up on the ice, we did off-ice training, and after the ice, there was more off-ice training. So, in the gym, we worked out four times a day. Plus, we had to work on our arm movements, go through the programs… In the last five years of single skating, I can’t even remember us doing any interval work in the gym, for example.
What about the time when you were skating with Plushenko?
Alena Kostornaia: Evgeni Viktorovich did indeed provide very high-quality off-ice training, but it so happened that I didn’t get involved in the most difficult workouts. Either the schedule didn’t allow it, or I started protesting, saying that I had to skate the program in the evening and I wouldn’t go to the gym. Deep down, I understood that it was better to do the free skate three times in a row than to go to off-ice training and then spend a week recovering my muscles.
Actually, to this day, gym training is the most challenging for me. During that training camp I started telling you about, Elena Anatolievna Tchaikovskaya was there. She came to one of our training sessions, and after the gym, I couldn’t even do jumps. Everything seemed fine, the partner was great, but I kept popping the jumps instead. I don’t even know what Tchaikovskaya thought of me then.
Did that state frighten you a lot?
Alena Kostornaia: I was just in shock, to be honest. It’s not that I wanted to immediately quit everything and leave; rather, I just didn’t know what to do with all of this. Of course, I knew that your shape starts to deteriorate when you don’t train regularly, but I didn’t expect everything to fall apart so completely.
When did everything finally fall into place?
Alena Kostornaia: After that training camp, Gosha and I went to Elena Vyacheslavovna Zhgun, she helped us put our jumps back together, and in general, things have been going pretty well now.
Your career as a single skater was in a group where the top priority in terms of motivation was always the Olympic gold medal. After teaming up with Kunitsa, you almost immediately started performing in shows. Did you ever think about why you needed exhausting training when you could earn money in a simpler and more pleasant way?
Alena Kostornaia: Shows are, of course, fun and cool for a while, but then… I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I have certain goals, and they are related to professional sports. I want to skate and enjoy it at competitions, not just in shows, even if they are really great shows. I understand that you can perform difficult elements in exhibition performances if you want to, but it doesn’t give me the same adrenaline rush that competitions do. This season, in particular, made me realize how much I love all of this. Training sessions where nothing works and then suddenly it all starts to work, the anticipation of a competition. The life of an athlete who works for high results is different, in terms of dedication and emotions. And I like it.
But it’s also necessary to have fun.
Alena Kostornaia: Of course. When a particular show series begins, the first performances are also very exciting. But when you’ve done 20 of them in a row, the emotions quickly dwindle. All that remains in your mind is that no matter how tired you are, you still have to skate as well as possible so that you won’t be ashamed to look at yourself later.
Denis Khodykin, who you currently train with in the same group and who, like you, is also involved in coaching alongside training, admitted that he sometimes starts thinking: how much money could he earn if he didn’t spend several hours a day on his own training?
Alena Kostornaia: You know, before the summer vacation, when Gosha and I weren’t skating anymore but hadn’t gone anywhere yet, I was also doing private lessons. I had six hours of ice time starting at 8 am, and I earned quite a decent amount of money thanks to that. I quickly realized that a week of such work could financially support a very good vacation, maybe even more than one. Then, when we returned and started the season, I continued giving private lessons to kids in the evenings and thought to myself: if I add the two hours I spend with the kids to the time I spend training, imagine how much money I could earn?
But then, when I thoroughly thought about this, I came to the conclusion that no amount of money would give me what I want. The title of European champion – it’s not everlasting; people remember the winners for the first two or three years, and then other names emerge. Especially considering how rapidly everything is changing now. Ask little girls who their idol is, they will probably mention Sasha Trusova, Anya Shcherbakova, Kamila Valieva. It’s unlikely that anyone will remember Adelina Sotnikova or Julia Lipnitskaya, yet they were the pioneers of women’s figure skating as we see it today.
I agree. By the way, have you seen how Lipnitskaya performed in Evgeni Plushenko’s recent show?
Alena Kostornaia: Yes, I watched and was amazed: so many years have passed, but she still has that stretch. She has also slimmed down a lot, like a little girl. I was actually skating at Plushenko’s academy when Julia came in as a second coach. I remember watching her work with the kids and thinking about how much Julia has changed since her own skating days. But when I saw her on the ice, it seemed to me that she was that same 16-year-old girl we remembered in Sochi.
Did the age difference and Lipnitskaya’s current coaching status create any communication problems for you?
Alena Kostornaia: Sometimes it gives me mixed feelings: I stop understanding whether to use formal or informal address. I had a similar situation with Dima Mikhaylov: we hang out in the same circles periodically, but in reality, he’s a coach, so I address him formally.
How do you feel about the upcoming competitions now? Are you a little bit scared?
Alena Kostornaia: I live exclusively with the tasks “for now” that I have to complete. We’ll see when we get to the first competitions.
Would you be very disappointed if you and Georgi weren’t allowed to participate in the test skates?
Alena Kostornaia: It would be disappointing, of course. After all, we’ve accomplished a lot, and we want to show it all. On the other hand, our lives wouldn’t end with test skates. There are stages of the Russian Grand Prix that we will definitely compete in. The main thing is not which competitions we participate in but that there are competitions.
How ready do you feel for the season, based on your feelings?
Alena Kostornaia: More than 50%, and that’s already very good. I can’t say that all athletes approach the competitions fully prepared. 75% is an extraordinary result. It’s difficult for me to get in shape by the start of the season and maintain it until spring, and probably not necessary. I understand that you can calculate everything correctly, reduce the load somewhere, increase it somewhere else. In this regard, Sergei Sergeyevich is a very competent coach. I hope he will make all the decisions for us with Gosha, and all we have to do is execute.
It is believed that in pair skating, as well as in ice dance, the coach has more influence when one of the partners is on their side. But when skaters form a strong bond between themselves, managing such a duo becomes much more difficult. You and Gosha are a family and are supposed to be together by default. Has it ever happened that one of you ended up on the coach’s side?
Alena Kostornaia: Of course, that happens. It’s just in my understanding that being on the coach’s side doesn’t mean being against your partner. Or being against each other in some other combination. There’s simply no reason for that because the result depends on everyone in this triangle. Well, yes, sometimes due to fatigue, Gosha and I start arguing. But it’s such a work-related moment that it’s not worth dwelling on it.
Which of the pair elements annoys you?
Alena Kostornaia: There are none that annoy me; I like all of them. I like lifts, I like doing throws — when I don’t fall from them, of course. The death spiral is more challenging, especially the “back inside” one.
What’s the problem with this element?
Alena Kostornaia: You’re slipping off the edge. I still find it difficult to find the right body position. It’s like shooting at a single point. You need to simultaneously control a lot of things: where to sit correctly, when to start “growing,” which direction to start “growing,” how to press the blade into the ice… Towards the end of the program, there’s hardly any mental capacity left for this, but if you enter the death spiral improperly, you’ll finish it on your behind. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it does occur.
In early September, you had two performances in Plushenko’s show. Do you plan to continue?
Alena Kostornaia: Actually, no, because until the end of December, we will be entirely focused on training and competitions. But after the Russian Nationals, we do have such plans.
Are you talking about New Year’s shows?
Alena Kostornaia: You could say that. According to our preliminary agreements, it will be “Cinderella,” where I will play the fairy godmother, and then also “Little Red Riding Hood” in the same production.
Do you and your husband have any dreams related to money?
Alena Kostornaia: Before our wedding, there was only one: to save up for our own apartment. But not long ago, our parents told us, “Don’t worry about that, you will have where to live. Save up for renovations instead.”
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