Oleg Vasiliev “In Russia everything is based not solely on talent but primarily on the system. The system is designed to win medals and requires specific results from athletes within a specific timeframe.”
Big interview with Oleg Vasiliev. Parts of the interview were posted before.
source: RT by Elena Vaitsekhovskaya dd. 17th May 2023
The level of figure skating has grown too rapidly in recent years. The norms that were established 20 years ago have become outdated and do not allow young athletes to reach the required level. Olympic champion in pair skating, Oleg Vasiliev, expressed this opinion in an interview with RT. According to him, even at the junior level, many skaters need extra lessons on the ice to achieve success in the future. The specialist also talked about his role as the head coach of the Belarusian national team, explained why he wouldn’t work with the pair Alena Kostornaia and Georgi Kunitsa, and commented on Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii’s move to Eteri Tutberidze’s group.
I’ll start with the most pressing issue: Belarusian figure skaters, whom you have been working with for three years now, are deeply concerned about not being allowed to compete in major competitions.
Oleg Vasiliev: In the national team, I have only ten people, and I can see that they really want to compete on the international stage. Naturally, they are worried about the lack of this opportunity. My main task in the past season was to motivate athletes for daily hard work. I truly found this motivation for each one of them, and I consider it my greatest victory that none of our skaters quit. Especially considering that Belarusian figure skating doesn’t have the same financial possibilities as Russia.
I still have the feeling that your decision to work in Belarus was partly driven by the inability to fulfill yourself while staying at home.
Oleg Vasiliev: I wouldn’t agree with that statement. Working in Tamara Moskvina’s club in St. Petersburg in the years leading up to my departure, I essentially did everything I wanted and deemed necessary. Tamara Nikolaevna didn’t interfere much with my work. However, it’s a different matter that no coach, even the greatest one, can showcase their abilities without having the corresponding athletic “material” at hand. Take Moskvina, for example: in 2002, she had Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze retire, and the next pair of comparable talent level appeared only in 2015 when Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii joined the group.
Don’t you regret ending your work with Moskvina at a time when the school had such a number of super-talented skaters?
Oleg Vasiliev: You know, no, I don’t. Of course, I analyzed this situation multiple times and came to the conclusion that my current work as the head coach in Belarus is much more multifaceted. I have always been interested in taking on something new, and all the new stages in my life have emerged almost spontaneously. I never wanted to be involved in pair skating, but I took it up and was quite successful. I never aspired to become a coach; in a way, circumstances somewhat forced me into it, and I became a coach of a high caliber.
I didn’t strive to become an administrator, but it so happened that in Belarus, I mostly deal with administrative work. For me, it’s a challenge, and it’s a daily one. I constantly have to solve problems that I simply didn’t encounter before, neither as an athlete nor as a coach. It involves dealing with different organizational structures and various situations influenced by human factors. To find optimal solutions, my mind needs to work around the clock.
After Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin became Olympic champions under your guidance in Turin, didn’t you feel a certain internal pressure to repeat that great success at any cost?
Oleg Vasiliev: I tried. I took several junior pairs, brought them to Chicago, but nothing came out of that project.
Oleg Vasiliev: Because working with juniors turned out to be much more challenging than I had anticipated. After that experiment, I closed the door on junior pair skating for myself. I made the decision that I would never venture into it again because it’s an entirely unpredictable thing in terms of results. Essentially, I failed that experiment.
Later, when I started working with more mature athletes, it interested me, but I constantly found myself thinking that going down the same path again, on the one hand, is easy, but on the other hand, it’s boring. And three years ago, I finally understood that I wanted to try something completely different. However, back then, I had no idea it would be so difficult.
At one point, Tamara Nikolaevna didn’t hide the fact that she was looking for a successor, someone to whom she could confidently pass the school. In reality, she still stands at the helm, and none of her former students work with her on a regular basis. Do you have an explanation for this?
Oleg Vasiliev: I think everyone has their own reasons. Partly, it may be because it’s very challenging to live up to Moskvina’s standards. She is an incredibly talented and motivated person with endless energy.
Not long ago, she had knee surgery, followed by a hip joint operation, after which Tamara Nikolaevna quickly recovered and continued coaching on the ice. That alone commands immense respect. I myself joined Moskvina’s group at the age of 11, not being particularly skilled, skating in circles with a girl. But I remember that even then, she was the main motivator for everyone around her.
Moskvina is famous for having bringing up almost all of her pairs in very intense competition with each other. What was it like for you and Elena Valova when you had to compete for leadership within the group against the 1981 World Champions, Irina Vorobieva and Igor Lisovsky? Was it as challenging as it was for Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii until recently with Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov?
Oleg Vasiliev: We didn’t have intense sparring since Irina and Igor had already ended their careers when Lena and I joined. As for Boykova and Kozlovskii, they started considering leaving the group much earlier, not recently. It’s truly difficult to constantly share the ice with your equals.
I got the impression that the discomfort arose for these athletes not from sparring itself but rather from the fact that Mishina and Galliamov were given an unofficial priority within the group from the very beginning. In some situations, it was quite noticeable and, honestly, not always understandable. After all, Boikova and Kozlovskii were the pair with which Moskvina regained her momentum.
Oleg Vasiliev: In a situation where a coach has two completely equal pairs, the ones with whom the coach feels more comfortable working on a purely psychological level usually come out on top. It’s about not having the need to educate, spend time on disputes, conflicts, in other words, wasting time. I think that’s the reason.
Were you surprised by the fact that Boikova and Kozlovskii decided to go to Eteri Tutberidze?
Oleg Vasiliev: I can’t say that I fully understand this move, but I think it’s important to clarify: they joined her group, not specifically Tutberidze herself. Presumably, they came with the expectation that specialists in pair skating would work with them.
Alexei Tikhonov and Pavel Slusarenko?
Oleg Vasiliev: Exactly. I believe that Slusarenko will be consistently present at the training camp in Novogorsk during the summer, and with the opening of the new rink, there will be sufficient ice for the group, meaning all the conditions are in place for full-fledged work.
But there is still something that bothers you about this transfer?
Oleg Vasiliev: I don’t understand why Boikova and Kozlovskii chose to go to “Khrustalny.”
It is commonly believed that all transfers to this school are motivated by the desire to gain administrative resources.
Oleg Vasiliev: In my opinion, Tutberidze’s influence in pair skating is not as significant as it is in single skating. She hasn’t yet established the necessary authority in this discipline, and her presence rink-side is not always seen as a positive. Sometimes it only causes irritation.
But didn’t Eteri lead Tarasova and Morozov to silver Olympic medals? Although I have heard opinions that during their time at “Khrustalny,” Evgenia and Vladimir didn’t improve much in terms of technique.
Oleg Vasiliev: They actually only needed to improve in one aspect: consistency. And the consistency of that pair always came from Evgenia’s inner confidence in her jumps. In my opinion, a lot in this regard was achieved by Sergei Voronov, who worked with Evgenia specifically for a while and now works with me in Belarus as the senior coach for singles skating.
It’s truly a challenging job. To instill confidence in an athlete, you have to get inside their mind, subtly but consistently find ways to make them feel like they are the best. In their skating, in their programs, in their jumps, and other elements. Voronov managed to achieve that – Evgenia really stopped failing her jumps. But then Sergei was removed. Perhaps someone didn’t like how close he had become with the skater, exerting too much influence on her.
Do you consider the placement of Russian pairs in Beijing fair?
Oleg Vasiliev: It seems to me that it was all absolutely fair. No matter how much we talk about any Olympic medal being valuable and honorable, it’s not entirely true. In reality, everyone understands: there is first place at the Games, and then there’s everyone else. Sui Wenjing and Han Cong clearly looked better, and who ended up behind them didn’t matter much.
Many people, I know, tend to believe that Mishina and Galliamov’s bronze medal is the result of not-so-successful Olympic programs. Does that really matter within the existing rules, in your opinion?
Oleg Vasiliev: In the global context, I think it does. In the Russian context, not always. By the way, I don’t consider Mishina and Galliamov’s performances unsuccessful. What disappoints me much more is that, compared to their competitors, they don’t skate.
In what sense?
Oleg Vasiliev: In a literal sense.
I understand that those who watch figure skating exclusively on television may disagree with me, but the screen significantly obscures the real speed. However, when you observe the skating live, from the boards, as the judges do, it becomes immediately clear who is truly skating and who is just moving on the ice, consistently executing all the elements.
But you can’t deny Mishina and Galliamov’s consistency, can you?
Oleg Vasiliev: I agree. Consistency always holds great appeal. Moreover, those who are consistent always evoke a desire to support them. What, for example, attracted the judges to Totmianina and Marinin back in the day? The fact that they almost always delivered a hundred percent clean performance at every competitions. This had an impact not only on the judges but also on the audience: it’s always more enjoyable to watch those whose skating brings pleasure. Mishina and Galliamov are the same story.
Then why did they lose in the post-Olympic season?
Oleg Vasiliev: Because Boikova and Kozlovskii entered the season very hungry, while Mishina and Galliamov relaxed a bit, started making mistakes they hadn’t made before. This actually happens quite often. Especially when an athlete achieves certain titles due to a combination of circumstances and sincerely starts believing that they have already accomplished everything. Throughout history, there have been very few who, having won everything, continue to move forward in sports.
In this regard, I can mention Totmianina and Marinin again. Already being European champions and World champions, they made some progress in each subsequent season, whether in technique or expressiveness. It was evident to all experts. But when you enter a new season with the same baggage, just under different music, professionals usually don’t respond to it.
Speaking of pair skating in general, where do you think it’s heading?
Oleg Vasiliev: I would say that without Russia, pair skating in Europe looks very questionable in terms of prospects. On the one hand, everyone was inspired by the thought that the championship title suddenly became vacant, but the quality of skating did not improve as a result.
Oleg Vasiliev: The situation is slightly different globally because there are Japanese skaters Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who were very good a year ago. They stand out at the moment. And the Americans, Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, are a good, solid pair who have all the elements but lack a distinctive identity. They don’t do anything that would make people remember this duo five or ten years later.
People primarily remember outstanding achievements like the quad twist by the Chinese pair at the Games or Sasha Trusova’s five quads in the free skate. Although, watching Russian female skaters at domestic competitions, I’ve noticed that, with very few exceptions, I’m no longer interested in quad jumps in women’s performances.
Oleg Vasiliev: That’s understandable: everyone is doing the same thing, so the difficult jumping content has somewhat lost its appeal. What, for example, makes Jason Brown interesting, who skates without quads? It’s because he is captivating to watch. No matter what program he skates, it is always well-balanced, and jumps are not an end in themselves. They are incorporated into the choreography, flowing naturally with the overall picture. Not like someone running along the entire rink and jumping something incomprehensible in a corner but with four rotations.
Perhaps it’s a temporary phenomenon, maybe over time, athletes will learn to integrate quad jumps into their programs just as organically. But there must be a balance between technique and choreography. When one outweighs the other, it becomes uninteresting. It is also wrong to allow a skater to rely solely on jumps, leaving no chance for others to compete.
As for the watchability, at the same European Championships, the girls didn’t land a single quad jump or triple axel. And was it uninteresting, you think?
Your former student Alisa Efimova finished fourth at the European Championships, competing for Germany with Ruben Blommaert, after which her partner expressed a desire to retire, stating that he was not ready to continue working in such a demanding regime. Personally, it reminded me of the memoirs of Olympic champion Bruno Massot about constant psychological abuse that he experienced daily while working with Aliona Savchenko.
Oleg Vasiliev: Bruno, of course, shouldn’t have written that. Especially considering that it was Aliona who pulled him out of obscurity and made him an Olympic champion. Who would he be without her? Especially since he himself is lazy and quite spoiled. French athletes, in general, are mostly lazy in sports. For them, the main thing is to have fun, to be able to have a beer or wine after training, and our training regimen is generally unacceptable for them.
Until recently, I had a Frenchwoman working with me in Belarus whom I brought in to study multirotational jumps with single skaters. She did her job well, no questions about that, but I could see that she had a completely different coaching philosophy. She was inclined to be friends with the athletes and not force them to do things they didn’t want to do.
In Europe, this approach works because athletes there have a very clear understanding of why they engage in sports. In our country, a child is constantly under pressure. From parents, coaches. They are squeezed and pressured from all sides. When such an athlete ends up in the hands of a Western specialist, they involuntarily relax. They feel very comfortable psychologically, but the results immediately start to decline.
So, which approach is more correct?
Oleg Vasiliev: From the perspective of results, probably ours. On the other hand, there is the example of Jerome Blanchard, who started serious training at the age of 16 and at 26 was doing the same things as all my Russian athletes who started skating at the age of five. Johnny Weir also started figure skating quite late. Such exceptions can be counted on one hand, but they exist. In our case, everything is not based solely on talent but primarily on the system. The system is initially designed to win medals and requires specific results from athletes within a specific timeframe.
That’s why it is believed that without paid extra ice training, a child cannot achieve results?
Oleg Vasiliev: That’s true today. The level of figure skating has grown too rapidly. The standards that were set 20 years ago have become outdated and do not allow athletes to reach the necessary level. For example, here it is written that a six-year-old child cannot train more than three times a week and for no longer than 45 minutes. What will we get from such a child by the age of eight? Practically nothing.
To revise these standards, a huge number of documents need to be changed in the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Sports and Tourism, and so on. And it’s not that simple. That’s why the extra ice time, which goes beyond the regular program, unfortunately becomes a necessity dictated by the rules of the game we’re playing.
Don’t you think that modern sports have reached a dead end and are wearing themselves out?
Oleg Vasiliev: I thought about it not long ago when I read that Madison Hubbell intends to form a pair with Gabriella Papadakis and promote same-gender teams. Perhaps our sport will simply transform into some kind of show in the future. With transgender athletes, non-binary individuals, same-gender duos, and so on.
In reality, I’m very glad I left America ten years ago and didn’t witness everything that is happening there now, including in figure skating. The typical scene on the ice rink: a coach standing with hands in pockets, careful not to accidentally touch anyone, a smile on their face, content with everything. If you deviate even slightly from the accepted standards, there’s no guarantee you’ll be allowed on the ice tomorrow.
Are you saying that Rafael Arutyunyan, who coached Olympic champion Nathan Chen, accomplished something incredible?
Oleg Vasiliev: Partly, yes. On the other hand, I see that in America, those willing to train as they should and push the boundaries are often of Russian or Asian descent. Just ask yourself: could Ilia Malinin achieve everything he’s showing now if he had an American mentality? I highly doubt it.
In one of her interviews from a while back, Eteri Tutberidze said, ‘If parents side with the child, the coach will always lose in that confrontation.’ Would you take the coach’s side if it were about your daughter?
Oleg Vasiliev: The answer to your question is actually why my child isn’t in sports. Precisely because I know that such pressure is harmful. Both for the family and the child themselves. But if the family wants outstanding results, they really need to align with the coach in the same direction.
So, does the existing system imply not only coaching violence but also parental violence, which is increasingly being discussed on social media? Although recently, I’ve seen certain attempts to shake up this system.
Oleg Vasiliev: That’s indeed noticeable. And to some extent, it’s dangerous: when a system collapses, it usually buries everything under it. Take Belarus, for example: the system there collapsed more than 20 years ago. Many rinks remained where people just gave private lessons. And everyone was satisfied. No one even thought about the existence of World championships, European championships, or the Olympics. If the existing system in Russian figure skating collapses, I’m afraid it will be similar.
Are you suggesting that the system cannot exist without violence?
Oleg Vasiliev: Why would it? In my own sports career, which began with single skating, there was no violence whatsoever. No one yelled at me, hit me, or humiliated me. Consequently, that’s how I worked as well.
On the other hand, it’s harder to work without shouting and punishments. The coach’s job, if you think about it, is constantly making children do things they don’t want or cannot do. And you have to find a way to make the child want to come back after training. To make them enjoy this work. And to perceive training not as violence but as something they’re proud of, having overcome themselves.
In this case, how can we identify the line that neither the coach nor the parents should cross?
Oleg Vasiliev: I think the figure skating federation could intervene here. In my opinion, it can and should monitor the most egregious cases. Toxic parents, just like coaches, should simply be expelled from figure skating. So that those observing from the sidelines wouldn’t even consider replicating certain situations. Yes, we don’t have leverage to change how children are treated in their families. But the federation’s position on what is good and what is bad should undoubtedly be declared and proclaimed publicly. Currently, in my view, there’s no such position at all.
Lastly, an abstract question: if, during your time as a practical coach, you were offered the project ‘Kostornaia-Kunitsa,’ would you agree?
Oleg Vasiliev: No. Achieving results in a pair cannot be done in a single season; it’s a long-term project when it comes to significant achievements. Therefore, the coach must have confidence that they can rely on the athlete, that they won’t change their mind after a couple of months. In that sense, Kostornaia is not a very reliable material, using the language of coaching.
And what about Boikova and Kozlovskii?
Oleg Vasiliev: They are the complete opposite. Both are stubborn, both will work and fight until they achieve what they strive for.
Kaori Sakamoto: “My focus lies in the quality of everyday practice. When you reach a state “I’m not afraid because I’ve practiced this much,” things usually go well in competitions.”