“Instead of a leg, I had a bag of bones – that’s all that was left intact.” Katarina Gerboldt about overcoming terrifying injury she got trying a quad throw on a harness
Interview with former Russian single and pair skater Katarina Gerboldt.
source: Rsport dd. 20th June 2023 by Anastasia Panina
When this beautiful blonde stepped onto the ice, the most aesthetic sport became even more captivating. Behind Katarina Gerboldt’s angelic appearance lay the heart of a fighter. Many fans believe that the pinnacle of her dedication was her performance with sinusitis and a nasal tube at the European Championships. However, her career had a situation even scarier – a near-fatal accident while learning the quadruple throw almost left the 23-year-old girl disabled. But not only did she manage to relearn walking despite doctors’ predictions, but she also returned to the ice.
Katarina ended her career in 2015 and has since worked as a coach at CSKA. In an open interview with RIA Novosti Sport, Gerboldt shared how Tamara Moskvina literally compelled her to switch to pairs and why every athlete needs Svetlana Sokolovskaya. She also talked about why her partnership with Frenchman Brian Joubert never materialized and how to overcome a terrible injury while preserving the love for life.
You were often referred to as a sex symbol of women’s singles skating. Did you feel increased attention towards yourself?
Katarina Gerboldt: Like any girl, I always found it flattering. I can’t say that the label ‘sex symbol’ was explicitly attached to me and openly discussed because in sports, priorities are a bit different. However, I always knew that I was participating in various magazine contests for the most beautiful female athlete. And there was a lot of attention to it worldwide. I was constantly compared with Kiira Korpi – we were two blondes. Many even confused us, although I believe we are completely different. Often when we visited certain countries, we saw posters with my surname and Kiira Korpi’s photo. Or the other way around. We laughed about it.
You switched from singles to pair skating at the age of 20, which is remarkably late for such a decision. How was it made?
Katarina Gerboldt: Oh, it’s almost like a detective story. It all started after my last Russian Nationals as a single skater. At that time, I thought I should qualify for the 2010 Olympics. However, not only did I fail to qualify for the Olympics (I finished ninth), but I didn’t even make it to the national team. I couldn’t understand how I went from being essentially the top skater last year to nowhere. Was I getting so worse? No. Were the others so much better? Not really.
I felt empty inside. I thought about the next Olympics, which were four years away. How old would I be, and how young would these girls be? I realized they were healthier and more vigorous. In any head-to-head competition, the younger ones would always have the advantage. Experience didn’t count as an advantage. I had no advantages on my side. So why continue skating at all?
Svetlana Vladimirovna Sokolovskaya told me to call her once I made a decision. It was New Year’s, and I stayed home in St. Petersburg.
Then choreographer Tanya Druzhinina, with whom I worked back when I was with Mishin, called me and said that Sasha (Enbert) was having problems with his partner, and we should try skating together. It sounded crazy to me. I was 20 years old, what did I know about pair skating? But for some reason, I went to try. We did some basic lifts, and it seemed to go well. That’s how we parted ways, and I went back to Moscow. I decided to finish the season in singles; I couldn’t just give it up in one day. I prepared for the Russian Cup Final – if I had a successful performance there, Svetlana Vladimirovna promised to include me in the national team.
Every day, Druzhinina kept calling me, trying to persuade me to try pairs. “Tamara Nikolaevna (Moskvina) believes in you, she sees it in you,” she would say. Then Sasha called me, saying, “Katya, let’s do it; we’ve known each other for so long.” Then Tamara Nikolaevna herself started calling, and it was hard to say no to her. She is a person who knows exactly what she wants and how to achieve it. She called every day. I could find a thousand reasons to say no, but she would come up with two thousand reasons to say yes. Then she started calling Sokolovskaya. In short, Tamara Nikolaevna was so persistent that I even turned off my phone, and she started calling my mom. She was like a tank that didn’t see any obstacles.
Svetlana Vladimirovna and I agreed that I would go to try it out; everyone would understand that it didn’t work for me, and I would return to a normal life.
How did St. Petersburg welcome you?
Katarina Gerboldt: Moskvina told me, “Choose,” and presented me with two partners – Kostya Bezmaternykh and Sasha Enbert. It was nonsense – there was a shortage of boys in pair skating, and they were the ones who always made the choice. Honestly, I was stunned by such straightforwardness, especially since I was friends with both of them. It was hard, and I said, “I don’t want to choose; I’m not a pair skater at all. I came here only because you asked me to. It’s you who decided that I could do it. So you choose.” They chose the taller one – Enbert.
Everything worked out really quickly for me, and I didn’t even attach much importance to it. Another girl was brought for Kostya, and Tamara Nikolaevna said, “Look, you always argue with me that you’re not great, but this girl has been in pairs for a long time, and she should be a million times better than you, but you’re better.” Of course, it flattered me. Plus, I felt pleasure in training, something I hadn’t felt in a long time. By the end of the week, my body was breaking from muscle pain, but mentally, I was on the rise.
How did you confess everything to Sokolovskaya?
Katarina Gerboldt: At first, I didn’t. I remembered how I left Alexei Nikolaevich Mishin, knowing that few coaches would take me. Because other coaches reluctant to take former skaters of such coaches for various reasons, out of respect or coaching ethics, to avoid conflicts – I don’t know. In any case, I was certain that no one in St. Petersburg would take me. I chose Svetlana Vladimirovna almost on a whim. I felt that we were meant to be together. Initially, she didn’t want to take me, but her daughter convinced her.
So, she extended a helping hand to me, and I couldn’t imagine how I could leave her. That’s why I told Moskvina that I enjoyed doing pairs, but I wouldn’t dare to talk about leaving Sokolovskaya, which meant that nothing would happen.
Katarina Gerboldt: The surprise came later. Moskvina immediately called the federation in front of me and said that I would visit Svetlana Vladimirovna tomorrow, and then I would come to write a transfer application (smiles). In response to my protests, she said that Svetlana Vladimirovna was a smart woman, she loved me, and she would accept and understand me.
And that’s what happened?
Katarina Gerboldt: I had difficulties with an apartment, and Sokolovskaya took me to live with her in Moscow. I couldn’t even pick up my things – I had to go to her place. It was terribly embarrassing. I asked Liza (Svetlana Sokolovskaya’s daughter) to meet me at the train station.
Svetlana Vladimirovna collected elephants. We saw a cute soft elephant with sad eyes. We somehow managed to squeeze it into a box. When we got there, Svetlana Vladimirovna took it out and said, “So, you’re leaving, right?” “I don’t know how to apologize to you.” “You have to do what your heart tells you. I’m letting you go. I’m giving you six months – if nothing works out by December, I’m waiting for you back. We’ll lose time, but it’s okay, you’ll just miss one season.” We parted on that note. Throughout my life, we have had a wonderful relationship, and I love her very much. I became the godmother to her granddaughter.
Svetlana Vladimirovna is a rare coach, about whom not only current students but also former ones speak positively both publicly and privately.
Katarina Gerboldt: She gets attached to each athlete with her heart and loves them like a mother. I wish everyone could experience such a relationship with their coach at least once.
To be fair, I’ve always been lucky with female coaches. Tatiana Nikolaevna (Mishina) loved me like her own daughter. She often sided with me in conflicts with Alexei Nikolaevich (Mishin). Even when I was wrong, she still supported me.
Often, girls who switch to pairs have to deal with the necessity of maintaining strict weight control, even more than in singles. Did you experience this?
Katarina Gerboldt: When I switched to pairs, I weighed 49-50 kilograms, and I felt like I was big. Although Sasha and the coaches never told me to lose weight. I decided to restrict my diet and reached 45 kg. But that was my limit. I remember when I came to practice at that weight, Tamara Nikolaevna told Sasha, “We need to feed her.” She said that I needed to eat; before, I was at a normal weight, but now I looked awful, and it wouldn’t lead to anything good.
Initially, your career in pairs seemed to be going well. Fourth place at the Russian Nationals in your first season together, and you looked stunning on the ice with Alexander. At what point did something go wrong?
Katarina Gerboldt: Overall, we were doing well during that offseason. There was still a month left before the competitions, and we were already performing the programs clean. Everyone said, “Wow, they’re so well-prepared, they will shine this season!”
Tamara Nikolaevna really wanted us to learn the quadruple throw and do it on a harness. I was a child who grew up on the harness training with Alexei Nikolaevich Mishin. But I couldn’t understand how to apply it in pair skating. We always did throws with a lot of speed. Moskvina said, “Let’s learn it from a stationary position.” But I thought my knee would fall apart. It was a very harsh landing, and I had just recovered from an injury. Moreover, if you start learning the throw from a stationary position, over time, you start fearing speed. But in our case – let me fall, but I’ll feel how it should be done.
What was the advantage of the harness, according to Moskvina, and why were you afraid of it?
Katarina Gerboldt: She said that learning without the harness was risky in terms of injuries. But I thought that if a person with the harness was shorter than Sasha’s height, he would not be able to catch and save me. How would it work? I’d fly halfway forward and halfway backward? I couldn’t understand when I was supposed to open up. I was afraid of the harness and knew it wasn’t for me. So, Tamara Nikolaevna and I had strong conflicts over this. We couldn’t come to an agreement.
I remember that day vividly. Lena Berezhnaya (at that time Moskvina’s assistant coach) came up to me and said, “Katya, please, let’s not make a scene. Tamara Nikolaevna asked you to try it out. Do it once on the harness, she’ll see that it’s bad, and then we’ll learn it the way you want. She’s more experienced, you’re young, remember how she convinced you to switch to pairs? Maybe you’re stubborn for no reason now.” We talked for about 20 minutes. I resisted internally, but out of protest, with the thought “I’ll try it once and never again in my life,” I agreed.
Everyone was delighted. But that truly was the only time. I landed poorly, got into a trace. Since the harness was slightly behind me, I started to get pulled backward and twisted. My foot got stuck in the track, and I did a complete rotation. I tore everything in my leg – all ligaments, muscles, tendons, and the syndesmosis capsule.
A terrifying nightmare.
Katarina Gerboldt: When it all happened, I screamed like never before. Everyone was shocked. Sasha was terrified, he carried me to the medical station. Tamara Nikolaevna was very nervous, I remember. I always had many knots in my laces – it’s impossible to untie them for someone who doesn’t know the tricks. She started pulling the boot to remove it – I screamed even louder. I received several painkiller shots, but nothing helped.
We had to wait 11 days for an MRI. That’s when it became clear that instead of a leg, I had a bag of bones – that’s all that was left intact.
Did you later feel anger toward Tamara Nikolaevna? Essentially, your injury was the result of excessive coaching insistence, overcoming the athlete’s internal caution.
Katarina Gerboldt: At first, I was angry and upset, of course. The thought was in my head, “I told them, warned them, knew it would happen. Why didn’t anyone listen to me, support me, why did everyone take her side?”
But now I can say that I’m not angry with her. When you switch from being an athlete to being a coach, you understand that a coach primarily cares about health and safety. But a coach is not a god, they can’t know everything and foresee everything.
Overall, the harness is about safety. All complex jumps are always learned with the harness to save the skater in case of a wrong takeoff and dangerous fall. The idea was correct. But if we didn’t take each other’s sides and didn’t try to prove who was right, if we just sat down and talked, it would have been better. She would have calmly listened to my fears, and we could have come to some agreement together.
Tamara Nikolaevna gave me a lot as an athlete and as a coach. She taught me inner calmness and stability, when to talk to the student and when to leave them alone. I’m grateful to her for this experience.
How did your injury turn out?
Katarina Gerboldt: I was in a cast for a very long time. First, the initial surgery, a plate and a pin to stabilize everything. Then we waited for the capsule to heal. We waited for the second surgery to remove the pin, which would reveal the full extent of the injury. Everyone wondered if I would be able to skate again, but for me, that wasn’t even a question.
I read that the question was whether you could walk normally, let alone skate.
Katarina Gerboldt: I didn’t even consider any other option. It was clear that the Olympic season was out of the question, but there was nothing I could do about it. I knew that Tamara Nikolaevna suggested Sasha trying with another partner. Whether he felt guilty before me or something else, I don’t know, but he refused. He said, “As long as Katya hasn’t said she’s quitting, I won’t even try with anyone else.”
My parents were fiercely against any sport for me. My mom said, “I can’t bear to see your dad carrying you to the bathroom.” I couldn’t even lower my leg, so when I went to the bathroom, someone, sorry, had to hold my leg. As soon as I put it down, it would swell so much that the cast would press on it, damaging the capsule inside instead of healing it.
I learned to drive with my left leg, although my parents were very worried. I joked that this way I would develop my right leg faster — if I needed to brake suddenly, I’d have no choice.
How old were you at that time, and how did you cope with all this, regardless of your age?
Katarina Gerboldt: I was 23 years old. I fell into depression. A friend helped me. As soon as they allowed me to put my leg down, she started inviting me somewhere. She took me to hockey matches – we lived near the Ice Palace.
Once, she took me to a restaurant, saying, “You love the social life, distract yourself!” I had a huge floor-length skirt – it was dangerous to walk in it because I could get tangled and fall. But I couldn’t wear anything that would expose my leg. I felt extremely embarrassed about the cast and crutches.
By the way, I fell down the stairs, getting tangled in the skirt. Crutches went one way, and I went the other (laughs).
How did you manage to return to sports?
Katarina Gerboldt: I called Tamara Nikolaevna and asked to come to the gym. I went there on crutches and in a cast, but I did as many exercises as possible. That didn’t seem enough to me — Sasha and I started practicing lifts. They arranged chairs around us for safety, but he always lowered me on my healthy leg. I understood that Sasha needed to train — you can’t sit idle forever. It was essential for me to convey that I would continue no matter what.
When they removed the cast and took the first X-ray, it turned out that the healing was poor. The capsule didn’t fully heal, there was a significant gap, and the bones didn’t align. Any wrong move, and we would return to the initial condition.
I asked the doctor how to tape the leg to skate. The doctor replied, “I don’t know if you’ll be able to walk without limping, and you’re asking me about figure skating. Your first jump will be your last.”
Regardless, I had already decided that I would stand up again. I visited numerous rehabilitation specialists. Most of them didn’t give even a one percent chance of a good outcome.
Was there an option to seek treatment abroad? Perhaps they could help you there.
Katarina Gerboldt: There were thoughts, but no opportunities. Naturally, no one agreed to finance my treatment in Germany. It wasn’t feasible to spend such money without a guarantee that I would return to sports.
At that time, we were friends with coach Milos Rzhiga (from 2011 to 2012, he was the head coach of the hockey team SKA – may he rest in peace). He once saw me at a cafe near the arena. I told him about my problem and how nobody could help with my rehabilitation. I was doing silly exercises and working with my healthy leg, but the injured one wouldn’t move at all. Rzhiga recommended a rehab specialist to me, claiming he could restore athletes who were considered beyond recovery. However, it was far away and logistically inconvenient. But I was ready to go wherever they told me. I went there with all my X-rays and my friend – she was going to drive if they told me that nothing could be done, and I had a breakdown.
Was this doctor the first one to give you more than a one percent chance?
Katarina Gerboldt: The doctor studied my X-rays and medical records for 40 minutes. He left, came back. When he and Kristina (my friend) came back, they were silent. I couldn’t take it anymore and said, “You don’t know how to tell me that I won’t skate anymore? Just say it directly.” He asked, “What do you want?” I said, “I want to skate.” He said, “Do you realize how painful it will be?” I replied, “I’m patient, it’s not a big deal.” It was around September. He laughed and asked for a realistic timeframe. I said I had two weeks to develop my leg — the Russian Nationals were in December, and I had to qualify for the Olympics.
You are an optimist, Katya.
Katarina Gerboldt: The doctor said I must accept the fact that I wouldn’t compete that year, and the Olympics in my life were not meant to be. I replied, “Forget the Olympics, will I be able to skate?” He asked me if I strongly desired it and whether I could endure the unbearable.
I answered yes to all the questions. Then he agreed to work with me on the condition that no matter what, I couldn’t give up halfway.
How did everything go?
Katarina Gerboldt: It was so painful that I bit into a pillow. I screamed that he was breaking my leg live.
Three weeks later, he told me to put away the crutches and force myself to walk. If I didn’t do that, nothing would change. Maxim Afinogenov and I were both visiting at the same time — it turned out he was recovering his knee then. We learned to walk like this (demonstrates a staggered gait) from the car to the doctor’s office, and only at his door did we step correctly despite the pain, as best as we could. He endured it for a week and said, “Do you think I’m an idiot? I have open windows, and I see what you’re doing here while pretending to work and force yourself to walk.” I had to readjust.
In November, I put on my skates. But I could only put my foot in the boot — I couldn’t squeeze it. I didn’t even have the strength to tie the laces — my hands started shaking from the pain. My friend tied them for me. Before that, the doctor came and applied a bandage that imitated a cast. My foot was supported by it, so I couldn’t re-injure myself. I just needed to try skating for 15 minutes.
Sasha persuaded me to try skating with him holding me by one hand — we had to start somewhere. But every step sent pain to my brain, and enduring it was impossible. It was the only time I almost gave up. I didn’t want to go on the ice because I was sure that nothing would work out.
Who managed to convince you?
Katarina Gerboldt: On that day, SKA was also at the Jubilee Sports Palace, but in a different arena. My friend went to fetch a doctor from the neighboring arena. He asked, “Aren’t you skating yet? You should have finished and come to me, so we could remove the bandage, do massages, and procedures.” “Doc, I can’t do it.” Then Kristina ran to get coach Rzhiga. “Katya, I did everything for you. Now it’s your turn to do it for yourself.”
And I did it. It can’t be called “skating” — I just walked around the rink, supporting my leg. But little by little, progress was made.
How difficult was it?
Katarina Gerboldt: For the first couple of months, my leg didn’t cooperate — I could fall on flat ground. Sasha was told, “How are you going to skate with her? Her leg can’t do anything.” Nevertheless, we kept going. Our first competition was at the Academy, and we did jumps but without a throw. We were training the throw, but on that day, my leg hurt a lot, so we decided not to do it. I invited the doctor. Everyone was happy that we performed clean.
Afterwards, my crying mom and the doctor were waiting for me. I asked them what happened. The doctor said, “When you came with your X-rays, it was impossible to look at it. Your leg wasn’t functional. Your friend asked me to tell you gently that there’s no chance, but you looked at me with such eyes that I couldn’t. I was going to set conditions for you to decline on your own. You shouldn’t be jumping and skating now. It’s simply impossible.”
We made it through the season, but my leg constantly hurt. I also started to fear throws — more psychologically than physically. I would land on my second foot or not push through all the way. I always felt like my leg wouldn’t hold up. The season was a failure — I kept messing up elements. We competed in the Russian Nationals, and Sasha decided that he wanted to continue without me. I supported his decision. Ruining his career to find out that my leg wouldn’t recover? I understood him.
I thought my career was over. For a while, I didn’t skate, but then I came to Oleg Vasiliev to give it a try. As soon as I let go of any thoughts about results, I started jumping properly, and my leg stopped hurting. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a suitable partner — I didn’t want to train just for the sake of training. So, I decided to skate in shows and learn to live without sports. Overall, I’m doing pretty well (laughs).
Only now can I fully understand what the decision to partner with Brian Joubert meant to you. Many believed it was pure PR and hype, but for you, it was perhaps the last chance to stay in the sport.
Katarina Gerboldt: Indeed, initially, I was very skeptical about this idea. Oleg suggested trying with Brian, saying that he knows about me and is interested. I was convinced that he was shorter in height and wouldn’t even be able to lift me. It turned out that wasn’t true, by the way.
Plus, there was a language barrier — with a partner, you need to be able to discuss everything, and we couldn’t do that. And there was probably a difference in mentality too. We looked good together, and there was potential, but that wasn’t enough. I couldn’t understand why someone who had achieved so much in single skating would need this. In the end, he found it interesting and enjoyed how we performed, but in a way, we were doomed as a pair. To seriously skate together, we would have needed to change a lot in our lives and make many sacrifices. Also, I didn’t want to compete for France; I only wanted to compete for Russia. And Brian’s mom didn’t let him compete for Russia.
After enduring so many hardships in sports, it’s easy to develop a dislike for life and especially for figure skating. Did you manage to avoid that?
Katarina Gerboldt: Absolutely. Maybe all of those experiences saved me from other bad things.
I think if all of that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have what I have now. And I love every day of my life.
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