Alexander Zhulin: I wanted my athletes to be as close as possible to the French pair
Interview with Alexander Zhulin about the results of Grand Prix Final 2018, Victoria Sinitsina / Nikita Katsalapov, Dmitri Soloviev / Elena Ilinykh and Evgenia Medvedeva.
by Elena Vaitsekhovskaya for rsport.ria.ru
When did you start to believe that Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov would be able to reach the top level results this season?
– It must have happened at the Grand Prix in Canada. For us this was the third competitions, before that the guys had a very clean performances at smaller competitions. The third flawless performance gave us even more confidence, despite the fact that in Laval, as well as in Vancouver, Nikita under rotated the rotational lift and the pair lost the difficulty level.
After Olympic season, when your athletes failed to qualify for the national team, you probably had a serious strategy of preparation for this season.
– Of course. From my past experience working with the guys, I realized a very important thing: if Katsalapov skates very emotionally, as he likes and can, sometimes this leads to unpredictable consequences in competitions. That’s why, from the very beginning I was looking for such a music for the free program in which Nikita wouldn’t “jump out of his pants” and wouldn’t rush. So that it would be possible to show well all the advantages of this pair: quality lines, beautiful, soft gliding, ability to hear the music. That’s why we choose Air Suite by Bach. Fortunately, there was a very good part for the ending – “Pugnani” by Fritz Kreisler. One of my friends, the composer Edgar Hakobyan advised it, and I’m very grateful to him.
Working on this program, did you set a goal to compete with three-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron?
– Rather, I wanted my athletes to be as close as possible to the French pair. At the same time I understood that with our free program, in a certain sense, we’re on their territory.
Didn’t you have doubts about rightness of this choice? Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin, who are now the main competitors of your pair in Russia, on the contrary, quite deliberately aimed to get away from the French style. I know, they are proud that they are not like any other couple.
– Sinitsina and Katsalapov are able to skate successfully in any style: in North American style, in tango, and in the style that the French pair shows. Consider that I wanted to show this too with our program. By the way, this season Vika and Nikita worked on tango with world champions in Argentine tango Sagdiana Khamzina / Dmitri Vasin – such championships are held annually in Argentina. I’m very pleased that we managed to take some dancing transitions from parquet to the ice.
At the Grand Prix in Grenoble, Sinitsina and Katsalapov performed together with Papadakis and Cizeron. Are you able to assess objectively how comparable the level of these duets are?
– In order not to be arrogant, I’ll say the obvious: we have greatly reduced the gap that was last year. I believe that the fact that the French skating, which I myself always adored, starts to pall, played its part. It is clear that I can only speak for myself, but sometimes I catch myself thinking that I have been watching the same dance. It seems to me that it becomes a disadvantage for Gabriella and Guillaume. Therefore, people begin to pay attention to other duets, to look at them differently.
By the way, what happened to Nikita? He began to look different on the ice. At the press conference he said that he could talk a lot on this topic, but in short, he started to liked skating again.
– I think we just managed to create a very comfortable environment in the group, where everyone is happy. And besides, Vika improved a lot in terms of sports. She turned out to be a very good and obedient student, and now it happens that I don’t even need to say something if I want to make a comment – we have mutual understanding at the level of views and gestures. Accordingly, it has become much easier for Nikita, as always happens when the partners have the same technique. Probably, this can be compared with synchronized diving: if partners are equally trained and match each other in terms of body constitution, it’s always more comfortable for them to perform than for the others.
In a pair, even the temperament of the athletes is important. Any mismatch can lead to serious conflict. A year ago, for example, we had a lot of practice sessions where the guys quarreled. This season I have counted only two such trainings, and the most serious of them lasted only half an hour.
I suppose, Nikita is always the source of quarrels.
– Why do you think so? Vika also has a very strong and uncompromising character, although she looks like Alenushka from Vasnetsov’s paintings. She has a very powerful inner core, and if she doesn’t agree with me or Nikita, she will defend her position till the end.
It also seems to me that last year’s Russian Nationals, where Katsalapov had to withdraw due to injury, had greatly changed him. He realized that in pair, first of all, you need to be a support. To pay attention to your partner, not to put yourself to the forefront. All the great partners on the ice have this quality. For example Christopher Dean was always brighter in a pair and everyone looked mostly at him, not at Jane Torvill, but you had to see how he leaded her, how he was feeling her every second.
Do they work on this in dances?
– Yes of course. At least, I always try to find some extra color in the relationship when I train this or that pair. This is no less important than rockers and counters.
However, when you trained Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov, for a long time they didn’t have a real “pair thing”. Each dance left the feeling that they would go in different directions without even looking at each other when the music was over. And then suddenly “chemistry” appeared in the relationships. Am I wrong?
– You are right. I can explain this by the fact that in the Olympic season before the Games in Turin, the guys really united for the result. Plus, the program suited them very much. Everything could be explained quite simply. Then Roman for a long time lived in America alone, while Tatiana and I were a married couple. Of course, in some sense he felt abandoned. Plus she has a very powerful character, ans was the wife of a coach. Let Roma not be offended at me, but in those years he simply lacked practical wisdom to understand some things. Now he has become a good actor – after the “Ice Age”, after playing in a movie. But back then I had to explain a lot of things. For example, that you need to skate the program not for the judges, but for your partner. Many duets have this, I would say, junior habit when they turn their heads around during the dance, trying to see the reaction the judges. And you need to focus on completely different thing. Do you remember Lyudmila Belousova / Oleg Protopopov? When they skated they never looked around at all, they skated only for each other. It was obvious that they didn’t care what the judges or the audience would think about them, and that was magic.
You yourself performed at a time when there was a clear separation between the first and second pairs in the country, even when the difference in class was vety small. Is there such a separation now?
– I won’t talk about this, but it was unpleasant personally for me, when after the end of competitions all the comments were only about that one of the Russian pairs was judged unfairly. I wish somebody had congratulated Vika with Nikita with a good performance. Maybe people wanted to do it and just did not have time – I don’t know. But I just want to say: guys, if someone considers himself cool, let him go and prove it with his skating. Why should we organize a circus around competitions, praising ones and bring other people down? And moreover to give some public comments? I understand perfectly well that for Natasha Bestemianova Stepanova / Bukin is a very special pair, since Vanya is the son of her former partner. I’m also completely biased when I watch my daughter play tennis, I always think that she plays the best. I always liked how Navka skated, but not only because she was really better than others, but above all because she was my wife.
Despite the fact that Sinitsina and Katsalapov became the best Russian ice dance team in Vancouver, the Russian judge twice set Stepanova and Bukin higher. Does this mean that for your pair it’s best not to have a Russian judge in the judging panel at all?
– In my opinion, this only shows that the Russian judge simply didn’t expect such progress from Sinitsina and Katsalapov. In this case it isn’t easy to get rid of stereotypes. So it turned out that in the short dance the difference was quite significant, not in our favor, but in the free dance the scores were noticeably equal.
What do you expect from the Russian Nationals?
– Clean performances. High places always unite partners, inspire them.
Katsalapov’s former partner Elena Ilinykh trains at your skating rink in a pair with your dancer Dmitri Soloviev. Doesn’t this bring discomfort to your work with the main pair?
– Lena with Dima and Nikita with Vika skate on different ice. This was done on purpose, moreover, it was previously discussed with Dima.
What if the new pair wants to perform not only in shows, but also to compete, will you meet him halfway?
– We also had a conversation with Soloviev on this topic, but I took a “commercial break”. I said that we can return to this discussion not earlier than this season ends.
Katsalapov, by the way, said in an interview in Vancouver that he wasn’t disturbed at all by the competition in a group with Dmitri Soloviev and Ekaterina Bobrova. Do you think that competition with Ilinykh can annoy Nikita?
– I did not say that. My fears are connected only with the fact that if suddenly Lena and Dima really want to come back and perform in competitions, then despite the fact that this will be a new pair, the judges may think that the figure skaters have already got their medals, even if happened with other partners. So they may not give them a way. And first of all I’m a coach,a person who must calculate his strength and time very accurately. I don’t want all efforts to go to nowhere.
But imagine what a PR this team could have.
– I’m not a PR man at all, despite the fact that I regularly appear on television. Perhaps this is my disadvantage, but it is so.
For two seasons in a row, you did Evgenia Medvedeva’s programs. Wasn’t you hurt that at the senior level, this figure skater began work with Ilia Averbukh?
– Then the situation just happened so: I was not in Moscow, and Ilia was. And he offered to choreograph all the programs for Medvedeva for free. He is an excellent manager, businessman, owner of a large number of shows and tours, so it’s not a problem for him to choreograph a program for free. In addition, Averbukh is a wonderful choreographer. I liked the programs he did for Zhenya. To be honest I like the current ones less.
As far as I know, these programs were chosen by Zhenya herself, not by her current coach, Brian Orser.
– You know, I like to repeat that a pair who comes to me from another coach becomes “mine” after three years. It seems to me that Brian is still not quite feels Evgenia, doesn’t quite understand her. Therefore, he agreed on her wishes. I do not want to say that the programs are unsuccessful, rather, Medvedeva is not ready for them yet. She skates the short program remarkably, but a figure skater like Ashley Wagner would have skated it better and more expressively. In my understanding, Zhenya is the “Melodies of the White Night”, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”. Crystal, graceful programs.
Do you agree that it was a mistake for Medvedeva and her former coaching staff to go away from the usual style in the Olympic season and take “Anna Karenina”?
– I don’t think so. It was an outstanding program and an outstanding performance. No one is to blame that Alina (Zagitova) skated better.
Now there is a tendency, when the figure skater, having lived for two years at the senior level, reaches the “ceiling” above which she can’t jump. Do you think women’s single skating can be developed in adulthood?
– You can develop, but for this, for example, Alina needs to improve a lot in skating skills. Otherwise, they will always talk about her as a figure skater who only jumps, but doesn’t skate. For example, I don’t like Rika Kihira much, for me she is too colorless. But when she skates, I see the flow, I see soft knees, beautiful glide. And it is very difficult to improve in skating skills, without losing the sharpness and explosive power in the jumps. In addition, when you sit low on your legs, your muscles get tired much faster. It’s simpler for the Japanese: they have very soft legs by nature. Therefore, it’s difficult to compete with them.
What is your most bright impression of the Grand Prix Final, apart from your own students?
– Probably the performance of the French in pair skating (Vanessa James / Morgan Cipres). This pair has almost no weaknesses, either in programs or in performance.
Involuntarily the question arises: does the move of the first Russian pair Evgenia Tarasova / Vladimir Morozov to a completely inexperienced coach (Maxim Trankov) justified in the current situation? The guys lost their positions.
– It’s hard for me to say something here, because I don’t know Maxim Trankov as a coach. Yes, athletes have more failures, but this is the very situation when it would be completely wrong to judge the situation from the outside. I myself was in the shoes of a man who was blamed for the lack of results, and the reason was only that Katsalapov had been unable to skate for a whole month because he rubbed his feet. It’s very hard for Trankov now, perhaps I know this better than anyone else.
What do you mean?
– When I started to train Navka and Nikolai Morozov, I also performed in Tom Collins’ tour with Maya Usova. It seemed to me not a big deal, if I miss two hours of training. Or four. Or six. It seemed that athletes of such a level should know everything themselves and cope with everything independently, they are professionals. Now, after many years, I understand that sometimes even twenty minutes of coaching on the ice can turn out to be extremely important. I remember that I came to one of the training sessions to Vika and Nikita, gave them some exercises, and in one of them I suddenly quite accidentally saw the “key” to understanding what and how I should develop in Vika to make her a really cool figure skater. But if I hadn’t come to that training session, I probably would have been still looking for this key.