Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin: “With experience, you start to have fun at competitions. Not stress, but pleasure.”
Interview with Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin. About Russian Nationals, preparation, the old and new free program, a specific season, mature skating and the most important thing in life.
by Olga Ermolina for fsrussia.ru dd. 16th January 2021
At this Russian Nationals you were the favorites to win, especially since Victoria Sinitsina – Nikita Katsalapov withdrew from the competition at the last moment due to illness. Did it seem that it would be an easy competitions, an easy victory for your pair, and is it so?
Alexandra Stepanova: To be honest, we didn’t think about winning at all. Before the trip to Chelyabinsk, we hadn’t performed for a very long time, so we just really wanted to show ourselves well, because going on the ice was very scary, especially in the first trainings after the break. It felt as if you had forgotten everything from what happened before. So I can’t say that we were going with some confident steps. There was a very difficult preparation for the championships, it was hard to recover after the disease. In fact, we had three weeks left for the entire preparation. Two weeks before the Nationals, we brought back the old free program. And all thoughts were about that.
Ivan Bukin: In that period, when we were just recovering from illness, we did not watch anything, knew nothing. We were slowly preparing for the Russian Nationals, and 2-3 days before the competitions we found out that the guys wouldn’t be there. But we didn’t think about rivalry at all, because it was our first competition after 11 months break. Moreover, it was the Russian Nationals – a rather responsible and important competition, and our goals was to overcome ourselves, show ourselves. Not even to compete, but rather to recover, to understand what we are ready and capable of at the moment. It was a very important championship for us. It was important to feel the competition. We missed it. We were nervous. Even in a regular season, when nothing like this happens you come to the first competitions after a vacation and you are always much more nervous than at the World Championships. Because all these competitive feelings are forgotten. And in Chelyabinsk it was the same as at the first competitions in the regular season.
Does the break in competitions play such an important role? After all, you are an experienced pair.
Ivan Bukin: This experience helped us in preparation for the championship. Yes, we understood that despite the circumstances, we need to urgently, strongly prepare, not feeling sorry for ourselves, because if you don’t stay tough in training, it will be even harder at the competitions. So we wanted to give our best in training – we skated, worked very hard to make it easier at the competitions.
I think, whatever the rank and experience of a person, an athlete, when he comes to a competition, of any level, he still worries, because without this, there is probably no interest in skating. If you go to the competitions and you don’t care, don’t get nervous, don’t worry, then it’s better to finish your career. This is the “adrenaline” that feeds you and you start to get charged from the audience, from this whole atmosphere that is present at the competitions.
You said that you prepared a new free dance, but returned to last year’s program. Why?
Ivan Bukin: As soon as we were back after quarantine, we began to work on a new free program. Until August, we worked and did all the elements, and then Sasha started having back problems. We continued to skate, but it was not so intense. And since September, everything has stopped.
Alexandra Stepanova: We did a new program at the training camp in Novogorsk. Started to skate it in small pieces, but my back started to hurt, I had to go to Germany, then I caught a cold, had bronchitis, and had a severe cough.
I just started to recover from the illness when I got ill with the coronavirus. For a long time. I didn’t skate for three weeks. I recovered and then Vanya falls ill. And when he was back to the ice after an illness, we had three weeks left to prepare for the Russian Nationals, maybe a little more.
Ivan Bukin: Well, yes, I was back on the ice somewhere on November 15th.
Alexandra Stepanova: We started trying to prepare a new free program, but it was hard. Physically. And showing the raw program didn’t make any sense.
Ivan Bukin: With all these diseases, we hadn’t skated in pair for more than a week. At first I could not do anything, not even skate a circle. I was shocked. In the first trainings, I skated for only 20-30 minutes.
Alexandra Stepanova: Because the doctors said not to force it so that there would be no complications.
Ivan Bukin: The recovery process wasn’t fast. We had very little time before the Russian Nationals and we had to put everything together urgently. The rhythm dance remained from the last season, before the Russian Nationals we managed to skate it completely a couple of times, and the new free dance we haven’t skated completely even once. We haven’t even even skated it in large pieces. Therefore, the coaches offered to bring back the last season’s program, they asked our opinion. Of course, we agreed, because the whole team understood that we would not have time to prepare and show a new free dance well. And why skate unprepared program? Our new free dance must be skated well, and then, probably, it will be very interesting.
Are you planning to show your new program this season if the World Championships takes place?
Alexandra Stepanova: I think it’s silly to show a new program at one start. Most likely, this program will move to the next season.
Ivan Bukin: We will keep the new program for the Olympic season.
Last season’s free dance, in my opinion, is one of your best programs. As a rule, you preferred bright costumes for your programs, but in this program all external effects are kept to a minimum. What has changed that allowed you to decide on this step: to prefer inner expressiveness to external brightness?
Alexandra Stepanova: We just understood that the costumes for this program should be strict, laconic, tender, feminine and masculine – all in one. I have an open back dress. Black, not bright, but it still gleams a little, arms are completely closed so that beautiful lines could be seen on white ice, because the first part of our program is the music of Ludovico Einaudi which is so touching.
Ivan Bukin: In fact, we have not thought about anything like that. Once we’ve come to the fabrics salon, and they picked up black material for Sasha, the same for me, but mesh. We thought I would have long black sleeves and a sequined mesh T-shirt. But when I went on the ice wearing this, it looked terrible. Suddenly Irina Vladimirovna (Zhuk – ed.) Offered Sasha to try it on, and it turned out very cool! As a result, I have simple black costume and Sasha’s costume is with small sequins. When we tried them on, everyone said “That’s what we need.” We didn’t look for anything else. Although usually it’s a problem with the choice of costumes, color and everything else. And here it was easy and everyone liked it. Sasha and I were comfortable, so we didn’t experiment anymore.
Alexandra Stepanova: In this arbitrary brightness is not needed. Another thing is Moulin Rouge, where we also tried simple dresses for me. But this is absolutely not the case. We then remade the skirt and it turned out better. For such a program, costume should have some “luxury” elements. And in the free program there should be nothing superfluous. People should look at the program itself, at our skating, at our elements, at us – not at the costumes, this should not distract.
It seems to me that the plot is not important in this program. It is like a stream of water that you can look at endlessly.
Alexandra Stepanova: That was exactly the idea – to watch and enjoy. If we skate well, of course. Our two programs are very different: the short one is a performance, and the free one is completely different.
Ivan Bukin: And the work on this free program went very easily. I love Justin Timberlake since childhood, listened a lot, and when the coaches suggested this music (Cry Me a River – ed.), I was for it, but … we were looking for the first part a lot. Sasha suggested Einaudi’s “Primavera” … We listened, but it seemed that something was not right …
Alexandra Stepanova: Because the music is quite modern, with hip-hop elements. We have been looking for options for a long time, and what it has become now seems to be a completely different music.
Ivan Bukin: At first we had some doubts, but how will this program be “received”? How people will perceive it, because it was an experiment – to combine something modern with classical elements. We bet on “Moulin Rouge” more, because it’s well-known music, but it turned out that people liked the free program more. It was unexpected for us. Moreover, at the first start, at the Grand Prix, last year we beat the Americans. In America! We were all a little shocked then. We didn’t expect the program to be so impressive.
If so, can we assume that your other programs will be in the same style?
Ivan, Alexandra: No.
Alexandra Stepanova: A copy is always worse than the original, and it seems to me that it is not in our nature to repeat ourselves. We do not know what will happen next season, but in any case, we just need to use what suits us. This free program has it. We’ll see.
This season is unlike any other. In many countries, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the competitions were canceled. In our media, the topic was raised whether it is necessary or not to hold a competition. Your opinion?
Alexandra Stepanova: There should be competitions. Certainly. How to do without competitions? I do not know. This is experience. This is the assessment of the judges, the assessment of the audience. At competitions you assess yourself, how can you skate programs at the moment. Any athlete should have some kind of starting point. We have performed at the Russian Nationals and we understand what needs to be worked on. Thanks to the federation for organizing the competitions – it gives us life, gives us the opportunity to skate. This is a huge advantage.
Ivan Bukin: We are used to living in a certain rhythm. Winter is a busy competition schedule. And when at the beginning of the season there was a lot of uncertainty: whether there will be competitions, how they will be held, you start to lose a motivation a little. An athlete definitely needs competition, because it motivates to work. You come to competitions, see your rivals and begin to work, to develop in your sport even more forcefully. If there are no competitions, you do not understand who is at what level, where you are, whether you have lost in your work or, on the contrary, improved, whether you have become better or worse. You do not understand this, because there is no one to compare, there is no one to judge. You cannot feel the push, you cannot climb a new step, because you don’t understand where you are. You are losing motivation. You go on the ice and think: why should I skate if there is nothing to prepare for. Why do, for example, choreography, if you can go and relax. It all flashes in your head. This is true. But you think: no, it’s now, one year, one season and everything will stabilize …
And when we found out that the federation is ready to hold competitions, we were very happy, because this is an important step, this is a difficult step. We understand how difficult it is to organize mass events in the current situation. And we are extremely grateful that all athletes had the opportunity to travel, perform, not only in Moscow, in different cities. That’s cool.
Now it is not known what will be the consequences of this season, some of the athletes may end their careers. Now there is an active discussion on what to do to make the skaters stay in sports longer. But we see that even the guys from your group – Dima Mikhailov, Kirill Minov, Grisha Yakushev – have switched to coaching. What, in your opinion, can keep a skater in figure skating?
Ivan Bukin: Probably, first of all, the result. But here, you see, there is a vicious circle. In order to have a result, you have to work hard for this. And for work you need motivation, which is taken from the result. Probably a person who knows how to endure, endure loads every day and who doesn’t give up achieves the result. There are different moments. There are people who financially cannot afford this sport. And talented people finish because of this. But if you endured, worked like a horse, gave all of yourself, then inevitably there will be a result. I don’t know, I can’t guarantee that there will be the highest result, but you will definitely achieve something.
Alexandra Stepanova: To achieve a result, there also must be a little bit of luck.
Ivan Bukin: Also luck. This is sport, and in sport injuries are possible. As in life in general. Indeed, in ordinary life, you can also get injury that will prevent you from moving further. So everything has to work out … It’s hard to describe. But first of all, you have to motivate yourself. You have to set a goal. And if you are ready to go to it, then don’t give up. But this goal should not be vague, otherwise you will not be able to get energy from the very process of achieving this goal. There must be a clear goal, an understanding of what you want to do, and then you will inevitably come to this. Perhaps everyone will have their own path, but it seems to me that it works if you want to, If you are ready to endure and work, to achieve success and even to lose. Sometimes a loss gives much more than a victory, because you are simply happy with success, and thanks to defeat you get anger, motivation, which push you forward even stronger.
What do you think distinguishes a mature skater?
Alexandra Stepanova: It’s all about experience, the level of skill, and this is the result of long-term work. Yes, 15-year-old boys and girls can show technique, power, but, for example, ice dance is such a discipline of figure skating that you need to grow up to, because what is called “chemistry” between partners cannot be shown while remaining children, since you haven’t experienced it in your life yet.
Ivan Bukin: I’ll give you an example. There are inexperienced athletes who skate amazingly in training, but cannot show it at competitions. And there are less talented, but more experienced, and they transfer 80 percent of their training experience to competitions. It is very important. Because during training you are in comfortable conditions, you are at home, no one is looking at you, you can do again what didn’t turn out at any time. And at competitions you have one chance – one chance to show what you are capable of. And with experience, you realize that you can open up more in competitions. It’s easier for you. Competitions become comfortable for you. You start to have fun. Not stress, but pleasure from what you do, from the audience. There are even times when a judge just smiles because he liked what you are doing, and you see it, and you also enjoy it, because you understand that you could convey the meaning of your program or show something interesting. This is probably what distinguishes mature athletes.
This season and preparation for it wasn’t easy for you. Probably, at such moments, happens a reassessment of what you have not thought about before. How would you answer the question: what is the most important thing in life?
Ivan Bukin: Health. Without health, nothing will happen. You can do everything, by and large, you can buy everything except health. There is no technology that can replace your organs, change your limbs, and you will live for another hundred years and not get sick with anything. Therefore, it is important to monitor your health. Especially for athletes. A healthy body makes a healthy spirit. No wonder the ancients said so. Because it’s true.
Alexandra Stepanova: And for me the most important thing in life is love. Not only to a loved one. Love for the world, nature, parents, coaches, the work that you do, figure skating … Love for yourself, because if a person does not love himself, he loses confidence, everything is hard for him – for example, it’s hard to go to the competitions and show something. It’s like photography: if you don’t love yourself, you cannot convey to people through the camera lens the desire to make them like you. It seems to me that everything in this world rests on love.