Rafael Arutyunyan: Being an athlete is not a profession. It is philosophy
Elena Vatsekhovskaya’s interview with Rafael Arutyunyan. Mostly about Nathan Chan, but also couple of words about Adam Rippon and Ashley Wagner.
I tried to find you right after the men’s event, but I was told that you flew home right after the competition. Did you upset so much after Chen’s performance?
– Everything is much simpler. At home, I have work, a lot of skaters. I do not earn money by coaching Chen, but by hours spent on ice. Therefore, I had to return immediately, as soon as it became possible.
How did you survive these Games?
– I read your words in the review that it was scary to look at me during the short program. Well, probably, it really was so. This is such a difficult feeling when you doomed go to battle, which you know you will lose. Just at the time of that skate, I very clearly began to understand what experienced people who went to war, knowing that they had no chances to win, but it was still needed to fight.
I do not understand a thing. Do you want to say that a person who jumps six quads in a free program was certainly not able to skate the short program?
– I once told you that, working in America, the coach can only advise the athlete, what is better for him to do in this or that situation. God forbid, if these advices are too persistent or have an aggressive tone – it is believed that you can give your athlete a feeling of unconfidence, cause him psychological trauma.
But what happened, in the end?
– Nathan decided to jump a quad lutz and a quad flip in a short program.
When did he tell you about this?
– On the day of the first skate before the morning practice. At six in the morning. The fact is that before the Games we just started to get into shape, therefore in the short program at the team event, Chen did not jump lutz and flip, as we did in the first half of the season, it was flip and a toe loop. The same thing I planned to do in a short program at the individual event. I told Nathan that it would be a just training, working performance. Well, it turned out that he wanted to do lutz and flip. And, as I expected, was not very ready for this.
You said that you have never seen me in this state, it did not appear during the performance, but a few hours before it. I’m a coach and I have to be able to calculate some things. That there will be mistakes, that even if a miracle happens and Nathan jumps, the program itself won’t be beautiful – too much tension. And this feeling that nothing has happened yet, but you know what will happen and you can not change anything, it’s killing.
Did you try to persuade him somehow?
– How? Well, at six in the morning they tell you about the decision. How to persuade? Chen understood that it would be very difficult for him. I assumed that this might not be his decision. Often at the Olympic Games, some behind-the-scenes forces, influential or important to the athlete are included in the game, which advise to do so and not otherwise. And not always the athlete is able to say no. After all, he has a family and from all the sides: “Come on, guy, go for the record, go for the gold medal!” Not understanding that a short program is not the case when you need to go for some gold medal. There it is necessary to skate what is planned. Flip and toeloop were planned. End of story.
I can assume this version: Chen coped well with lutz and flip at the Grand Prix Final in Japan, but failed the program with a flip and toe-loop at the team event. After all he could he thought that it was a mistake to change the jumps.
– Well, let me now tell you that Nathan had an injury about three weeks ago, that his left leg healed not that well, it hurted strongly, I knew about it. That’s why he should have jumped only one lutz. Because two is a risk. It was very easy to injure the leg again. Now all this is empty words, and I do not like to talk much. What’s the point of discussing how things could have worked out and how should it have been if Chen had listened to me? In fact it turned out that at six in the morning he decided to do lutz and flip. And there is still an axel, which, in general, is always problematic. There can not be so many problem jumps in a short program at once. Especially since the flip had to be after two spins.
What’s the problem to jump flip after two spins?
– The problem is not specifically in this jump, but that in the short program everything is very strongly connected. Lutz is a jump that requires maximum tension. If you land it not very good, and I remind you that in an ideal it is necessary to add a combination, it is a very large energy expenditure. Then you go to do two spins, then you go to the flip which, by the way, except for Chen, only two skaters in the world put into the program – this actually is difficult. Especially when there is also an axel, on which you fall at trainings, sometimes, and more than once, because it’s your most problematic jump … Of course, I tried, as best I could, to explain to Nathan that lutz and flip – this is not a very good idea. I still can not say exactly whose decision this was. If so it decided on the home council, then Nathan himself could not change anything. He’s only 18. Quite a young guy.
According to you impressions, how sane he was when you talked with him at six in the morning?
– I haven’t seen any sane person at the Olympics. If you pay attention all reactions are at the limits, no matter whether it’s a coach or an athlete. I saw people crying to hysterics. I saw crying parents, who led the athletes to the start, saw crying athletes. Therefore I repeat: there are no sane at the Olympic Games. Even I almost burst into tears after Chen skated the free program. I didn’t start sobbing right at the board, just because I knew that Nathan was ready for such skate, that he knows how to jump, I’ve seen all this many times at trainings. But to make six quads at the Olympic Games, even just try – this is a heroic deed.
How did you communicate with Nathan after the first skate? Didn’t what happened violate the relationship between you, did not lead to a conflict?
– On the contrary. Of course I had a hard after-taste. But after a short program, I stood at the board only with him. And I think, Nathan realized that I forgave him, despite the fact that he did not apologize. Before the free program, he came to me and said that there is nothing to lose, so he will do six quads. I asked: are you sure this is what you want? Then go ahead. Consider that I gave you a green light.
The most unexpected thing for me was that he apologized to me for the first performance – after the free program.
– Yes. I think this is a deed. I’ve already told you that I always give athletes the opportunity to make mistakes. Of course, at the Olympics it would be better to do without these mistakes, but there’s nothing to be done, they have happened.
Have you already understood that you and your athlete made a historic breakthrough in men’s skating?
– All this is greatly interrupted by a sense of sadness that I could not do as I wanted. Still, everything should have been completely different. But, apparently, God decided otherwise.
I’ll ask the question differently: if it wasn’t your skater who jumped six quads in the program what would you say to that as a coach?
– It is difficult for me to speak abstractly. With regard to Chen, I “saw” this skate of six jumps, probably four years ago, saw it in my head. So now for me it’s not some kind of super achievement, but a normal, natural result of our work. Moreover, I still “see” a completely different performance, differently done. I see a different short program, and free. All this can be realized in two years. If, of course, Chen gives me such an opportunity.
What do you mean?
– I mean that while I am standing near and helping Nathan to follow this path. And I will do it, while he wants me to. If he do not want to – it’s also normal: there are other athletes. Well, I’m not the coach of one Chen – I’m just a coach.
What should happen for you to tell Nathan that you no longer want to see him on your ice?
– I’ll tell you one story. Once, I unwittingly saw the situation when Lesha Yagudin, let’s call it so, talked really badly with Tanya Tarasova. When I heard this … Sasha Abt, whom I trained in those years, would never allowed himself to speak to me in such a tone, it was simply impossible. I then thought that if I was on Tarasova’s place, I would simply turned around and left and never had any more business with this sportsman. But now I very often think that Tarasova knew what she was doing. She knew how to behave, what to react to and what to ignore. And I did not know.
Today, my attitude is quite different. There is an 18-year-old athlete, by and large a child, and there is me – a person who helps this child in this life. And I will help him until he crosses a line. It’s difficult to say where is this line, but I probably will see it, I will feel it and I’ll understand when he crosses this line.
Do you plan to compete with Chen at the World Championships?
– So far we do not plan anything. Now Nathan caught the flu. Even his doctor phoned me, warned me to start taking antiviral pills. He recovers and we’ll see what happens next. For me, the main thing is that he starts doing what he wants to do, not what he is advised from outside.
Whom do you mean?
– First of all, family. Before the Games Chen said that this season he will do everything home coaching council tells him. He told me about it clearly and openly. He explained this by being in great debt to the family for everything they had done for him. Therefore, he decided to devote the Olympic season to the family, to follow any advice and wishes from relatives. Next year will probably show whether he will change this position.
Was it some blow for you, at least to some extent, that Ashley Wagner didn’t get to the Games?
– Well, she did not train very well.
In other words, this was coming?
– Yes. Adam trained well. He went there with two axels, took the place in the top ten, got into the team event and got bronze there. I can say that Adam always listened to me very attentively, practiced well, did everything I told him. We have worked out a clear plan for him: how to get to the Olympic Games and show his absolute maximum there. Everything turned out. For me it was such a personal coaching bonus.
Why your “bonus” does not jump quadruple jumps?
– Because Adam is an adult, he is 28 years old. He is heavy, he has such a body structure. When he tries to jump quadruple jumps at trainings, his feet start hurting, and so much that the next two or three days he can not skate at all. But it is necessary to perform. I work with what I have and everything that Rippon and I have achieved is the result of very thoughtful training. And Ashley, as I said, does not train well. It is very hard for her to force herself: she is an adult woman, she has a woman’s body. With such a body, an athlete needs to keep herself very strictly – not everyone can do it. As a coach, I did everything I could with Wagner. Although, frankly, I think it was the decision of the entire American judicial collegium not to give Wagner the opportunity to go to the Games. At the US Nationals, she lost to the third American girl in components, and this is absolute nonsense. Ashley Wagner can’t loose in components. She can lose the technique – yes. Has a two feet landing, do something like this. Therefore, I consider this to some extent a manifestation of federation’s politics.
After Bradie Tennell won the US Nationals, people started to look at her as at skater who, under certain circumstances, is able to be on a pedestal.
– Theoretically, probably, yes, but I would still talk about the favorites.
If we talk about one favorite, who is it?
– I just can not name one name in the situation that we have in women’s skating.
– Have you watched the dance final?
– Could you assume that it will be won by Canadians?
Rather, I really wanted it.
– That’s what I wanted, too. But when Tessa and Scott won, I had a weird after-taste. Because Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron didn’t skate worse. But they lost. Because there’s only one gold medal. And here is the same story. I can name one name, but at the bottom of my heart I will immediately become embarrassed that I did not mention the second. It would have been easier if Zagitova and Medvedev hadn’t skated at all. Then I would give gold to Zhenya.
– Because she has been going to this for so long. I just respect the work of the athlete. In general, I love people who go to their goal for a long time.
Like Aliona Savchenko?
– Like Aliona Savchenko. I think that her victory changed the attitude of all the skaters in the world to what they are doing. It is very important from time to time to receive confirmation that little strokes fell great oaks. For the same reason, I wanted so much that Tessa and Scott win the dances.
Scott admitted after the skate, that at the time he considered absurd the words of his coach Marina Zueva that there should be at least three Olympics in their sporting career. And after the victory he said: “Since now is really our third Olympics and we are holding gold medals, I’m not ready to say that I’m finishing my career.”
– That’s what I’m talking about. Of course, it’s very difficult to live a long life in sport. This is a continuous work on yourself, working with the body, as in ballet. But if you take a big ballet, they take it very seriously there. Their stay as prime. We don’t have such. That is why I say that the victory of Aliona (Savchenko) changed everything. Look how she looks at her 34 years. God blesses, she will not leave the sport for some time. Only such people create the right attitude to the sport, develop it in others. In such, as Nathan, including. Being an athlete is not a profession. It is philosophy.
by Elena Vaitsekhovskaya for rsport.ria.ru