Rafael Arutyunyan: “We didn’t want just to win, we wanted to dominate. And I’m very glad that this is exactly what happened in Beijing.”
Interview with Rafael Arutyunyan. About Olympics, Nathan Chen, Yuzuru Hanyu and his future coaching plans.
source: russian.rt.com dd. 10th February 2022 by Elena Vaitsekhovskaya
Nathan Chen in the last days of training in Beijing almost did not fail a single element, and on the morning of the competition day he skated the entire free program cleanly without any pause. The coach of the new Olympic champion Rafael Arutyunyan told in an interview with RT. The specialist recalled how delighted he was with the defeat of his athlete in Las Vegas at the beginning of the season, and explained why he worked on the quadruple loop. The coach also admitted that he would advise the American figure skater to end his career and resume his studies at the university, while he himself would prefer to temporarily retire from work.
“It was a long journey, a very long one”, the coach of the Olympic champion Rafael Arutyunyan repeated this phrase so many times in the mixed zone, answering questions from American journalists. It was clear that the most important thing for the coach at this triumphant moment of his life was that the joint path with Nathan Chen, which began 11 years ago, is finally completed. Exactly how the coach dreamed about this. Great and unconditional victory.
An hour later, Arutyunyan and I got the opportunity to talk one on one.
What was the price of this gold medal for you?
Rafael Arutyunyan: The last three months have been very difficult. I did not even expect that it would be so difficult. Although I understood that preparing an athlete to win the Olympics is not an easy thing.
Can you tell me more about it?
Rafael Arutyunyan: You know yourself what it means to set yourself up for an Olympic gold medal. This is a constant tension that does not let the athlete go even in a sleep. I saw how much Nathan was under pressure, it was not always easy to communicate with him. Plus the athlete’s environment: parents, friends, advisers. When the Games getting closer Chen became more and more difficult, he began to react more sharply to everything.
But I set myself up that I, as a coach, just need to endure some things. I recalled Tatiana Tarasova, Alexei Mishin, who often repeated that at the finish line of the journey, the coach simply does not need to react to things that are not related to training. These examples helped me a lot when it became very difficult. But in Beijing itself, everything was already much easier.
Even a year ago, it was obvious that in the technical aspect, your athlete is head and shoulders above all his rivals, including Yuzuru Hanyu. Why did you need to complicate the short program with two of the most difficult quadruple jumps – lutz and flip?
Rafael Arutyunyan: This risk was justified.
You can say that now. But even at the beginning of the season, Chen tried to perform this version of the program at the Grand Prix in America and failed both elements there.
Rafael Arutyunyan: Remember I told you four years ago that Nathan tried to do lutz and flip in the short program at the Pyeongchang Games without my permission?
He trained this content, refused to accept any of my arguments, and as a result, he fell from the first jump. He started to rebuild the program in panic, replacing the lutz with a toeloop, but failed it too. And then he failed the axel. In Beijing, we were ready to perform the most difficult option. That is, the situation has changed.
And the unsuccessful short program in Las Vegas was just a working moment?
Rafael Arutyunyan: Yes. Do you remember when we talked with you about Nathan’s winning streak? Now I can confess: I was very afraid that Chen would go to the Games undefeated. It’s a sin to say so, but now, perhaps, I can confess: when he lost in Las Vegas, I was delighted and even crossed myself in thoughts. Because it is very difficult to go to the Olympics with such load. This is a terrible thing.
As for experiments with jumps, I can cite another case – with Ilia Malinin, who was second at the US Nationals, but did not go to Beijing. He was not taken to the Olympic team, because at one of the competitions he took 13th place in the short program. I then said that this result should not have been paid attention, because the main thing there was not points, but the fact that the boy, who is only 17 years old, for the first time tried to jump quadruple lutz and toeloop in one program. From my point of view, it was a completely normal process of training a complex content. And the US Nationals showed that I was right. But Ilia did not fly to the Games.
I rephrase the question: wouldn’t it be more logical for you and Chen to perform last year’s set of quadruple jumps in the short program in order to completely eliminate any risk of making a mistake?
Rafael Arutyunyan: We didn’t want just to win, we wanted to dominate. And I am very glad that this is exactly what happened in Beijing.
Was abandoning the sixth quadruple jump in the free program also a well-thought-out strategy?
Rafael Arutyunyan: Yes. At the very beginning of the season, Nathan began to perform the quadruple loop very well and showed it. We did it quite intentionally – to make everyone nervous. And people really believed it.
Do you want to say that it also could be a reason why Yuzuru Hanyu wanted to jump a quadruple axel at the Olympic Games?
Rafael Arutyunyan: It could be so. When people from Chen’s close circle (I won’t name them) started trying to persuade me to put a quad loop in the free program, I said: “No way!”
Rafael Arutyunyan: Because you can not put in the Olympic program a jump that is not sufficiently prepared in training. Yes, it can be done. But where is the guarantee that the rest of the program will not crumble? Well, who, tell me, benefited from the fact that Hanyu spent so much effort on an underrotated quadruple axel, and then fell on the salchow?
Was it interesting for you to watch Yuzuru’s training attempts, from a professional point of view?
Rafael Arutyunyan: No. I knew that even if we assume that Hanyu somehow miraculously succeeds with this jump, then there is a high probability that something will break in some other place. After all, the question is not in the axel itself, but in the rest of the program, which must be skated, and without mistakes. Jason Brown who has been in the top six for many years, skating an absolutely elementary free program in terms of complexity proves this very clearly to everyone. As for the axel … If the same Malinin manages to prepare this jump, but at the same time he does not need to sacrifice all the remaining elements – that will be a completely different conversation.
Hanyu constantly emphasized that he was alone in Beijing: he trained himself, made decisions himself, set up himself to performances. And even in the kiss-and-cry zone, he sat alone. It seems to me that this was his global mistake. What do you think?
Rafael Arutyunyan: I think that the “coach-athlete” system was invented for a reason. I was asked not too long ago by one of my colleagues why Nathan has such a strong hold on me.
And what did you answer?
Rafael Arutyunyan: That for Chen I am the very person who tells him the truth, regardless of any titles and achievements. It doesn’t matter if he likes the truth or not. When a person is alone, he can lie to himself. Even in a family it is very important that there are two parents, not one. One parent becomes very dependent on the child in some situations. So I think you are right when you say that Yuzuru made a mistake.
I’m really sorry that there was no duel between Yuzuru and Nathan.
Rafael Arutyunyan: Of course, it’s a pity. Only between these two skaters a real duel could have taken place. Between the cosmic Hanyu and the very prudent, pragmatic and well-prepared Chen.
During all the competitions, did you at least for a moment experience the fear that Chen might not cope?
Rafael Arutyunyan: No, absolutely not. I did get a little tense during the individual trainings, but not too much.
What was wrong with trainings?
Rafael Arutyunyan: There were moments when Nathan began to feel that he was not very well prepared to fight for gold. Every time I started laughing at him: “Are you kidding? I’ll be the first to tell you if I see anything going wrong. So don’t make me laugh with your stupid statements and go to rest.” Do you know, that on the day of the final, at eight o’clock in the morning, he skated the entire free program clean without a single pause? This made everyone nervous who was on the ice. And the day before, he skated it in the same way. He practically failed nothing, during all the days of training.
When should an athlete wake up in order to jump quadruples at eight o’clock in the morning?
Rafael Arutyunyan: You have to be on your feet at five. Not later. But it’s not for a morning training. In order to skate perfectly at one o’clock in the afternoon – at competitions.
Your athlete said after the team event that it was not his decision to give the opportunity to skate a free program to Vincent Zhou. Does this mean that you planned to perform in the team event twice?
Rafael Arutyunyan: No. From the very beginning, I wanted Chen to skate only the short, because from the very beginning our priority was to win individual gold. Two full programs actually the day before the main competition is very difficult. I even told Mark Kondratiuk’s coach (Svetlana Sokolovskaya. – RT ) that her boy might not be able to skate twice. And I was right, as it turned out. Although Sveta tried to convince me that Mark is young and can handle everything.
Why another of your athletes, Mariah Bell, didn’t perform for the USA in the team event? After all, it was she who became the US champion this season.
Rafael Arutyunyan: I didn’t make the decision, but also I didn’t insist. What is the point of fighting for a person who obviously will not make a big contribution to the team result? I couldn’t say that my athlete would go and tear everyone apart? And I said to Bell herself: “Didn’t they give it? So you’re just not good enough.”
In the mixed zone, you spoke very emotionally about the fact that an athlete should skate, a coach should train, and a judge should give scores. Was there anything personal between the lines?
Rafael Arutyunyan: Quite often, within the framework of figure skating, I have to deal with people who are not very professional, let’s say so. There are such people in the technical committee of the International Skating Union, and in national federations, and among judges. And very often the voices of such professionals as for example Alexei Mishin, whom I respect immensely, are the last in the chain of opinions of these people. And this is wrong. It is impossible not to listen to the opinion of those who gave figure skating their whole lives.
I also said that it is very dangerous when the coach starts to depend on the judges. Therefore, I myself have always tried to keep my distance and not have any personal relationship with the judges or technical specialists. Any dependency makes a person weaker. It does not matter what we are talking about – about judjing or, say, pharmacology. This swamp draws in so quickly and so strongly that a person loses the ability to concentrate on the main thing, becomes a slave to the situation and can only come to one place – to a dead end.
I also heard that this medal may make to think those who forced you to leave Russia for the United States. It looks like the topic is still actual?
Rafael Arutyunyan: In some way, yes. To be frank, I was simply squeezed out of the country at one time. And for many years I wanted to prove that Russian figure skating has lost a coach capable of preparing an Olympic champion. I, by the way, worked very well even then. It is clear that I did not have the current experience, as well as a large selection of athletes, and I myself, as a figure skater, was far from Sergey Volkov or Vladimir Kovalev. Apparently, therefore, I was not needed.
Everything was much simpler: a salary that is impossible to support a family. And when I tried to earn some money abroad, I was immediately shamed for it, to put it mildly. The children grew up, there was always not enough money – so I left. But I immediately asked myself the question: what is my goal in America? Just make money by working with everyone without exception, or still try to make a big result? The desire to achieve something worthwhile has been the main drive in my work all these years.
Is the current season finished for you and Chen or will you prepare for the World Championships?
Rafael Arutyunyan: To be honest, I would recommend Nathan end his career and resume his study at the university. Why should he keep skating? To win another medal, another world title? This is not serious.
I agree. But won’t it hurt if your athlete comes with a gift and says: “Coach, I don’t skate anymore”
Rafael Arutyunyan: No. If Chen makes such a decision, it will be right.
Do you already have a replacement for him?
Rafael Arutyunyan: No. Moreover, I do not aspire to it. In general, I want to slow down with coaching.
To die of boredom, lying on the beach?
Rafael Arutyunyan: Why? I have a lot of interests and hobbies. Also, don’t forget that I’m old. Of course, I will advise, but a full-timed coaching … I don’t want to. I’m not ready to continue to drag this load for myself: I’m afraid that I’ll overstrain and die along the way. I don’t know how to work badly, but I know perfectly well what it costs to work well. I just don’t have the strength…
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