Betina Popova: “It’s considered wrong to whine about eating disorders and psychological health problems, but you need to talk about them, otherwise they won’t be resolved.”
Interview with former ice dancer Betina Popova. Betina spoke about motivation for skaters to stay sport despite being suspended, new rules in ice dance, salaries, work with children, she also criticized the author of leaks about Diana Davis and Gleb Smolkin, who allegedly planned to move to the US team.
sporce: sport-express.ru dd. 8th July 2022, by Dmitri Kuznetsov
Betina, how are you? What do you do in the off season?
Betina Popova: I just came back from vacations in Cyprus, it’s good there. Now I work again six days a week until the evening. At the same time, I am learning programming.
What? Why programming?
Betina Popova: I used to choreograph programs, now I write them. I just mixed up when I was googling. Actually, I’m interested. My brother works in this area, and we discussed with him: programming has taken a big step forward, it is now becoming a liberal art. Writing code is like putting together a poem, this is creativity. You just need to be able to combine functions that clever mathematicians have already invented.
And what next? Are you moving to Silicon Valley?
Betina Popova: Yes, I will be the second Elon Musk (laughs). Okay, I want to try, of course. As a child, I never imagined that I would be on the ice for the rest of my life. Yes, I like it, but I want to try new things. I don’t know where life will take me – the outback in Russia or some other country, but I don’t tie myself to Moscow. Not everywhere, actually, there are skating rinks. What if I will want, for example, to live in Siberia. And what if there is no ice rink? But there will be Internet, I hope. Then I will survive. IT is everywhere – smart homes, technology, entertainment. I have recently tried to create a game, an ordinary clicker. Very interesting.
If you touch on figure skating, a new season is coming, the congress has passed. And it’s like everyone is already used to the fact that we are suspended. Even on the contrary, it seems to many that everyone will watch the Russian Grand Prix and crawl to us asking to return.
Betina Popova: Well, I think it is already obvious from the moods in ISU and statements of our federation that there will be no Russian Grand Prix as such. It’s more like media hype. There could have been an international event, indeed, but the ISU, apparently, does not want to allow this. I have a question: will Belarusians be allowed? They are in the same situation, so why don’t we compete with each other? It would be a good opportunity for the Belarusian guys. Let’s call it not “Grand Prix”, but the open Cup of Russia. As I understand the name “Grand Prix”, for Russian athletes the stages will be as significant as the “ISU Grand Prix”. But in fact, these are the same stages of the Russian Cup.
How interesting it will be for figure skaters to stay at the Russian Cup? Should we wait for the outflow? Anna Shcherbakova definitely hesitated, and she was not the only one for sure.
Betina Popova: I don’t expect a massive outflow. Everyone is counting on the upcoming Olympics, anyway. Only one cycle is left before it. And this is not so much, and the race for medals has already begun. Even if there is an opportunity to break into international competitions in the last year, ours will prefer this option. Perhaps some non-top level athletes will lose motivation. But for the tops, everything is aimed for the Olympics.
How important is financial motivation? So far, no official announcements about the amount of prize money have been heard from the federation.
Betina Popova: For those who are in the national team, nothing will change, I think so. The motivation to become members of the national team will also increase, now there is just such an opportunity. In ice dance, there is a place to go, with the age minimum for girls, the situation becomes less predictable, for guys everything is also constantly changing.
Only in pairs everything is stable. We have the best pairs in the world, and there are very few other places where they are. But everything will be fine for national team members. It is unlikely that it will be possible to keep the prize money at the same level as at the Grand Prix stages, of course. But they will obviously be bigger than usual at Russian competitions.
Was there any? I thought they gave only diploma.
Betina Popova: Prize money is included in the salary. That is, the national champion gets more than the bronze medalist, and so on. Everyone gets according to how well they performed. Plus, support for the regions is well developed. We have few athletes there, it wold be better to have more – figure skating is concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg. But now there is also a motivation to develop regional figure skating, domestic competition will grow.
It turns out that they will crawl back to us anyway.
Betina Popova: Of course! (Laughs.) Although, I don’t think that foreign athletes will have a great desire to come to us. In general, I don’t like these talks of the fans: “How can she consider herself a world champion when there were no ours!” But history is not about the subjunctive mood. You won this World Championships with this competitiors. If the guys have the opportunity to win it without the Russians, they will not be upset. This is even an incentive for world figure skating to start developing. Because now everything is rosy only in Russia, the USA and Japan. In the rest of the world, they have a maximum of two disciplines, it subsided.
And do not we have a subsidence? If you go down to the level outside the national team.
Betina Popova: There is a huge gap between Moscow and St. Petersburg and the rest due to the lack of specialists in the regions. Not everyone is ready to give up their usual life in Moscow – most of the retired skaters studied in Moscow or St. Petersburg, where the best sports institutes are. In my native Vladivostok, there are excellent conditions, many go to master classes, but do not move. And this is understandable. It’s just that at a master class you can’t give knowledge, maximum motivation. Or fix one obvious mistake.
Then why did you leave? You could have stayed and get money, you were in the national team.
Betina Popova: Firstly, we had a lot of injuries. Secondly, it’s very difficult in ice dance. The notorious queue, an incomprehensible sport, in general. Now it has become even more unclear with the new rules. I saw a rhythm dance at a training recently … Unusual. For the average viewer, maybe even brighter. But I watched and I din’t understand why these changes in the rules were needed in ice dance.
So for the sake of the show, if it’s brighter now.
Betina Popova: Well, maybe. But that small sporting component that remained in our sport and distinguished athletes by their ability to skate, it disappeared. You can do a million lifts during this choreographic step sequence and hide the fact that you cannot glide. And even at the expense of all sorts of mini-elements get more than the one who will try to skate.
I have one more explanation about ending a career, sorry. You can earn more by giving extra lessons and coaching than if you get into the national team.
Betina Popova: Indeed, many people are doing this, but this is very individual. For example, I was a choreographer for Denis and Dasha (Pavliuchenko/Khodykin – ed). And being a choreographer, you can survive well in Moscow. It’s not that you swim in money like Scrooge McDuck, not at all, but enough to live on. Being the top athlete of the national team, you get many times more. And then it is capitalized further. The more achieved in your career, the more you then monetize in the show or becoming a coach.
And you, as a choreographer, do you get a percentage for the performance of Pavliuchenko and Khodykin in the show?
Betina Popova: I can get for creating a program. The percentage is received by the coach and sports agent. But I had constant working on the already choreographed programs. If choreographer just created a program and left, well you may not even skate it. It needs to be constantly improved. And choreographers have different ways: someone is engaged only in staging and immediately takes decent money. Someone choreographs and continues working on the program, someone constantly works with the group.
Do you get the feeling that there is a large market for choreographers in Russia?
Betina Popova: We have a lot of unpromoted choreographers. And the fashion for them has recently come. When I skated, there was no such thing like inviting a choreographer who specially creates a program for you. I remember that Benoit Richaud was invided by Loboda and Drozd. We looked with a big eyes: did they really call a person? But many of our coaches do an excellent job with the programs – Irina Zhuk, for example. Maxim Stavisky creates cool programs, he has a lot of ideas. Many young choreographers choreograph for children – there is an insane amount of people in the youth categories. Denis Lunin works with Mozalev – his name is also not well known.
The main events of the off-season take place in your discipline, ice dance. Let me get straight to the point – will Davis and Smolkin represent the US?
Betina Popova: I agree with Renat Laishev here, oddly enough. He said a reasonable thing – if athletes have the opportunity to perform, they should use it. There are a lot of Russian athletes in different countries, we saw this in Beijing. And when Natasha Zabijako was criticized for moving to Canada, this is not adequate. I understand that in the current situation, the perception of such news has intensified, especially since figure skating is popular. But there were always a lot of transfers. Kirill Khaliavin will now develop figure skating in Spain, it’s wonderful! We will be able to see our sport in a richer palette of colors.
The story of the hockey player Fedotov also taught many, I think.
Betina Popova: I’m not sure that it applies to figure skating. There were many transfers, they treat this normally, and for most of those whom I know, they went smoothly. Difficulties happens if there’s something personal, but this is not a typical story.
So you believe in the option with the United States? Is this not just rumors out of nothing or PR?
Betina Popova: Diana has citizenship. If the guys want, they have every right to make the transfer, according to the rules, with quarantine.
Again, there was a screen shot about their marriage.
Betina Popova: I think this wasn’t nice. They started calling his father, asking if it was true … Complete nonsense. People have the right to privacy. Someone posts a photo with rings on the social network, like Vika with Nikita – please look. But someone doesn’t want to.
You’re right, none of our business. But, you must admit, it’s also looks strange – Boris Grigoryevich (Gleb’s father) could have said: “No comments, call later.” And so it looks like he does not know what is happening with his son.
Betina Popova: Well, imagine – you are sitting at home in the evening and they call you and start asking questions. Maybe he didn’t expect, didn’t know what to say. Because the question is stupid.
And the situation is strange too. There are rumors, and they need to be checked somehow.
Betina Popova: This is a question for the one who spreads them. The fact that Diana and Gleb have a warm relationship and that he touchingly protects and takes care of her, this was evident. They tried to make a sensation out of the event. But for me there’s no sensation.
Then why so many refutes?
Betina Popova: What did they refute? That everyone began to make noise, they say, they are leaving tomorrow. But they are skaters of the Russian national team, there are no papers in the federation. When they call Gorshkov – of course, he does not know anything! And where can he get information about the transition? From rumors? If all the rumors are taken for granted, it will be something.
The craziest rumor of your career?
Betina Popova: Wow, I need to think. Well, even our joke on April 1st – that I was returning to sport and already had a try-out with a partner. And then I found out (attention!) from my friends that other coaches were discussing: “Do you know that Betina tried out with Bagin?!” And they ask me: “God, what is this, Betina?” And they didn’t even have a thoght that there was no try-out at all!
Gossip is our everything.
Betina Popova: Yes, this is our sport. But as if there is no such thing in football?! Figure skating is more conservative, or something. We are closer to ballet. We are trying to keep the mystery around us, the magic. The image of crystal, luminous nymphs! We have an aesthetic sport. In football, you ran, scored, no matter how beautifully you did it. And the fans are the same, with fireworks.
Although the fans are becoming more aggressive.
Betina Popova: Yes, there is such a thing, the excitement is growing. Well, thank God that we have it.
Returning to the topic of personal relationships – how much does it help? Based on your experience, I don’t have a clear opinion.
Betina Popova: It’s completely individual. On the example of Volosozhar and Trankov, it works one hundred percent. For Usova and Zhulin it wasn’t for the best. Sasha Zhulin published a book, you can read about it there. The book is cool! He realized himself as an athlete, as a coach – with Tatiana Navka, with Vika Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, he went a crazy, chic path.
By the way, there were talks that he would coach Davis and Smolkin. Because such a person needs a top pair.
Betina Popova: I can’t say anything about it, but … after such a long journey that he went with Vika and Nikita, it’s really difficult to look for motivation and train children when you were at such a high level. Given the new trends in ice dance, where everything is changing rapidly, pairs break up. He fully realized himself, in my opinion.
It turns out very interesting: Sinitsina – Katsalapov say they want to stay, many pairs split up, and Davis and Smolkin, whose successes influenced this, alegendly moving to in the USA.
Betina Popova: We have a lot of young talented pairs at the junior level and younger. But will they survive? Now, parents make a lot of decisions. And you really don’t want them to do that. You don’t come to the doctor and say: “So, make an incision here, take out the appendix and sew it up with a flower.” You trust a professional. In figure skating, you also need to trust the coach. But many think that “my princess is the best, she needs a prince.”
Unlikely that this is the case of Skoptsova – Aleshin or other senior duets.
Betina Popova: Everything influences. Of course, athletes decide more here. There are other factors: the skater thinks: “I’m 20 years old, all my peers earn money, it’s time for me too. But in order to earn money, I have to skate super cool. Is my partner good enough for this? I’m fine, but he (she) is not very good.” The task of the coach is to say in time: “Hello, you are cool, because you aere together!”
But very few athletes, as far as I understand, have the idea that it would be necessary, conditionally, to retake the exam, change their qualifications. Do programming.
Betina Popova: This is a separate conversation about the education system. I do not want to say that “all athletes are stupid.” This stereotype doesn’t always work in real life. But the state exam is dulling, in my opinion. It is easier to prepare for it than for traditional exams where you had to understand the essence, and not answer test questions with checkmarks and crosses. Or a wonderful thing on the state exam you don’t need to say anything. It is enough to show basic knowledge.
As I understand the idea of the state exam, it equalizes the chances. After all, a teacher can also drag C students, or he can concentrate on child prodigies.
Betina Popova: Everyone needs their own approach. I also have different children in the group. For some it’s enough to slightly correct, for others it’s necessary to repeat many times. But I always try to talk to children, parents. I tell parents – your child has less natural data, everything can be developed, but you will spend more money and time. If you are ready to invest, please, but be prepared. I don’t say that to kids, of course.
Did you study very well yourself?
Betina Popova: Until ninth grade. Then I realized that I do not need grades, but knowledge.
At the same time, you went in for sports.
Betina Popova: Yes. An athlete can study, but it is very difficult. Before, even taking time off from training to go to school was not easy. They told you: “What, have you lost your mind? You have training!” Now this is easier to deal with. If a child says to me: “I have an exam,” I will let go without any problems. But now an insane amount of time is spent on extra lessons. We need a coach for spins, jumps, physical training. Not every child will take it out. And not every parent. Plus, unlike America, we have all trainings at the school time.
Can’t we do it like in America?
Betina Popova: All the rinks are full, hockey players, different groups. Not enough ice. So both parents and child must have crazy willpower.
When I skated, it was many times cheaper. Everything is more expensive now because of the competition. If I skated now, I would have finished on the level of “young skater”. Just some parents believes that their child will become an Olympic champion. No matter what. A more correct position is to let a child skate, and if he become a champion – cool. It’s necessary to talk.
I don’t know how you talk to fanatics. In my opinion, it’s even difficult to explain why you need to be an athlete when you can study.
Betina Popova: I also feel the same way about sports. I don’t really understand why society needs sports, yes. It has very little to do with healthy lifestyle. Healthy lifestyle is physical trainings, not a sport of the highest achievements. Although I have a girl in the group who went in for figure skating, dancing, having seen enough of figure skating, and she is not going to be an athlete.
Probably, the majority has such thoughts about sports during puberty.
Betina Popova: Yes, most children leave at 12-17 years old. The first serious injuries and the search for oneself happen. Much depends on your position in the group – relations with children, coaches. For example, it often happened to us when the coach had a clear favorite. You can try hard, but you will not win attention, because you are not a favorite.
Was there hazing? Its analogues.
Betina Popova: Yes, it happens in schools, in sports it’s the same. Even skates can be thrown into the trash can, things turned over in the locker rooms. Or crash on the ice on purpose. This is not hazing in the classical sense, not elders against younger ones, but simply peers in different social positions. It also happens in children’s camps, does it? Unfortunately it exists.
Do we need our own SafeSport?
Betina Popova: Interesting question … For example, what could be done in the case of Nugumanova? There should be clear boundaries between the coach and the athlete, a complete agreement so that conflicts do not occur. And, as far as I know, attempts were made to create a certain commission of athletes within our federation, where such urgent problems would be discussed. There was such an idea. I don’t know at what stage it’s now. But it’s right – it would be possible to resolve everyday problems during the competition.
Probably, our anti-stoking culture affects here. There are enough denunciations, but people do not like snitches.
Betina Popova: We just need to separate the situations. In a particular case, the complaint may be for the benefit of all. There are also problems of eating disorders, psychological health of girls. It seems to be considered wrong to whine about these problems, but you need to talk about them, otherwise they won’t be resolved.
Coaches will tell you, “She needs to lose weight in order to jump. Not my problem”.
Betina Popova: There is a way out – nutritionists. We do not have them in groups, only in the FMBA when examining athletes, well, in a particular case, you can apply. Unfortunately, there is no culture of working with nutritionists on an ongoing basis. But figure skating in Russia is at a cool level, why not start? Tiffany [Zagorski] is accompanied by a make-up artist, for example. We have great doctors in the national team, they are competent. Why not add a nutritionist to the staff? Athletes need to be heard.
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