“In our first year with Shpilband, I felt like I was dying. Because during one training session, we could do three free dances.” Interview with former ice dancers Ekaterina Ryazanova
Interview with former ice dancers Ekaterina Ryazanova. About change of partners, work with Igor Shpilband, success of Papadakis/Cizeron and work in shows.
source: RT dd. 27th June 2023 by Elena Vaitsekhovskaya
To earn money performing in shows is much easier than being a coach. This opinion was expressed by Russian vice-champion in ice dance, Ekaterina Ryazanova. According to the former figure skater, who has changed several coaches, partners, and countries throughout her career, it is necessary to teach students not only to enjoy what they do but also to play by any proposed rules. The specialist also explained why Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron revolutionized their discipline, recalled a severe, debilitating injury, and admitted to finding her dream job.
In 2009, you became national champions among juniors with Jonathan Guerreiro, won bronze at the World Junior Championships, but right after the season ended, you quite suddenly decided to change both your partner and coaching staff, leaving Svetlana Alexeeva and Elena Kustarova. What was the reason?
Ekaterina Ryazanova: At first, I was simply offered to come for try-outs. Ilia Tkachenko was left without a partner at that time but continued to skate under Alexei Gorshkov’s guidance. And I really wanted to try what it was like to skate with a partner who was older and more experienced, not to mention that at that time Ilia was considered one of the best in the country. I wasn’t planning to make a decision right away, but everything unfolded very quickly. Although the first year in the new team turned out to be challenging. Due to the age difference, I constantly felt that my partner didn’t take me seriously as an equal. I was used to something completely different.
Were Kustarova and Alexeeva aware that you were invited to try-outs?
Ekaterina Ryazanova: No. So, to some extent, I felt like a traitor. In fact, when I announced my decision, everyone in the former team, including John, considered me a traitor. But I understand him. I would have been offended too. John and I were best friends when we skated together. And of course, when I made the decision to leave, it was very painful for both of us.
The development of your career with Tkachenko was rapid and, I would say, very cinematic: moving to America, working with the outstanding ice dance specialist Igor Shpilband, the bloody and dramatic incident with the severed finger… All of this simply demanded a happy ending.
Ekaterina Ryazanova: But, unfortunately, it didn’t happen: we didn’t make it to the Olympics in Sochi, which was the main reason for my transfer to Gorshkov. I don’t know, maybe the happy ending awaits me in my coaching career?
Did you have a feeling during your Olympic season that there was suddenly an unfair game against you and Ilia as a pair?
Ekaterina Ryazanova: It rather became an unpleasant reality that for three years we were the third pair, performing quite well, including in international competitions, and suddenly in one year we were replaced by a junior pair who had not performed at the senior level. At the Russian Nationals, we finished fourth, losing to Victoria Sinitsina and Ruslan Zhiganshin, but even then, there was still a chance to qualify for the Games. The Russian champions, Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev, decided to skip the European Championships, and Ilia and I were selected for Budapest.
And there you lost to Sinitsina and Zhiganshin again, finishing fifth.
Ekaterina Ryazanova: Yes. It turned out that we were neck and neck until the free dance, but I made a small mistake on the twizzle. I don’t know how much this error affected the result, but we lost and the chance was missed. I don’t think anyone should be blamed for it except myself. Now I understand very well that I should have taken the seriousness of that season more responsibly.
Disagreements with your partner and the subsequent end of your partnership were, as I understand, heavily influenced by that Olympic failure?
Ekaterina Ryazanova: Yes. Ilia, of course, was very angry and didn’t hide the fact that he saw no further prospects for himself in competing for Russia. He told me directly, “If you can find any options to continue your career, look for them. But we won’t skate together.”
So the Italian option with Simone Vaturi emerged?
Ekaterina Ryazanova: Yes. Naturally, at first they didn’t want to let me go to Italy, saying that there were plenty of good partners in Russia… But all of them were taken. At least, I didn’t see anyone who was willing to part with their partner. So, I decided to try skating in another country.
Wasn’t there a feeling that the Western approach to sports is completely different? Without the familiar Russian-style hard work in training, draconian discipline…
Ekaterina Ryazanova: By that time, I had accumulated quite a rich experience working with various coaches. With Kustarova and Alekseeva, the approach to us was quite strict, but that’s understandable: we were all young and had racing thoughts, and whether you like it or not, athletes need to be handled with an iron fist. But we still loved each other. When I started working with Alexei Gorshkov, he was working with older pairs, so he treated me immediately as a very mature and equal person. It was so amazing to me that subconsciously, for the first while, I walked around, ears pressed, constantly waiting for when the bomb would explode.
Then the same story happened with Igor Shpilband, when we went for a training camp with Gorshkov. Igor was very loyal, kind, and calm, but he made us work very hard. He had a completely different approach to competition preparation than what we were used to. While Ilia and I were skating in Russia, we would usually do two programs a day. One dance in the morning, and another in the evening. In our first year with Shpilband, I felt like I was dying. Because during one training session, we could do three free dances. You would be skating, barely able to catch your breath, and he would be standing by the boards with a smile, saying, ‘Good job, little bunny, keep going, you can do it.’
I always liked that approach, actually. But in Italy, everything turned out to be a bit more relaxed, despite the fact that Simon and I were lucky to join the team in Turin, where Luca Lanotte worked, with whom we had trained together in the group of Igor Shpilband.
But it didn’t last long for you, did it?
Ekaterina Ryazanova: After reaching the level at which Ilia and I were performing, it was a bit uncomfortable for me to be at that Italian level. Naturally, I started to think: I invest so much money in rent, training, being far away from my loved ones, without any earnings. Not only are we not competing in competitions where there could be decent prize money, but I couldn’t even coach anyone to make some extra money. And, in general, I was invited under certain conditions that turned out to be completely different in reality.
That’s how our training with Simone smoothly transitioned into performing in shows. Ari Zakaryan invited us to China. At the same time, while being there, I started working with Lu Chen and Denis Petrov. They were just opening their figure skating school in Beijing and invited me to work.
Is coaching abroad an easy or challenging job?
Ekaterina Ryazanova: It’s much easier to earn money by performing in shows. Coaching is a completely different story. I felt it strongly, especially when I returned to Russia and had to look for a job. In China, I had a specific “package.” I worked with dancers, pairs, conducted general lessons for single skaters, and I was paid a certain amount for four hours a day. Those who wanted to earn more could take additional hours, as many as they wanted. We had four rinks, so basically, there was an unlimited amount of ice. So, there were no problems with work and income, in principle. Plus, my accommodation was provided.
Why did you leave then?
Ekaterina Ryazanova: The pandemic began. All the skaters at the figure skating and short track schools were closed. Since there were no other guests in the hotel, they started cutting back on electricity usage, and the rooms became terribly cold, simply hellish.
I heard that leaving China during that period was only possible through some unimaginable maneuvers. And only on cargo planes.
Ekaterina Ryazanova: I managed to leave a little earlier when passenger flights were not completely shut down yet. I flew via Irkutsk, with a long and difficult transfer, with lots of adventures: it was warm in China, and in Irkutsk, it was almost 40 degrees below zero. Well, in Moscow, it became clear that it would last for a long time, and I definitely wouldn’t be able to go anywhere. Especially since China had completely closed by that time. So, I slowly started working wherever I could. I was giving some extra lessons at Adelina Sotnikova’s school, Oleg Volkov’s group, and some other side jobs. And after some time, I found out that Alexei Gorshkov had an available position of a choreographer. And we teamed up.
Personally, Gorshkov has always surprised me a lot. Unexpected ideas, unexpected choreography, like, for example, in the case of Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski, who almost surpassed Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov at the 2004 World Championships. Although, in general, in ice dance, you usually have an idea of what to expect from a particular coach. And the worst part is that Russian coaches, as a rule, are very closed off. As if they’re afraid that otherwise, there will definitely be some enemy who will spy on their programs and tell competitors about some secret findings.
Ekaterina Ryazanova: Actually, I was always frustrated that ice dance in Russia was essentially brewing in its own juice, and I’m glad that the situation is starting to change now. The same goes for Gorshkov — not only does he never stand still, but he also isn’t afraid to invite a variety of specialists to our group. When I first joined the team, he was working with Nikolai Morozov, and at the same time, our team started collaborating with Irina Zhuk and Alexander Svinin. I believe that this collaboration has benefited all of our athletes greatly.
Right now, I’m incredibly happy that Alena Samarskaya is working with us constantly. She is an absolutely amazing choreographer, she has a great sense of music, and she truly understands it. Since her husband is Ivan Bukin, Alena has been aware of all the dance events and trends for many years, plus her own experience. She has been working with dancers for years, she knows what each of them likes, what they do in their programs, what hand positions are comfortable for the athletes, and which are not, and so on. And in general, I dream that someday Alexei (Gorshkov will find an opportunity to collaborate with Benoit Richaud. That would be an amazing experience.
Richaud is currently considered one of the most interesting choreographers in the world.
Ekaterina Ryazanova: That’s right. Benoit visited us in China when I was working there, and he really offers athletes very interesting things that are definitely worth learning from.
What does he do differently from other colleagues?
Ekaterina Ryazanova: Benoit always has many very interesting ideas, and he has incredible control over his body on the ice. Not only does he use some previous skills but constantly develops them. I’m more than confident that the majority of dancers, even those at the top, are unable to skate like him. Nowadays, though, more attention is being paid to that aspect, different specialists are being invited, but in the past, ice dance definitely lacked that. It’s as if each coach had a mental frame or restriction that they shouldn’t go beyond.
As a rule, no one did go beyond it.
Ekaterina Ryazanova: That’s probably why Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron caused such a sensation when they appeared. They simply broke that frame. The most amazing thing is that despite their absolute control over their bodies on the ice, I can’t recall a single instance where they ever hindered each other. Instead, they maximally complemented each other, seamlessly transitioning from one movement to another as a unified whole.
Why, in your opinion, do some ice dance duos become memorable right away, while others remain behind the scenes in principle? Considering that, as is commonly believed, everyone does the same in ice dance. Is it all about the frames?
Ekaterina Ryazanova: Probably not only about that. Personally, I like it when people step onto the ice and enjoy themselves. They truly feel each other, the dance. If we start breaking it down, it might seem like minor details: the coordination of hand movements, each finger, the way they hold their head, back, and even how the skaters look at each other. In our country, probably no one skated for pure enjoyment last season. I can’t recall such a thing, at least. I can understand those who have just formed a partnership and are still finding their way, but if skaters have been performing together for years, they should start learning to genuinely enjoy the process.
I would argue about the “enjoying” part. It’s commonly believed that there are no falls in ice dance, but, let’s agree, sometimes your discipline tells quite a bloody story due to the fact that people skate extremely close to each other. I witnessed Tatiana Navka cutting her hand with a skate blade a year before the Turin Games, Albena Denkova, if I remember correctly, missed the 2000 World Championships in Nice and couldn’t walk for three months after having her leg sliced during a collision in warm-up. And you also had a similar experience in your biography when Ilia accidentally stepped on your hand with his skate during practice. Don’t such incidents create fear and stiffness?
Ekaterina Ryazanova: I think we’re all such fanatics about our craft that we still step onto the ice no matter what happens.
You speak as if you haven’t lost a finger but received a minor scratch.
Ekaterina Ryazanova: It was quite a story, of course. But there was no real fear. Or rather, it was a different kind of fear. I was always afraid of injuring my hand again, accidentally poking Ilia with it — there was still raw flesh and a bunch of interfering bandages. But in terms of skating and the relationship with my partner, nothing changed. I suppose all athletes are like that, not entirely normal.
But you’re a girl…
Ekaterina Ryazanova: As a girl, I cried a lot. It took me a while to get used to it. Even afterwards, when everything had healed, I had an inner complex for some time. I tried to hide my hand so that nobody would notice that I had a shapeless stump without a nail instead of a finger. When I saw my hand after the surgery, the picture was, to put it mildly, not pleasant. But now all those complexes about it are behind me. In the end, it’s not the worst thing that can happen in life.
How much do the rules adopted for the post-Olympic season restrict the choice of dances? Most likely, those real hits from the 1980s that truly captivate will end up being performed by a good dozen of pairs, turning the discipline into a conveyor of identical programs.
Ekaterina Ryazanova: I also think it will be like that. Finding something truly original is incredibly difficult. Our entire team listened to music almost around the clock until our ears swelled. But the biggest challenge is not in that, but in understanding how to execute the prescribed steps to that music. We are still struggling with that.
The outrage of our renowned choreographer Elena Maslennikova comes to mind when it comes to junior ice dance. A girl needs to be able to perform not only her own part in the foxtrot but also work for her partner.
Ekaterina Ryazanova: That is also a problem that few people think about. In the foxtrot, all the key points must be executed in a classic position. That means the partner’s hand should lie precisely under the girl’s shoulder blade. But what if the girl starts performing the male part and the partner is tall? How can she reach the shoulder blade? When the classic position cannot be achieved for one reason or another, the couple simply misses the mark. I even discussed this with people from the ISU.
Ekaterina Ryazanova: They said, “What did you expect? Everything to be easy? You have to approach it as a game. The rules have changed? Then play by those rules.”
Was the experience of relocating the entire Gorshkov group to the United Arab Emirates for a few months beneficial for your team?
Ekaterina Ryazanova: I only made a few visits to Dubai, but overall, it was great to change the environment. It’s really good for the athletes’ mindset. During any training camp, you’re so focused on work that you perceive everything differently. But here, the atmosphere completely changed: a different climate, a different country, and you immediately gain additional energy. Many things start to be seen in a completely different light, with a fresher perspective. Such an opportunity is especially valuable now when our figure skaters cannot participate in international competitions. I truly sympathize with them.
Have you considered looking for work in countries where, as a coach, you can continue to be part of the international scene?
Ekaterina Ryazanova: Oh, definitely not. I’m the kind of person who gets attached to people. Firstly. Secondly, Alexei Gorshkov is a very special person to me. We have been through so much together in sports, and now he generously shares knowledge, constantly guides and advises me, and shares his experience. We have young promising duos who skate really well and can compete at a high level. It is truly a great blessing that fate has given me the opportunity for such work. I have no reason to search for something better.
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