Polina Shelepen: Is Tutberidze the toughest coach in the world? The more success you have the more stories they make up about you
Eteri Tutberidze’s first successful student Polina Shelepen, who now coaches children, shares her experience of training with Eteri and thoughts about current situation in ladies figure skating.
by Ekaterina Bespalova for sport-express.ru
For you, as a coach of children from 9 years old and older, does the triple axel and quadruple toe loop of Eteri Tuteberidze’s 11-year-old student Sofia Akateva change the idea how to prepare your skaters?
– I have a 9-year-old girl who has learned a triple lutz. But this won’t surprize anyone now. If at 10 years old you do all the triple and combinations with them, you will be at an average high level, everything else depends on the PCS. When Liza Tuktamysheva, Adelina Sotnikova and I jumped like this at the age of 10 we were called geniuses. Now it’s difficult to amaze. There are children who at the age of 7-8 years do double axels and all triple jumps. It becomes even a bit scary what will happen next, because you worry about their health.
And what about parents?
– Some think that the more money they invest, the higher results they will get. A child can jump even at 7 years old, the main thing for them that he’s a star. Although I met a skating mom from another city with the opposite point of view. When I asked why they would not move to Moscow, because her child is so talented, the answer was: “I don’t want my child to win medals. For example, she will pass all tests and selections, maybe she will get to the Olympics, but after a year no one will remember about her. And my girl be left with a broken psyche and without sport, except for which she doesn’t know anything. Zagitova and Medvedeva became the best in Pyeongchang, but next season they have faded into the background.” I listened to her and thought about the price of our medals.
But did you think about something like that when you just started skating?
– I did gymnastics and swimming. We lived near CSKA skating rink and I liked to skate there. Well, and my mother did not want me to be a swimmer with a broad back. Then I went to school, where I didn’t like it very much, so I thought: “I’ll rather skate.”
And some people think that skating doesn’t allow children to get education.
– That’s not always true. My relations with peers were difficult, although I’m a sociable person. Nobody understood how I could miss classes for the sake of some trainings? One day, the teacher even asked me to bring all my medals, which by that time I had quite a few. Classmates were surprised: “Wow, so many awards already at this age!”. I was ready to do anything on the ice, just not to attend all six classes at school.
And didn’t even imagine that you would become the first star of the world’s best coach in ladies single skating …
– I didn’t think about anything like that, just skated. We started at the “Silver Sharks” ice rink, at the same rink with hockey players and had to run all over Moscow in search of ice. When the results appeared, we moved to “Crystalny” ice rink. I remember how we came there on the first day, we had our own locker room and two ices! Then I thought: “It’s great that we grew up so much!”. Although for me it was not important where to skate, the main thing that I was skating with Eteri Georgievna.
What was Tutberidze like in the times of little Polina?
– There was a funny story. At that time, she had only adult athletes in her group, there were no small ones at all, especially like me. I look at my childhood photos and I see such a bun on skates! Now the selection is tougher: a girl should be thin, jump well, stretched. They wouldn’t have taken me, and I also wouldn’t have taken myself (laughs). But Eteri Georgievna looked at me and said: “Ok, I’ll take her.” She took me and four other, so we formed a group of small ones. Of course, I was afraid of her. Tutberidze was strict from the very beginning. But now as a coach, I understand that strictness isn’t for showing your superiority, it is respect, discipline, otherwise at some point they will simply stop listening you.
You have already tried to learn a quadruple jump with one of your skaters, but how to prepare a girl for it?
– I saw a good triple with a reserve and asked: “Are you not afraid to do a quad?”, And she answers: “Nope, let’s do it”. Then I thought: everything must have its time. Otherwise, at the age of 9-10 years old all the quadruple will be mastered and then where will figure skating go? I don’t want such a development. It happened that I even regretted that I myself was doing “3-3” at the age of 10 and gave a push to complication of the programs. But then we did not set the task to learn such combinations, it just come out.
Did you try quad?
– Yes, there was such a moment, I was 12 years old when Eteri Georgievna suggested: “Let’s try a quad”. At that time, I had already learned everything and I was bored in training, then there was no fashion to jump tano. Then I fell a couple of times, overrotating half a turn. Then we went back to the quad when I was 14 years old. Then I was falling from a clean jump, but since this was before the competitions, we stopped trying, and well, there was no task to learn it. At the same time, Liza Tuktamysheva was learning the triple axel, but none of us even thought that we needed such a jump. Then we started to grow up, experience discoordination, so we had other problems to deal with.
Now in Russian ladies single skating there’s an inner competition in every group. How is it psychologically?
– I faced something like that, I have athletes in my group, whom I call “owners” when there are several of them it become a problem. Because they are trying to draw all the attention to themselves. It was also very hard for me, but since I was the first student of Eteri Georgievna, there was plenty of attention. And then the group began grow, and I quickly got used to it. It even became easier, since it was hard for me to be a locomotive of the group, example for everyone. At first, I noticed which jumps boys do and tried to figure out whether I can do them, which I did in the end. Then when Yulia Lipnitskaya came, it became a little different. You come to the training session tired, you see how she jumps, and you want to keep up.
Wasn’t you jealous?
– There was jealousy, I will not hide, especially when you’ve been with a coach since childhood, and then someone new appears. I didn’t show my feelings, but it was obvious that when everyone was praised and I wasn’t, there was a question in my head: “What about me?”
Which approach is closer to you: to work with one athlete almost his entire career or have a large group of strong skaters?
– You can take one athlete and to bring him to the top, and that’s all. But such a coach can’t be called a super professional, because you could get only one talented athlete and you are already at the top. And a professional can take and reveal any talent. Also, you can work with onle athlete for a long-long time, but suddenly he gets an injury, or leaves to another coach, and you are left with nothing. If there is a large group, there is substitutability, it may not sound very good, but this is sport. For example, Olympics in Pyeongchang, during the season, Zhenya Medvedeva got injured and it was not clear whether she could perform there. But everyone knew that if anything happens, we have Alina Zagitova, so it was less nervous.
No matter who wins – the main thing that from Russia?
– After the Olympics, there was a lot of talks on the topic: is it right that Zhenya was only the second. For the country, everything turned out perfectly: the first two places, two medals. At this point, I thought that probably everyone was a little out of their mind, our two figure skaters are the best, but there were so many outrage! After all, when Sotnikova won in Sochi-2014, everyone just said: “Well, thank God, finally!”
Watching Sotnikova’s victory, have you ever thought: “How could I not get to the Olympics?”? After all, you started together …
– No. I never had a goal to get to the Olympics, we didn’t even talk about this with Eteri Georgievna. I see a lot of people who change after the Olympics. Psychologically it’s very difficult competition, and not even competition itself, but the 1-2 years path to it. After all I saw how hard the selection was for girls. This is the cruelty of the sport, you win the whole season, but you don’t know whether you’ll get to the Olympics or not.
Once you wrote on Instagram that with Lipnitskaya you talk little but say much. What does it mean?
– After Yulia returned in 2016 after the treatment, we decided to meet, although before that we had met a long time ago when I was training with Tutberidze. We walked all day and chatted. At a time when we skated, we had a great time at competitions. But there were many situations when Lipnitskaya and I were played against each other. And when I left Tutberidze, many thought it was because of Yulia. But that wasn’t the reason at all.
When you look at Tuktamysheva, who is almost the same age with you, and continues to compete, are you amazed?
– She’s great. But here we must say a big thank you to Alexei Mishin, who morally supports her. Because when you have such moments in your career, parents can hardly help.
What do you think about the idea of raising the age for seniors?
– I support it. I don’t really imagine how next season Alina Zagitova will compete with Alexandra Trusova. Or the Alena Kostornaia, it’s a shame when she loses just because she doesn’t have quadruple jumps. Alena spins perfectly, looks very harmonious on the ice, it is so unfair. She has the natural breadth and softness, Sasha has the strength, it seems to me that she is able to do even a jump in five turns.
What do you remember from past season?
– Short programs of Jason Brown, Kostornaia, I really liked Kamila Valiyeva. And the brightest competition is of course the World Championships. I was very happy for Evgenia, for Liza Tursynbayeva and her first quadruple jump in history, for Alina who won. For me it was just the perfect pedestal. After all, it wasn’t easy for Medvedeva to perform because of all that talks about including her in the team instead of Tuktamysheva. I follow Zhenya in social networks; she has become more mature, prettier, but at the same time hasn’t lost herself. She benefited from the change of coach and environment which helped her to survive the difficulties of transition age. Brian Orser can support her.
I heard another opinion that his more democratic approach compared to Tutberidze, on the contrary, slightly knocked Medvedeva off the usual path …
– When a coach constantly demands, you get used to be demanding to yourself. Eteri Georgievna taught me to be a maximalist, so it is no longer necessary that someone forces me. And when you make a decision and move to another country, you cannot but understand that this is your decision, you cannot relax, otherwise what was the point of moving?
Do you like the artistic images that new team choose for Evgenia?
– I really liked her first short program. Everyone critisized this program so much, and I saw a completely different person! After all, before that he programs always were lyrical and tender. Now she was criticized for a show program to Ariana Grande: what a terrible pink costume. When you skate the same thing it’s boring, you take a new one – what a horror! But the tango also turned out great, especially at Worlds. In her first glance it was clear that she was ready to have a cool skate.
But once you thought of them and Tursynbaeva just as little group mates.
– Zhenya for sure. As much as I remember her, she was trying to keep up with the elder ones. And she cried, worried, if something didn’t work out, tried again. We also haven’t seen each other for a long time, and last year in August-September we met at the test skates in Novogorsk. I noticed that she had matured a lot, and Zhenya responded: “Oh, really?”, Then we hugged and laughed.
The choreographer of the group, Alexei Zheleznyakov, once remarked that you had a talent for jumping, Lipnitskaya had stretching and spins and Medvedeva only had a crazy working capacity…
– Zhenya is a story about how a person without special physical qualities, without very good jump from nature is able to reach the highest level due to her tremendous work. But Eteri Georgievna apparently has a special gut.
Is it stereotype that Tutberidze is the toughest coach of all?
– All the coaches scold, just the more success you achieve, the more they write all sorts of stories about you. Even when I was coached by a Russian specialist in America, he also was strict, although he was very careful in expressions – it is impossible otherwise there.
I remember the story how Tutberidze once in a traffic jam on the way to the competitions asked you to read a poem, but you could not, while she read a couple…
– My hour of shame (laughs). But in general, always when we went to competitions, it was very pleasant to spend time with her. Outside the ice, she was kind, fun, we walked a lot.
What advice would you give to skaters who had a transitional age and problems with a coach?
– The most important thing is not to make hasty decisions. You need to be able to talk with the coach and listen to him. And if he scolds you then ask for a personal conversation after a workout and clarify everything.