Some sincerely believe that boots torments are compulsory part of the process. But it’s not right
Interview with Alexander Kuznetsov, coach and technical specialist, who’ve been in charge of Irina Slutskaya’s equipment for 12 years and now helps other skaters with boots and blades.
In an interview, he talked why Evgenia Medvedeva should not have taken the risk of skating a free program with a broken boot, recalled the story of how he advised three-time world champion Mao Asada, and explained why the best is the enemy of the good when it comes to professional sports shoes.
I found this interview quite interesting. Hope you will also like it.
by Elena Vaitsekhovskaya for russian.rt.com dd. 9th March 2020
Judging by the number of broken blades on your workbench, this not a rare problem.
– Alas. This happens, usually, for the same reason: the structure does not withstand. In theory, the bottom of the boot should be a very rigid plane, which prevents the sole from deforming. But imagine that the structure is not very strong, and you are a pair skater with a two-meter height and a weight of 90 kg, and land from a jump on a toe pick and then go on a full blade. In this case the load on the blade’s curve is incredibly high. For ice dancers, this problem is not very relevant, since the loads are much less and the skaters use shorter blades.
Because they do more difficult steps?
– Not only. In dances, partners need to be very close to each other. Plus a lot of small movements. All this requires high maneuverability, so it is very important that the blade does not project beyond the perimeter of the boot. And the boot, it turns out, performs a safety role. In single skating, the blade becomes longer as a person grows, the foot grows and, accordingly grows the distance between the middle and the calcaneal stance. Therefore, you have constantly adjust it.
Is the problem of choosing the length of the boot and the length of the blades in figure skating difficult?
– Yes, since the sizes of boots are traditionally produced in a metric scale, and the sizes of blades are in inches. All this went from England, where in 1696 the company “John Wilson” was formed. At first, the company produced edged weapons, some kind of cutting and stabbing tools, and eventually began to specialize exclusively in blades. Skates became popular when in 1841 the company presented the blades to Queen Victoria of England and her husband Prince Albert. There is even a name of the owner on those broken blades that you hold in your hands – his name is Dmitri Aliev. The breakdown happened just before the Grand Prix Final.
When this season boots started to break in a rather massive manner, was it clear for you, as for a specialist, what was happening?
– Of course. The paradox is that nothing unusual happens. Just in the last few years the press began to pay too much attention to figure skating: Alexandra Trusova jumped this, Anna Shcherbakova jumped that, the dancers had an open practice session, pair skaters made a mistake at the warm-up … Plus – costumes, hairstyles. What else can you write about? Oh! The boots are broken!
Do you want to say that it has always been like this?
– Of course. Canadian Kevin Reynolds once changed nine pairs of boots during the season – Canadians themselves told me about it. In my practice, there was a case when senior skater changed three pairs of boots of the same company from July to November. By the Grand Prix in Moscow, the guy broke the third pair and tried on the boots of the company, which he did not think about at all, starting the season. He told me that he likes new boots more than those that he used before.
I have never heard that Yuzuru Hanyu had problems with shoes.
– He has his own personal specialist. I think that the Japanese have no less problems with the equipment than the rest of the skaters, it just doesn’t go public. Although, sometimes I helped Daisuke Takahashi and Takahiko Kozuki to repair the boots. Boots generally often get broken: the blades are set incorrectly, some kind of factory defect, excessive loads. I myself was a skater, coach, specialist in blades sharpening and installation and I can say that boots inventory is extremely imperfect. Unlike hockey, by the way. Every time I go to a sports store, my mouth is drooling. I see a huge number of models, new materials. Plastics, composites, fiberglass. The same speed skaters, skiers use the boot phenomenally. They make a mold, create a 3D model.
Why then we don’t do it in figure skating?
– There is a small number of companies that are engaged in such production, but they are quite conservative. Although I am sure that some companies are already preparing some kind of revolutionary offers.
Will the company that is the first to solve this problem and bring products to the market earn billions?
– In fact, this problem is hardly can be solved radically. Because there are different legs, different skating styles. Remember the boots for figures? They had to be as soft as possible, so that the skater could control all his micromotion, as he wants. Initially, figure skating boots were high boots with a huge number of hooks. Then they got lower and lower and eventually turned into almost sneakers. The tongue also has completely different functions. Previously, it was very thin, like a decoration. Now it makes up a third of the upper part of the boot.
Skaters complain that in some models such tongue becomes the main reason for strong rubbers on the leg.
– In the place of an internal fracture, the boot begins to put strong pressure on the ankle. Accordingly, on the front side of the instep there are not even rubbers, but huge bumps and growths. This is crazy pain. Paradox: companies that produce boots for skaters are constantly trying to come up with something better, but in reality it turns out that the best is the enemy of the good. Therefore, thinking skaters always note which model was the most comfortable, so that, if necessary, it was possible to order a specific pair from the previous model range.
I know, that for Stephane Lambiel they still make three or four pairs per year of models of the 2003/2004 season, Sergei Voronov uses the same model that he skated ten years ago. Many people really think that the equipment that was in the past is much better than what is being offered to the skaters now.
I was told that many stores selling figure skating equipment in Russia started their business by buying substandard boots from manufacturers for cheap – the price wasn’t even for pair, but for weight …
– I would willingly believe it, but I have no reason to say that this is true.
Did you happen to take a boot in your hands and understand that this is substandard?
– Yes. In such cases, I try to explain to the client: if you want to be sure that your child is being properly trained, you need to have an equipment of the appropriate quality. Therefore, I highly recommend going and changing this boots until I have made the first hole in it. People who sell boots in a store sometimes probably hear my last name, and I don’t think they are enthusiastic about this. But they have a task to sell the goods, and if it doesn’t work out in Moscow, then this boots will leave for Vorkuta, Chelyabinsk, Murom, and so on. And my task is to make sure that children and adults skate on good equipment.
Ari Zakaryan once told how Tatsuki Machida broke into new pair of boots, and when he took it off at the end of the day, blood flowed from the boots. Is this the cost of the profession?
– Rather, it is an individual story of each athlete. There are people who are 100% sure of their inventory, they know exactly what model they need, skated dozens of times in it. So, they go to the ice and can do elements in new boots starting with first trainings. And there are those who are constantly experiment. The athlete heard himself something, or one of the parents said that for example Papadakis skates in such boots and blades and wins the world championships, which means that his child also should skate in such boots.
Is this a kind of masochism?
– No, this is a kind of stupidity. Just some sincerely believe that boots torments are part of the compulsory process. But it’s not right. Although many athletes like to take as tight boots as possible. Roma Kostomarov generally skated barefoot to feel the ice better. But parents, on the contrary, like to order a super-duper insole, which in their understanding should form the foot correctly. But it’s like playing basketball wearing boxing gloves.
And where is that golden mean?
– Everyone should think for himself. When I worked as a videographer with Zhanna Gromova and sharpened the blades for Ira Slutskaya for the first time, she went on the ice and cried half of the training because she could not perform a single element. Then, in tears, she admitted that blades were insanely sharp. I immediately took the appropriate tool, blunted the blade. Then I was more free in my experiments. I could cut boots, insert some metal parts into them, strengthening problem areas, repaint, change hooks ..
Many times I saw on public ice rinks how the master drives the skate into the machine and the process goes on its own. You sharpen skates by eye. Why?
– I’m not a fan of automatic machines and semiautomatic devices at all, I want to feel with my hands what exactly and why I am doing it. On the machine, the master is forced to make the whole cycle, that is, to remove a certain layer of metal for no purpose. And very quickly you begin to realize that, having sharpened the blade five times on the machine, you just need to throw it away, because the curves have become too flat. I try to do a set of the same manipulations, but very carefully.
Elizaveta Tuktamysheva does not sharpen blades at all …
– Sasha Samarin also can do without sharpening for six months. Sergei Dobrin was the same when he trained with Zhanna Gromova. I remember, we persuaded him to sharpen his blades either before Nationals or Europeans, because six months have passed since the last sharpening. I had athletes who went to sharpen their blades to the great Eduard Pliner, and the next day they returned to re-sharpen. But this does not mean that Pliner didn’t sharpen skates well, but that everyone has different requests.
When Tatiana Tarasova worked with Mao Asada in Moscow, she once asked me to come to them for a kind of referendum and help to understand what is happening with the skates. It was a very funny situation in which about a dozen people participated: Mao herself, her mother, Tarasova, translator, physical fitness coach, agent … They called to Japan, from there they said: look at the left boot. I looked and answered: yes, it seems to me that she gets dumped inside, because of this she fails flip and salchow, and besides, she can not stand on the outside edge jumping the lutz.
When I suggested trying to change the balance a little, Mao said that this could disrupt the triple axel pattern, and this jump was her signature element. In general, we called many times to Japan and vice versa, all this was translated from Japanese into Russian, from Russian into English, and in the end it was decided not to change anything for the sake of triple axel. In Japanese sense to lose it would mean to lose face.
I’m sure that you heard the discussion whether Evgenia Medvedeva should have finished the competitions in spite of the broken boot. What do you think about it?
– Evgenia could skate on such boots. She did, in fact, – in a short program. But when an athlete suddenly has some kind of situation related to his equipment … Michael Schumacher, probably, could have reached the finish line on a faulty Ferrari car if there were half a circle left. But if 30 or 60, he would simply go off the distance, realizing the futility of the effort.
In other words, was Medvedeva right refusing to skate in a free program?
– The fact is that any, even a small problem with the equipment at the level of complex elements sometimes gives an absolutely negative result. As soon as doubts arise in the athlete’s head, the entire course of motor actions is disrupted.
Zhenya is an experienced person with an iron character, who perfectly knows how to analyze. Of course, she could have done that performance and somehow make all her jumping elements with not-so-successful S-shaped landings, for which she would get “minus one”, “minus two” and would be in sixth or seventh place. Does she need it? At the Russian Nationals in ladies single skating, you cannot skate imperfectly.