Natalya Linichuk: “I don’t want the qualifying for the Olympics turn into taking of all comers.”
Interview with Natalya Linichuk. About champions and selection process, her athletes, Ilia Averbukh, Marina Anissina, 2002 Olympics and modern ice dance.
by Anastasiia Panina for matchtv.ru dd. 31st January 2021
Sometimes that say about happy married couples that “it’s destiny”. Can you say that about champions in ice dance?
Natalya Linichuk: Everything is a little more prosaic – fate goes towards the one who seeks. I started coaching work training kids, so I had to do a lot of selection. This is probably not quite the right word, but partners began to skate with one partners, then continued with others, and often it took two or three partner changes to get, in my opinion, the perfect pair. A coach as an artist has his own vision and form duets according to it. Sometimes it happens that one of the partners refuses to work with other. In general, this is a long, difficult and not always rewarding process.
What parameters do you pay attention to first of all? Leg length, character compatibility, the notorious chemistry between partners?
Natalya Linichuk: Both psychological and external parameters. After the “honeymoon”, the real work begins. Whether the partners coincided becomes clear after the first competitions.
I had a pair, work with whom was akin sitting on a powder keg. However, they were ready for a fantastic result.
If at the beginning of the coaching career such an atmosphere caused the feeling that I needed to be in the center of events, help in everything, and so on, then over time I’ve already knew how to help them achieve results with minimal interference. An experienced coach understands how to prevent athletes from reaching an explosive state.
When you said about a powder keg and that partners sometimes refuse to skate together, although, in the opinion of many, they fit perfectly together, I thought of Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov. Do you think they never had a chance to pursue a joint career?
Natalya Linichuk: It’s hard for me to judge why they couldn’t skate together, I was not their coach. Ilinykh – Katsalapov – one of the amazing pairs of our time. Unfortunately, they did not show all their capabilities.
Have you ever managed to keep a pair together and then it won everything?
Natalya Linichuk: One pair of mine ended their careers every two weeks. When the talent is immense, grows technically and creatively, flies after you, you understand: they are young, inexperienced and do not know life, and should not waste their talent like that. I had to convince them every two weeks, find reasons and calm them down so that they continued to skate together. They eventually became champions, but then we parted anyway and, alas, they parted also. One of the most brilliant pairs in the world.
Have there been any reverse situations? When you failed to stop the pair from breaking up despite your best efforts.
Natalya Linichuk: For example, Marina Anissina and Ilia Averbukh. Unimaginable, sonorous, irrepressible. Of course, I was interested in keeping this pair, and for a while I succeeded. But one day Ilia came to me. We were training in Novogorsk then, I put the car in the garage, he accompanied me from the garage to the house – there was a long walk there. Ilia said that he asks me to understand him, that he will no longer skate with Marina, because he is in love with Irina (Lobacheva – ed), they dream of skating together. And if I don’t let them skate together, they will go to ice ballet.
I had a lot of plans with Anissina – Averbukh. But what I had to do? Losing Marina and at the same time letting Irina and Ilia go to ballet on ice? Absolutely not. They are also talented, Irina is a promising partner. I had to agree.
Is there a symbolism that at the 2002 Olympics, it was Marina with a new partner who became the first, and Ilia and Irina lost to them?
Natalya Linichuk: When the fate of the Olympics gold is decided by one vote, and quite controversial one, I would say that two pairs should have stood on the first step. It would have been correct to award two gold medals. The technical level of Lobacheva – Averbukh was slightly higher than the level of Anissina – Peizerat at that time. But the courage that Marina showed in achieving Olympic gold was appreciated by the judges. She started the history of international pairs and as a coach I deeply respect her for her dedication to figure skating.
How did it happen that Marina Anissina started to represent France?
Natalya Linichuk: When Marina was left alone, it was difficult to find a partner for her. We tried to search in Russia, but there was no guy who would like to skate with her, although, of course, this was a mistake of many guys. And then I remembered that in France, a pair of my colleague and friend Muriel Zazoui parted. I was invited to held a seminar in France, and I suggested Marina writing them a letter. She wrote, I handed it over to the coach and Gwendal, and that’s how it turned out.
Once there was a case when Marina was already skating with Gwendal. I then went to vacation, and no one knew where I was, except my mother. On vacation, Marina called me for three nights in a row – she had problems with her partner, and we talked a lot, I helped her to keep their pair. It doesn’t matter that she skated for another country. She was my athlete, the idea of creating a pair belonged to me, which means that I’m responsible for the pair, although they were rivals to my duets.
In your instagram I read the phrase: “In ice dance at the age of 25, consciousness, gaining experience, begins to truly create”. Does this thesis explain the willingness of ISU to raise the age minimum to compete in seniors? What do you think about the idea to raise the age?
Natalya Linichuk: The new generation is different. Our life experience comes to them much earlier. On the contrary, I believe that more opportunities should be given, regardless of age.
Sonja Henie, Elena Vodorezova, Tara Lipinski, whom I helped to work on gliding when I was already working in America, and other gifted girls would not have been able to show themselves if they hadn’t been allowed to compete. The experience gained in senior competitions is invaluable.
Why should wings be clipped on takeoff? Why shouldn’t viewers see what the strongest among the young can do? I think we need to give athletes the opportunity to choose. Those who want to skate longer in juniors can skate longer in juniors. And vice versa.
You have seen many examples of athletic courage throughout your career. The performance of Anna Shcherbakova, who has not fully recovered from pneumonia, at the Russian Nationals – is it still a feat or a common thing in sport?
Natalya Linichuk: When in some situation a usual person is in a hospital, an athlete in the same state goes to train, not paying attention to discomfort. We are really different.
I remember, for example, the 1976 Games in Innsbruck. Then there was a flu virus at the Olympics, and many were sick. We had a break between the original and the free dance, during which I fell ill with a high fever and did not practice. My first practice was a six-minute warm-up before the start.
I had a fever. The doctor said no, the coach said no, and I said yes. This was my first Olympics. I don’t need to explain what the Olympics mean for any athlete, right? I didn’t know if there would be a second one. Perhaps this Olympics is the only one in my life. Yes, after that I had severe bronchitis before the Worlds, but that was my decision. It’s not heroism, but simply an attitude towards the business to which you have dedicated your life. And the athlete’s right is to decide for himself.
But if we are talking about a minor athlete, as in the case of Shcherbakova, who should have decided whether she could compete without a medical permission?
Natalya Linichuk: There can only be a situational and individual answer to this question. I was 20 years old in Innsbruck, and I don’t think that someone could stand in my way and forbid.
But on the eve of the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Lobacheva got injured. She was just skating forward, stumbled and fell badly. I made Irina stay at home and not skate for several days with active therapeutic treatment suggested by an amazing seventh-generation witch doctor, Raisa Ivanovna Logvinenko.
Of course, Irina put on skates the very next day. I met them with Ilia and said that I would not let them go, that they would sit as long as necessary – a week, ten days or two weeks. Irina was eager to train – I even had to block the exit to the ice with myself – but she obeyed.
As a result, we were able to go to the Olympics, and after that the wonderful Anatoly Orletsky did her a surgery. Fortunately, everything ended well.
If we return to Shcherbakova, an obvious plus start helped her to perform brilliantly in Chelyabinsk in a non-optimal shape. Can a minus start be turned into a plus start?
Natalya Linichuk: Difficult, but possible. In each case, this is an individual approach and different methods – if not to a plus-start, then at least to a normal working state.
Another question is whether the athlete wants to invest so much effort and overcome it. But my coaching position is that you can overcome it.
I had a skater who, before going to the start, hold the boards so strong that his fingers were turning blue, sometimes they even turned white, and I had to tear each phalanx off the board and literally push him onto the ice. Nevertheless, he achieved the highest results.
Does the coach have an anxiety at competition akin to what a skater feels?
Natalya Linichuk: I remember three such competitions. The first, when I first brought my pair to fight for the championship at the junior worlds. It was my debut at this level as a coach. It seemed that trembling knees and heartbeats were louder than music.
The other time was when I made my debut in the senior championships with several pairs at once. I remember trying to pour myself a glass of water, but my hands did not obey.
And there was also the European Championships, where four of my pairs took the first four places. When three pairs had skated, I was so tense that I forgot who had already performed and who had not. And I decided that the competition was over. I went to the exit, and suddenly I heard – “Natalya Vladimirovna, Natalya Vladimirovna, you forgot about us?” (laughs) Irina and Ilia (Lobacheva – Averbukh – ed) skated last, and at some point I just forgot about them.
With experience has it become less nervous? Or did you just learn to control it?
Natalya Linichuk: Of course, with experience comes the ability to control oneself. You know what to pay attention to in routine work so that certain situations do not repeat at competitions. How to prepare athletes so that there are no surprises. And then, you know, on the subconscious mind the athlete feels the anxiety of the coach. If the coach does not control himself, it will be more difficult for the athlete to cope.
Have you ever kicked students out of training?
Natalya Linichuk: I quickly realized that this is not a punishment, but an encouragement for a person who does not want to work (laughs). And sometimes it is more efficient to give a task to do several additional run-throughs than to kick out. But it happened, especially when I was young.
What would you not be able to forgive your athletes?
Natalya Linichuk: Lack of desire to work. You can put up with everything else, even with leaving to another coach.
I am glad that no matter how difficult it was, no matter how our paths diverged at some point, all my former students sooner or later called with gratitude for the years we spent together.
You can just train with a coach, or you can be his student. Observing my students, I am proud of them and see my continuation in them – in the breadth of views, in dedication to their work.
After this answer, the interview suggested Natalya Vladimirovna telling more about pairs which they did not touch directly in the questions. Interviewer calls the names, she tells her first associations.
Juris Razgulajevs (as an athlete, he skated for Uzbekistan with Aliki Stergiadu, now lives and works as a coach in Canada, his most famous skaters are Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier – ed)?
Natalya Linichuk: Born in skates. Perhaps he was ahead of his time. Discipline prevented me from taking the guys to America with me, which I now regret, because Juris and Aliki were very talented.
Oksana Grischuk and Evgeny Platov?
Natalya Linichuk: Geniuses on ice. I raised Oksana literally from the age of 12, Zhenya came to me a little later. You can write a separate book about this pair. Working with them, I did not need to restrain my imagination – I knew that they would do everything. There were no technical or artistic barriers. They have no equal in the way they skated, performed and how they felt each other.
Anjelica Krylova and Oleg Ovsyannikov?
Natalya Linichuk: At the Nagano Olympics, they lost by one vote, but they were ready to win and skated as winners. Another case when it was possible to award two gold. But this is my opinion, the judges had their own.
The appearance of this pair is just a selection moment. Anjelica started skating with Vladimir Lelyukh, then with Vladimir Fedorov, and only then with Oleg. This was her ultimatum and wishes.
Someone had to leave the distance, others came on their place.
Only after a while you realize what a psychological trauma it was for those who were left without a partner. On the other hand, a professional coach has no right to deviate from the chosen direction. And if you cannot show the maximum result with someone, you need to explain it to him, overcome it and move on. To help those guys who also trusted you, and bring them to medals.
Albena Denkova and Maxim Stavisky?
Natalya Linichuk: It was a gift of fate. They are rare hard workers, charismatic and sensual. I am grateful to them that at some point they trusted me. Working with them is unforgettable.
Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin?
Natalya Linichuk: (After a pause.) The person who made Maxim go on the ice a few days after the knee surgery and go to the European Championships should apologize to him. Because to break the destiny of a pair like this … It’s inhuman. Whatever the reasons were. It’s one thing when an injury happens a day or two before the Olympics, situations are different. But after the surgery, sending to an insignificant competitions on such a scale meant prematurely ending the career of an insanely talented pair. We still managed to become bronze medalists of the Olympic Games and even win the World Championships, but they did not use their full potential.
Do you like what ice dancing looks like now?
Natalya Linichuk: I hasten to say that this is only my opinion, and I do not impose it on anyone. At the moment I have a lot of questions to ice dance. I miss individual styles, I am confused by the large number of copies. Confused by the number of two feet on the ice during the program, and sometimes four feet. Confused by the incredible number of stroking steps – it is not clear what we do, speed skating or ice dance. Dancing is about emotion, passion and self-expression. Standing on the ice on four feet is a quite specific self-expression, in my opinion.
Is it fair to say that modern dancers are less able to glide and skate less in positions than dancers of the past?
Natalya Linichuk: I’ll put it this way. On the ice you can walk, jump and run, you can stand and lie, you can scrape and scratch it. Many skate, but few glide. A very fine line, and unfortunately, the screen does not fully convey this. Gliding is a very special state.
Is there a connection with the fact that a reform in the rules took place ten years ago? When they canceled compulsory and original dance, introducing a short dance instead, including a little of both.
Natalya Linichuk: I don’t think that’s the reason. Gliding is the foundation of everything, and its value has not been lost. Forms and rules are the other side of the issue.
What is dance in general? Emotion, passion, life. This is the point. But lately I rarely see meaning and life on ice. I only see a sequence of elements.
Sincerity is also lacking. A lot of unnecessary facial expressions, a lot of contrived gestures and movements, but now there is not enough real temperament. And in my opinion, the rules have nothing to do with this.
Then what is the reason?
Natalya Linichuk: This is probably a question for coaches and athletes who now work at a high level. Nothing has changed for me. Yes, there are rules, you have to show your skill, when some elements are performed side by side, individual technique is visible. Sometimes it is difficult to find the correct form and images, but nobody has abolished the gliding and sincerity.
Does anyone stand out among modern ice dance duets?
Natalya Linichuk: I pay tribute to Papadakis – Cizeron. They have found their own style, they have excellent command of the skate and themselves, they understand what they are doing. They have an inner content, a high level of demands on themselves. You may or may not like them, but they deserve respect because they don’t copy anyone.
In your opinion, should the rules punish those who copy elements and images?
Natalya Linichuk: Sometimes judges react to this. Much is already in the rules, you just need to judge by them. If the rules say about skating on one leg, then this is what you need to assess.
If I ask about the most underrated dance pair in history, who do you think of first?
Natalya Linichuk: There are no underrated pairs. There are pairs who lacked patience and self-criticism. If someone believes that by some parameters he was underestimated, he needs to look at himself more strictly and prove that he deserves to be appreciated. Complaining is always easier than turning on fifth gear and moving forward.
But will you agree that ice dance is the most subjective sport?
Natalya Linichuk: I would say that this is art. With technical requirements, but art. And in art there is no objectivity, because there is no one truth, but there are different views. We, as artists, simply express our thoughts, select canvases and colors, and achieve expressiveness of form. Why now many people watch dances of the past with nostalgia – there was more soul there, and it’s not about the rules, they were also rules in the past.
But there must be some components of victory that can be measured and counted?
Natalya Linichuk: Of course, and this is a technique. But you see, in figure skating there are only two steps, a step forward and a step back, everything else is a variations. If you know and control your body, you can express everything.
Besides the technique, the dancers still have to say something to the world.
I suppose that now they treat the process of creating programs differently. A stereotype has appeared, which brings dancing closer to sport and moves away from art.
Natalya Linichuk: To change this, one must not forget about emotions and not copy anyone, but strive to reveal oneself.
Creative search should be at the heart of everything. Even in case of temporary failures, the search process will lead you in the right direction. But if you do not look, even the artist will lose the brushstroke technique, the sense of color will disappear.
Do you have any idea how ice dance will develop in the next couple of cycles?
Natalya Linichuk: The world is changing, and we are a part of it, and no one can predict in what form sports will remain after the pandemic.
Most importantly, I don’t want the Olympics to turn into a forgotten, lost event, as it happened in retrospect. Finance, of course, plays a decisive role in this matter.
I also don’t want, the qualifying for the Olympics turn into taking of all comers. I’m not talking about individual countries, but about a global trend.
I want the Olympics to retain its value, and the really strongest were qualified there, there must be serious competition.
Probably, not every coach can cope with real talent. Does it require your own strong character, generosity, patience?
Natalya Linichuk: I would add understanding to these qualities.
Should a coach be led by a talented athlete when he is clearly making a mistake?
Natalya Linichuk: When Anjelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsyannikov finished skating ahead of time due to injuries, Irina and Ilia (Lobacheva – Averbukh – ed) were not yet ready to become world leaders. They needed another season, maybe two. Having performed successfully at the World Championships, at the beginning of the new season they came up with their own idea of the program. I listened and said – guys, this is unacceptable, not good, it will be a failure. But the younger generation could not be held back. They invited a choreographer, did a program, and it was a really disastrous season.
For the next season, I prepared music and ideas for them, although I was not sure if the collaboration would continue. At the meeting, I turned on the music, told my vision, and Ilia said: “Natalya Vladimirovna, do you want to put the last nail in our coffin?” And this after a bad season, when I followed the athletes’ lead – for the first and last time!
Well, I answered that the door was over there – either there, or with me. To their credit, they did not doubt for long.
A few months later, they were in the elite. The main thing is that the athletes trust the coach.
How compatible is an endless belief in a coach with the fact that you constantly had high competition in your group? Did everyone get enough attention?
Natalya Linichuk: I was always surprised by the question of new pairs who came to me – you have so many athletes, will you have enough time for us? In response, I simply offered to start working and see everything with their own eyes. I have never separated pairs by rating, I have never given someone the best ideas, and someone else the losing ones. There was enough attention for everyone, it was never a problem for me to find the proper time for all my students.
Holding leadership is always more difficult than reaching it. True, there are times when leaders begin to fear rivals, but a champion is born in competition.
Can the principal competitors on the ice be sincere friends in life?
Natalya Linichuk: I have never seen hostility between athletes in my group. And then … everyone was very busy. If you are a leader in world figure skating and are busy with creativity, you do not have time for great friendship or enmity.
I heard from many skaters that it is important for them to see their coach as an example in self-control and discipline. In this sense, I was amazed by one of your photos. On it you are on horseback, with a straight back and wearing heels. Is this posture and self-presentation a pleasant side effect of sports and many years of choreography, or have you had them since childhood?
Natalya Linichuk: (Laughs.) A straight back is initially a medical aspect and the desire to continue to doing figure skating, despite some problems. I fell in love with figure skating from the very first days, loved to improvise and could not part with it, so I learned to keep my back constantly when the need arose.
But surely there are some secret ways to keep yourself in great shape?
Natalya Linichuk: There must be a balance between the outer shell and the inner world.
Mom taught me how to wash my face with soap made of goat milk. Sometimes I make masks from clay, but in general I spend very little time on personal care. As for the shape, there is only one remedy, and that is not a diet. The more diets, the more problems, restrictions inevitably lead to breakdowns. If you have a problem of excess weight, you should not “eat”, but try. (laughs) Sounds rude, of course. But essentially right.