“I respect Plushenko as a sportsman, but I don’t deny that his opinion on coaching is not authoritative for me.” Interview with coach Sofia Fedchenko
Interview with Sofia Fedchenko coach of the new Russian junior champion who wasn’t afraid to stood up for her skater in the story of Plushenko’s dissatisfaction with the judging.
source: RSport dd. 24 February 2023 by Vlad Zhukov
Russian coach Sofia Fedchenko is rapidly gaining popularity. Her student Alina Gorbacheva won the Russian Junior Nationals, ending the dominance of figure skaters coached by Eteri Tutberidze. After that, the 27-year-old specialist confidently responded to the attacks of Evgeni Plushenko, who was disappointed with the failures of his students. RIA Novosti Sport spoke with Fedchenko about how to become a mother to someone else’s child and what happened with Plushenko.
We decided to talk not far from the Triumph” ice rink, where Sofia coaches. Before starting the conversation, she put a sheet of paper on the table and hurriedly wrote out the training schedule.
What’s the problem with the schedule?
Sofia Fedchenko: There are no problems. This is practically our rink. The director is doing us a favor by allowing us to change the schedule to make it more convenient for us. Before important competitions, we often take additional ice time to prepare better. Since we are the only ones here from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., we can change the schedule of ice resurfacing and training within that time frame.
So it’s your rink?
Sofia Fedchenko: Well, no, we rent the ice, of course. We pay like everyone else.
However, when we agreed on the interview, you said that today Alina was skating “on someone else’s ice.”
Sofia Fedchenko: Yes, because after 4 p.m. it’s another school’s ice, but we are friends, and they let us use it. So it’s a whole day from 8:45 a.m. to 9:15 p.m. It is her first day back after being sick, so that’s why everything is like this today.
Did she get sick during the Nationals or after?
Sofia Fedchenko: After. We arrived, and she got sick. But after a few days of rest, everything is back to normal. Alina often gets sick after competitions, the emotional outburst affects her.
Do you have to share the ice with hockey players?
Sofia Fedchenko: Here, we have only figure skaters from Monday to Friday. Unfortunately, we don’t have ice on Saturdays and Sundays. We’re always at different rinks in Moscow and the surrounding areas because the “Labor Reserves” hockey league plays at “Triumph” on weekends. When some of the older kids are preparing for competitions during that time, we have to look for another rink on weekends. Basically, wherever we find ice, that’s where we skate (laughs).
And no one helps with the search?
Sofia Fedchenko: Well, I have a private school. We pay for all the ice time ourselves, and the parents also pay. So, no one helps us out. Hockey players are more profitable.
Figure skaters at the national team level are also profitable.
Sofia Fedchenko: In what way?
Sofia Fedchenko: That doesn’t matter for a private rink. A private rink charges for ice time, and they don’t care who skates there.
The harsh laws of the market.
Sofia Fedchenko: Ptobably, state schools can find additional ice time. But we have to figure things out on our own.
How is the work going in your group?
Sofia Fedchenko: Currently, we have two groups: the seniors and the juniors. The senior group consists of 12 skaters, and sometimes we also bring someone from the junior group. I work with the seniors along with Vlad Danilkin, and Valeria Egorova works with the juniors. There are three groups in total, with eight people each, starting from the 2010 to the 2015 year of birth. The senior group is from 2012. Alina is the oldest skater; she was born in 2007.
The senior group has a total of three hours of ice time per day – two sessions of 1.5 hours each. The junior group has two one-hour training sessions. We have enough ice.
You used to work with Alexei Zheleznyakov. Why did you stop?
Sofia Fedchenko: We didn’t have any conflicts, and nobody hurt anyone’s feelings. It’s just that Alexei is an emotional person, and I am too. I try to hold back in the press, but he doesn’t (laughs). Maybe that’s why it’s so noticeable. I think we’re just not working together temporarily. Sometimes people get tired, and taking a break can be beneficial for everyone. He has a lot of work and projects, and I do too. Sometimes our schedules don’t match up. In principle, we agreed that it’s a temporary stage where we take a break from working together.
You used to work in Tver before Moscow, right?
Sofia Fedchenko: Not for long. When I was just starting out, I gave extra lessons for children in Moscow, and one of the parents suggested doing training camps. We started looking for a place with cheap ice, and for some reason, my eyes fell on the town of Bologoye in Tver region. It’s a small village, but the “Sapsan” train goes there, so you can get there quickly. There were good conditions, ice quality, and cost. We had training camps during the spring break, around March. Many children from the Tver region came, including the daughter of the local federation president at the time. They all liked it, and they wanted me to train there. At that time, I was still studying at the university and would go to Tver on the trains after classes. I had classes until around 2:30 p.m., and then I would rush to the rink.
However, the local coaches didn’t want me to work there and wouldn’t let us skate. We had constant conflicts. Even then, the head of the local federation wanted to create a boarding school for figure skaters from all over the country so that they could live, study, and train there.
We started promoting this idea, but certain difficulties prevented the plans from coming true. Also, I personally believe that there should be at least one parent with a figure skater child who will take care of them and help them. And a boarding school… it’s not about figure skating.
In the end, we skated there for six months. At that time, Alina lived between Moscow and Tver. From about September to January, all of this continued, and during this period, while we were preparing for the regional championships of Russia, we were still given ice at the state school. Well… they just let us skate on the ice with the ice dancers, and that was only because their coach is my friend. But with the single skaters – no. “We don’t need new coaches here; everything is fine with us”, they said.
Then I also realized one more thing about working in regions: there is no access to other specialists. Here in Moscow, someone is constantly coming to me with a harness, to give skating lessons. Nikita Mikhailov, who choreographs programs for the girls, is also here quite often. You can always bring in someone from the outside to look things over. And so that children can try something new. And in the region, you boil in your own pot. No one really wants to go there… And, frankly, there is not much competition. Therefore, we gradually began to move to Moscow. And then, when they stopped giving us ice in Tver after the regional championships, we finally left.
How did you get into coaching?
Sofia Fedchenko: At first, I was just studying at a university in Moscow. Then, around my third year, I started working with kids, and it just progressed from there. I used to skate in Krasnodar, and then I started working with a coach named Evgenia Kraynukova in Tikhoretsk. When I turned 18 and graduated from school, I stopped skating and moved to Moscow. I got my first degree at Plekhanov Institute and my second one at RGUFK. I always wanted to coach, but my mom insisted that I graduate from another serious university. Maybe she just didn’t see me as a coach. And at that time, I didn’t want to do anything else (laughs). But when I started studying at the sports university, I didn’t really like it there and decided that I didn’t want to study full-time. So I ended up studying part-time there and getting my full-time education at Plekhanov Institute.
How did you meet Alina?
Sofia Fedchenko: It was really by chance. I went to visit my parents in Krasnodar, and my friend asked me to work with a girl. He was leaving for a competition and said that the girl was good but needed to catch up because she started late and couldn’t waste any time.
At first, I was hesitant because I don’t like working at home. But I agreed, and from the very first training session, we realized that we were a good fit for each other.
Why did you decide that? What were the feelings?
Sofia Fedchenko: You know, it’s like falling in love – a spark. And besides, she is very hardworking. From the first training session, she looked me in the eyes, caught every word, and tried to correct herself. There wasn’t even a moment of adaptation, which usually happens with any athlete. And here the child was ready to do everything I told her.
And there was one phrase she said that convinced me to work with her. Usually, on the first training session, I always ask kids why they skate. It’s very important because if the answer is something vague, I probably won’t want to work with the child. If the child doesn’t know what they want themselves, then they are pushed into sports by their parents. And such work is not very productive.
By the way, it doesn’t matter to me what the child’s specific goal is. It’s not necessary to talk about the Olympics immediately, titles, and so on. It’s enough to have some small personal goal—to do a double jump, for example. Yes, it’s a small thing, but it comes from the child themselves. In this case, they will understand why they come to training.
Do not need to force children?
Sofia Fedchenko: No, you still need to force. It’s just that when a child has a goal, they are willing to work hard for it. And when they respond to the question of why they are skating with “I don’t know…”, you’re just wasting your time.
Alina said this phrase to me: “I will become an Olympic champion.” Usually, children say, “I want to win the Olympics” or “I want to become an Olympic champion.” It’s “want.” And here it is categorical: “I will become.” It was very surprising. I replied to her, “Well, you can do not much yet; why are you so sure?” And she said, “Because I will work a lot, and those who work hard always achieve their goals.” And her words conquered me. When an eight-year-old child says something like this, they have the most important thing in their mind: awareness. Alina was an adult from the very beginning, from the first moment of our acquaintance. She always knew why she came to the ice.
Then I went back, but she stayed in Krasnodar. She called me every day, saying that she missed me. We still spoke informally back then; I was just giving some extra lessons, and we didn’t have any subordination yet. And then, when she moved to Moscow to train, I said to her, “Well, dear, now we need to address formally (laughs).” It took her about a week to get used to it. We used to be such good friends, and now…
She moved at the age of nine. We went to training camp and decided it was time. Although originally I didn’t plan on moving her, it wasn’t a fixed idea. But in the end, I left her in Krasnodar for a week after that camp and asked the coaches who were there not to touch anything or change her technique, just to make sure she was doing it herself.
By that time, she was doing a double axel and was close to doing a Salchow. But when I came back, Alina was just crying. I said to her, “Why are you crying?” And she said, “They told me that I’d never be able to do a double axel.” I said to her, “What do you mean? You’ve already done it.” She said that the coach told her that she had no push.
So we realized that we really needed to move. I talked to her and her mother, and Alina came to live with me. Her mother moved to Moscow a year later.
So it turns out that you and Alina had more than just a coach-athlete relationship from the beginning?
Sofia Fedchenko: It just happened that she lived with me when she moved here. She even stayed in the dorm with me for a while.
In the same room?
Sofia Fedchenko: Yes. My friend, who also lived in the dorm, recently messaged me to congratulate Alina on her victory. She said, “Oh my God, I remember your little princess in our room!” The dorms at Plekhanov are decent, two-person rooms with a kitchen and amenities. But when you add a fold-out bed in the middle of two beds in a 12-square-meter room, it’s not the most comfortable option (laughs). So, we lived together—my neighbor, me, and Alina. Although she often stayed in Tver, where she lived with the federation president’s family, and I helped her get into school there. But sometimes, when I had weekends or couldn’t go to Tver because of school, Alina stayed with us. We agreed on everything; the dormitory supervisor and the dean of the faculty were aware of the situation, and no one objected. I am very grateful to them; they always accommodated us.
Alina mentioned that she started homeschooling from the fifth grade.
Sofia Fedchenko: Yes, she studies at an online school.
So, considering that she lives with you, do you help her with her lessons too? Is that also part of your responsibilities?
Sofia Fedchenko: I used to help her before. In general, she is independent and studies on her own. But when she doesn’t understand something, I explain it to her. We haven’t had much time to study lately; the season is very busy. We’ll compete in the Grand Prix Final and then actively prepare for the exams with tutors.
I apologize in advance if I’m prying too much. It’s just that you probably understand that this is a very unusual case when…
Sofia Fedchenko: Are you talking about the situation that the athlete lives with the coach and not the parents? Despite the fact that her mother lives in Moscow, not far from the child.
Sofia Fedchenko: Perhaps when Alina gets older, she will want to tell this story in full. Or maybe she won’t.
Please don’t get me wrong; I don’t want to pry into something that’s not necessary.
Sofia Fedchenko: No, you’re right; everyone is interested. Let’s try to be careful and not go into details. Alina’s mother didn’t see many prospects in her figure skating activities. Either she didn’t have the financial means or, as I think, she didn’t want to invest in training. It’s expensive to raise an athlete of the national team level. Unfortunately, in our sport, without a huge amount of individual training, you won’t get anywhere, no matter how good the conditions are in your school. Plus, you need massages, restorative procedures, special vitamins, and sports nutrition.
If you want a figure skater to have their own individual style, you definitely need to work with them individually a lot. I always provided Alina with free lessons, but in addition to me, a large number of specialists worked with her. There was no one for jumps, but for gliding, spins, and program choreography, there were outside coaches. I paid for all of them myself.
But since at the beginning we skated at public sessions, Alina’s mother had to pay for the ice time. On average, this costs one thousand rubles (13 USD) per hour for a coach and athlete. And when you skate for 4-5 hours a day, the amount adds up to a solid 100-120 thousand rubles (1300-1600 USD) per month. I emphasize, only for ice time. This often led to conflicts between them. Alina’s mother believed that there was no point in this because girls her age were already doing quad jumps while we were still learning the triple loop.
And then there was a moment. When Alina and I moved from the south of Moscow to the north, her mother couldn’t move out of her apartment and rent another one. She suggested that Alina travel by metro herself, which is a two-hour journey each way. Naturally, Alina quickly grew tired and asked to live with me. I spoke to her mother and explained how I saw the situation. I said that, in my opinion, it would have a very negative impact on their relationship – most likely, there would be hurt feelings. But she stood her ground: “I’m not moving.”
But I couldn’t allow the child to spend four hours on the road every day. She simply can’t train in that kind of regime. So I took Alina with me.
It seemed to me that you are speaking about this with some resentment. Maybe even anger.
Sofia Fedchenko: Towards the mother? Not at all. The thing is, it’s easier to work when the parent supports the athlete. If there’s no such triangle in a good way, it’s very difficult.
Sometimes I part ways with athletes because we can’t find a common language with their parents. In that season, I coached a very talented girl, but in the summer, at my initiative, we parted ways. She is now skating in Sergei Davydov’s group and successfully doing quadruple jumps. But we didn’t have contact with her mother, and I understood that it would be better for everyone to end the work.
If the parent doesn’t have complete trust in the coach, there won’t be results. Why does it work with Alina and me? Because she trusts me, Vlada Nikolaevna, and doesn’t question our words. When the child behaves like this, everything always turns out well. And when there’s a counterweight at home – well, you know, you didn’t say that right here, didn’t do that right there, that student got more attention. The student starts to get jealous, offended.
Oh, these famous figure skating moms!
Sofia Fedchenko: Oh, don’t say. It’s just a cult (laughs).
Do you understand how to handle this situation? Before you came for the interview, I talked to Alina, and she said that you are like a mother to her. She’ll be 18 soon. Are you willing to take responsibility for her going forward?
Sofia Fedchenko: We discussed all of this with her; we talked. She went through a very difficult period in figure skating when she was constantly growing and getting injured. She wanted to quit then. I provide everything financially, but it can be tough at times. Especially when you don’t see the results and don’t really understand why everything is being done.
I told her: “If you don’t want to, let’s just quit the competitive skating and skate for yourself. I’m not kicking you out by any means; skate a little; study at school. You need to do what brings you pleasure, and why spend eight hours a day on the ice rink for no reason?” We talked about the future and her profession, and how she needs to decide what to do in life.
Now Alina is only considering a sports career, and afterwards she wants to be a choreographer. I support her in this desire. While the results are improving, talks about university have been put on hold. I just require her to study basic subjects so that she won’t end up preparing for the national exams too late. At least she needs to know Russian, Math, and English well. I’m not even asking her about Physics, History, and other subjects. If she gets a “B” – well, that’s good enough.
After she turns 18, I don’t plan to leave Alina on all fours. I already told her that she needed to save money from her winnings to buy herself an apartment later. There should be some safety cushion, some savings. In principle, I believe that children should already live separately at 18; I myself moved out of my parents’ house when I was 17. Must grow up. But this does not mean that something will change in our relationship with her.
The only thing is that I would like Alina to have just normal relations with her mom. But for now…
You mentioned that at the Russian Nationals, Alina was nervous because she had been skating in seniors all season and then returned to juniors. Does that mean that Alina realized she had some advantage over her opponents?
Sofia Fedchenko: Oh no, Alina thinks completely differently. She’s a child who wants to do not just 100% possible every day, but 150%. And if something doesn’t work out for her in training, it’s a tragedy and a catastrophe.
This year, we are being filmed a lot by Channel One, and pre-start training as well. And we constantly ask Alina, “Please, at least don’t get nervous at official training sessions.” Because everyone thinks we’re almost killing the child (laughs). I often hear that she is like this because I put pressure on her. But all I do is ask her to react more calmly.
Alina is the kind of athlete who doesn’t always believe that she’s doing well. Sometimes you tell her, “Alina, this jump was great.” And she turns around and says, “No, it wasn’t great.” We tell her together, and she still doesn’t believe it. And until you shoot a video and show her visually, she will insist that it was bad.
It’s some kind of hyper-responsibility.
Sofia Fedchenko: Yes. In her work, it sometimes gets in the way. If something doesn’t work out for her once, it’s a catastrophe. And if it doesn’t work out at an official training session in front of judges and other athletes, it’s a tragedy of the century. Only by the end of the season was I able to convince her that training wasn’t as important and that the main thing was what you did at the start.
Overall, Alina grew mentally after the Channel One Cup, that event really helped her. There was such a mature atmosphere, and there were older skaters there.
And the arena was full-packed.
Sofia Fedchenko: Actually, that doesn’t bother her, she’s always liked it when people clap for her since childhood. The better the support, the better she skates. What stresses her out is when she has to compete with someone who’s stronger. It’s great to go into a competition as a favorite, but when there’s someone above your level, it’s difficult for Alina and she starts getting nervous.
But at the Channel One Cup; everything was very friendly. Plus, Alina really likes Alina Zagitova. She was very happy to be in her team. There she relaxed, and started training much better after that.
But she was still very nervous before the junior Nationals. During practice, she kept putting pressure on herself, saying that she couldn’t afford to make a mistake. She didn’t really understand her superiority. And what kind of superiority could there be when Veronika Zhilina has four ultra-C? We all know our competitors’ content.
The thing was that she couldn’t afford to lose to younger competitors. That was the only problem. I talked to her constantly, tried to explain that she shouldn’t think about her place – it’s only important to show clean performances. I teach other kids the same thing because you can’t always influence your place. Thinking about it just gets in your way. It doesn’t depend on you how your opponent skates, what the judges will give. Our sport is very subjective. I teach Alina not to even compare her scores from different competitions because it can all depend on a bunch of external factors.
Fans and the media really don’t like these phrases about “clean skates”.
Sofia Fedchenko: Why?
Well, imagine a competition where skaters come to the mixed zone and say the same thing. Everyone came for clean skates, no one is competing against anyone. It’s boring.
Sofia Fedchenko: It just puts a lot of pressure. Especially if you realize that you have some element in your program that could bring you victory. You become so fixated on it that you can’t do it.
From my experience, I can say that parents often push their children towards this mentality. It often happens that a child comes and says, “Sophia Anatolyevna, at the next competition there will be Ivanova.” And I’m like, “Who?” “Well, Ivanova! Mom said she’s a very strong girl who can do a triple lutz. I also urgently need a triple lutz!”
And I say to her, “Sweetie, you land it once in ten tries. You don’t need a triple lutz, you just need to skate clean and do what you know how to do.” “No, I’ll lose then, but Mom said I have to be better than Ivanova!” And I constantly hear this “Mom said”. In reality, you don’t need to be better than anyone; you just need to focus on your strengths. When you go with the mindset to skate clean, you feel emotionally lighter; you’re not fixated on anything specific, and you let yourself go. The program looks fresher, and everyone is happy. That’s why figure skaters answer like that.
It was very difficult to get Alina ready for the free skate at Nationals. We repeated many times that she should forget about the emotions from the short program. After all, she received her usual score for herself: at the Channel One Cup, she had almost 74 points with a Level 3 step sequence, and in the past season, it was 72-73. But she did not expect to be the first with this score. Zhilina and Titova were doing triple Axels, and we knew that if they skated clean, they would probably be first.
Alina was very nervous during the practice before the free skate. It was scary to lose the first place when it was right there, almost in your hands. It put pressure on her. At first, we thought of doing two quads, but we took out the toe loop before the short program because it wasn’t working out. And we left the decision about the Salchows for later; we had time to think before the free skate.
When Zhilina finished, I realized that one quad and a good skate would be enough for us. Especially at this competition! Of course, the ultimate goal is to include 2-3-5, as many quads as possible, but I didn’t think it was right to learn at the Russian Nationals. There are competitions where you want to win a title. Now we will skate at the Grand Prix Final and then plan to go to regular national competitions to practice more difficult content.
In the end, the competitions ends, and a resonant interview happens. Did you have to protect Alina from these conversations? She also got her share of criticism.
Sofia Fedchenko: She actually spends very little time on the internet; she sleeps before training. As it turns out, lions sleep a lot too (laughs). In the summer, we were in Dubai with her on a safari, and the guide told us that lions sleep from 16 to 18 hours a day. And I told her then, “Alina, well, in general, everything is clear” (laughs). No, of course, she will read some good comments about herself and answer some messages. It’s all nice and useful. But nothing more.
If you’re talking about what Evgeni Viktorovich (Plushenko) said, I didn’t want to react at all at first. Then I decided that it was worth saying something. And if the phrase “a skater with one ultra C beat a skater with four” hadn’t been said, I definitely wouldn’t have commented on it. Because that was clearly a hit against us.
So it turns out you were hurt after all?
Sofia Fedchenko: Only for my athlete. I had to defend her because she did her job fairly and is not to blame for anything. It’s upsetting for a child. Most of all, I didn’t want her to start doubting her victory. Because she won the gold medal fairly and deservedly.
However, the story became too loud (laughs).
Because you commented loudly. Even though it was absolutely on point, in my opinion.
Sofia Fedchenko: I commented more than correctly. It’s just that my interview was broken down into the most striking phrases, and off it went. Mostly, everyone picked up on the phrase that I don’t care about Evgeny Viktorovich’s opinion. In reality, I respect him as a sportsman, but now we are colleagues in coaching. And I don’t deny that his opinion on coaching specifically is not authoritative for me.
Understand me correctly: we don’t work on the same team, and we don’t have any common athletes. Therefore, his opinion about my athletes doesn’t matter to me. I have other authorities, experts, whom I listen to. Evgeni Viktorovich is just my colleague. He’s a good coach, and he has great athletes, but we’re not on the same team for me to take his opinion into account regarding my athletes.
Nevertheless, I’ll ask you a popular question among fans: Sofia, who is covering you?
Sofia Fedchenko: Me? It’s better for nobody to know (laughs).
I’ll explain why such assumptions arise. In figure skating, it’s generally not customary to respond so harshly to an opponent and defend your athlete.
Sofia Fedchenko: I have a counter question: who should I have been afraid of?
Well, there are candidates.
Sofia Fedchenko: I defended my athlete and didn’t stand in anyone’s way. And as for being afraid—well, we live in a country where there are certain laws that cannot be violated. You cannot insult or defame, but I don’t remember any ban on expressing your opinion.
Perhaps you are right; it’s about the conservatism of figure skating. Sometimes it’s easier to keep quiet, and I’ll explain why. Journalists will start calling you from morning till night—will you comment on the situation, will you sue Plushenko, will you file a complaint under the code of ethics. And I wasn’t going to raise this issue at all.
So as for what they’re saying… Well, they say a lot. After all, figure skating is a popular sport.
Related topics: Alina Gorbacheva, Evgeni Plushenko, Sofia Fedchenko
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