“The press says that Tutberidze cripples skaters, that for one star there are 30-40 rejected, crippled athletes? This is the absolute truth.” Interview with former Ukrainian coach Valentin Nikolaev

Posted on 2022-10-12 • 3 comments


Interview with Valentin Nikolaev, coach of Olympic Champion Oksana Baiul. About prospects of Ukrainian figure skating, Viktor Petrenko’s participation in Navka’s shows- and dubious methods of Eteri Tutberidze.

source: Dumskaya dd. 10 October 2022

Figure skating has long ceased to be just a sport. The Russian Federation, before its athletes were suspended from international competitions, used the “figure skating” as its own, so to speak, brand – to promote the image of a great sports power. And quite successfully, we must say.

Alas, Ukraine, despite the presence of strong figure skating schools, can not boast of success in this field now. And the reason is not only in the eight-year war.

“Dumskaya” decided to find out what was the reason, and talked with one of the outstanding mentors of the Odesa school, Honored Coach of the USSR Valentin Nikolaev. Unfortunately (for us), this extraordinary person has been living in the USA for the last two decades, so we communicated with him through the Facebook messenger.

78-year-old Valentin Nikolaev is a symbolic personality in many respects, even legendary for Ukrainian sports. He took part in the preparation of the first Ukrainian Olympic champion Oksana Baiul and junior world champion Vyacheslav Zagorodniuk. Intellectual, great conversationalist, insightful and honest, not shy in expressions.

Valentin Alekseevich does not forget about Ukraine: he anxiously follows the situation on the fronts and, to the best of his ability, helps the Army financially. Volunteer…

Are there any prospects for Ukrainian figure skating? How to relate to the act of the Olympic champion, Ukrainian and Odesa resident Viktor Petrenko, who, at the height of the armed aggression of Russia against his homeland, performed in Sochi for some ridiculous money – according to rumors, almost for $ 500? Is it possible to prepare champions without turning the selection process into an inhuman conveyor, as some Russian coaches do? Does humanity really need the sport of high achievements? About this and much more Valentin Nikolaev spoke in an interview.

To be honest, we did not want to ask this question, but our readers will certainly have it. You are personally acquainted with the Olympic champion Viktor Petrenko. Recently, he has made a scandal – he performed in a show organized by the wife of the speaker of the Russian dictator Putin, Tatiana Navka, in Sochi. How did you react to this move?

Valentin Nikolaev: Viktor is 53 years old. Excuse me, I’m not very interested in judging the act of a person who is 53 years old. On the one hand, I wouldn’t do that. On the other hand, I would have never been invited to the Peskov’s wife show. That’s a very difficult question. On the one hand, Viktor had to understand that he is a public person, on the other hand, as an ordinary person … We can say: “Wait, but a million Ukrainians continue to work in Russia.” That is a very slippery topic. I do not like to tell a lie, but I also do not want to avoid the question. Everyone chooses his own path!

We know that you are helping the Ukrainian army, which is fighting the aggressor…

Valentin Nikolaev: Let’s not talk about my personal help, because it’s a drop in the ocean. It’s just that my wife organized with the help of people – not only from Ukraine, but also from other countries of the former Soviet Union – a movement, an entire organization that collects help. And it’s not at the level of a hundred dollars. To send one container to Ukraine, you need 15-17 thousand dollars. Winter is coming, they will collect thermal underwear, special insoles for shoes, everything that can be found here and that is freely available. Yes, not everything can be purchased, and oddly enough, with all the support in America, everything is very strictly regulated. Volunteers can’t use military delivery vehicles. It is immpossible. Here the military has nothing to do with civilian volunteers. Therefore, civilians try their best themselves. As for me, Olga Mudrak and I, we organized gala performances at our skating rink with the collection of money for Ukraine, Ukrainian children. We had one performance, we collected 11 and a half thousand, also some money. We sent this money directly to the accounts that we had at our disposal. And the collection to help the Ukrainian army continues all the time.

You left for the USA, if I am not mistaken, in 1994.

Valentin Nikolaev: No, this is Galina Zmievskaya (an outstanding Odessa coach who raised Viktor Petrenko and Oksana Baiul, as well as several foreign champions – Ed.) Left after the 1994 Olympics. I left on September 9, 1997, when I got the news that the skating rink in Odessa was closed.

I was not going to go anywhere, there was no need for that, at that time I was the head coach of the Ukrainian national team in single skating, I was quite comfortable. Yes, the salary was not so big, but in the summer I spent several weeks every year on large-scale international summer camps in Scandinavia, this money was enough for my family to live for a year and not think about anything. Therefore, there was no need to leave, although there were a lot of offers. For example, they invited me to Germany as a head coach, in Pittsburgh they wanted to build a skating rink specially for me. But everything suited me at home, in Odessa. I was the leader of our, Odesa, school, and I was not going to leave.

But it turned out differently. I was at a training camp in Finland, called home, asked my wife to call the sports committee and find out when there would be ice in Odesa. So I would come when the ice appears. Three days later, my wife called and told me that the Sports Palace as a base for figure skating was closed and now it’s a disco club. After that, I began to look for options – no, not to continue my career, we needed to prepare for the Olympic Games. 1998 was coming, the year of the Winter Olympics. Just at that time, when I was in Finland, Tamara Moskvina, a St. Petersburg coach, worked there with her athletes. I ask her: “Tamara, is it possible to skate somewhere before the Olympics?” She says, “Give me five days,” and five days later she says, “Will you go to Richmond?” What difference does it make to me? There are as many Richmonds in the USA as there were Lenin streets in the USSR, I found some Richmond on the map and ordered tickets to New York. Tamara says: no, we don’t need to go to New York, we need to go to Washington… That’s how I moved.

And there was no desire to return? Still figure skating in Ukraine is not completely dead.

Valentin Nikolaev: The point is not whether it has not died or not… Well, how to explain it to you. Let’s start from the beginning. The Odesa school of figure skating has existed for quite a long time, and it was the best not only in the Soviet Union – it was the best in the world. There are no analogues of such a school anymore, even the famous Tutberidze school, with all its results, it is not an analogue of the Odesa school, because in Odesa 99.9% of the athletes who skated there were local athletes. The only exception is Oksana Baiul, she is from Dnepropetrovsk (Dnipro, – Ed.). All the rest are local athletes, we never invited anyone from anywhere, we had a wonderful base, I mean not a technical, but a quantitative base of athletes. We had hundreds of beginner figure skaters every year.

It was like the base of a pyramid where the roles were distributed among the coaches in a certain way, and then, as a result of transitional exams, tests, after four years of classes, selection began.

The selection was carried out every year, plus, if someone did not pass, then this did not mean that he was expelled from school, he just got into a group where the conditions were slightly worse than in the main group, and if after a year he passed tests successfully, then he could catch up with his peers.

And within this system, the main ones were not the coaches, the main ones were the managers. The director of the school, the methodologist, the head teacher, people who had enough will to bring the coaching staff to senses, not to allow squabbles, although they were also present, you can’t do anything about it.

What is the phenomenon of the Odesa school connected with? With the people who organized it all, or is there something in the Odesa region that allowed such a galaxy of talented skaters to grow up?

Valentin Nikolaev: Well, you see, no matter how brilliant the manager and coach are, if there are no talented children, nothing will come of it. And what good children are, they are children from their parents. And what kind of parents are in Odesa, it does not matter whether they are in the first generation or in the fifth generation from Odessa, they are used to independent judgments, they are used to feeling quite free. The attitude to life in Odesa and the attitude to life in the rest of the Union, especially in its Russian part, are completely different. I traveled quite a lot in competitions and saw these pale children, crushed by complexes. Odesa children are much more liberated, and this is where this phenomenon comes from.

But Odesa is a southern city. It’s not like in Finland, Sweden, Norway, Canada, where there are such conditions when children don’t part with skates from an early age …

Valentin Nikolaev: Why does this surprise you? In Finland, Sweden, Norway, in the northern cities there is no figure skating, they mostly have hockey, they have skis, but there is no figure skating in the sense that we are talking about. Look at any protocols of World championships, some junior competitions. A few years ago, Finnish girls showed up in every competition, but only because the federation got down to business there, brought the coaches to their senses, built a chain of some kind of work, and forced them not to drag students from each other. And then the leadership of the federation changed, and everything went down the drain. This doesn’t depend of geographic location. The fact is that figure skating is all inside, not outside. The fact that you skate on a pond somewhere in Stockholm will not make you a better skater than if you skate on a small skating rink in Odesa. It’s not related in any way. Genetics have nothing to do with it.

So it’s not the same as running in Kenya or football in Brazil?

Valentin Nikolaev: No, of course not, although, of course, running in Kenya, football in Brazil – what is it all based on? On a huge number of people involved, We can’t say that everyone playing on the Copacabana beach is Pele, you can’t say so. Pele appears one in a few million. Any result is achieved through the system. It is clear even at the philistine level that a system even with mistakes is better than no system at all. At the initial stage, there should be a fairly large amount of mass skating. Then after some time, as a result of coaching, methodical work, selection work, a large number of tests, competitive work, the best of the best remain. And these best of the best getting results. And often these best of the best are so talented that the coach does not really affect the result. This happens too! It’s very easy for a coach to get dizzy. I also had it at one time. Vasya Eremenko skated with us (Vasily Eremenko, Ukrainian figure skater, world champion among juniors in 1991). This is a talent that I have never seen among other people, a talent from God. One of the world’s first performers of the quadruple jump. In Chelyabinsk, Vasya disrupted the training of the Chinese: he jumped a quadruple toe loop, a quadruple flip, a quadruple lutz. Chinese athletes bowed for ten minutes!

When I worked with Eremenko, I used some technical methods, I sincerely believed that Valya Nikolaev was a genius (laughs) … And then a thought came to me that anyone can coach Vasya, his body will still find the correct position in the air. Another thing is that if a more or less competent coach is with him, then this result will be faster. And the reliability of this result will be high. And if there is a random person, then it will take a little longer to achieve the result. That’s what the system is. And if we also build a second system into this system, a system of relationships between coaches, so that not everyone is duke …

Look, we have gathered a huge number of dukes, say, in a dukness. What do you need to get results? We need a unifying force, we need a king. It cannot be the head of the federation, it can only be the head of the school. And the task of the head of the school is to find the leader of the school, a real leader, technically educated, trained, and give him the opportunity to work with people as he sees fit. To have assistants. And If the assistants start to work better than the leader, he can be changed. This is not a party leader!

And how are things going in Russia? Yes, this is our enemy, yes, the Russian Federation is now practically cut off from world sports, but, nevertheless, in figure skating, we have to admit it, it is a world leader.

Valentin Nikolaev: They have very rich sponsors from the federation, a rich sponsor from the sports committee, they also have centralized funding.

Well, yes, this is a national sport and a source of pride …

Valentin Nikolaev: Stop, stop, stop. Before it became a pride, it was already well funded. Exactly the same as it was in Odesa. None of the parents paid for the training of Vitya Petrenko out of their own pocket. It was all paid for by the state. It was all state money, which was distributed depending on the results. As long as centralized financing existed, there were no particular problems. Now in Russia it exists at the level of sponsorship, I don’t know the details, but in any case, there is quite a powerful funding.

Next, the number of ice rinks. When Galina Zmievskaya and I started working in the Soviet Union, there were 120 full-sized venues in the huge country. At the same time, there were 34 skating rinks in and around Chicago. As a result, Soviet figure skating strayed into several centers. Plus, Moscow has never been friendly towards the periphery. Then, when the Union collapsed, the same thing happened to Kyiv. Kyiv has never been friendly towards the periphery. The Kyiv school, Kiev figure skating for many years existed due to the work of the Dnipropetrovsk and Odesa schools. They didn’t prepare anything themselves. So they don’t have much of a phenomenon. What is Tutberidze like? Tutberidze is a tough general manager, she is not a top-class coach. Serezha Dudakov, a very competent technical coach, works with her. Eteri has built a rigid discipline in her school, that’s all.

The press criticized Tutberidze a lot because of the attitude towards girls. They say that she cripples them, that for one star there are 30-40 rejected, crippled athletes, what do you say about this?

Valentin Nikolaev: And this is the absolute truth. I don’t like the system she uses. The same system was used by Stanislav Zhuk, the world famous coach, whose percentage of rejects, that is, injured athletes, was unusually high. There is an impression that in front of Tutberidze, as well as once in front of Zhuk, there is an reinforced embrasure of a certain size, on which is written “Olympic and World Championships gold medals.” And a body is pushed through this embrasure. What falls on this side, they don’t care! This is not even a mentality, this is the specificity of the attitude towards sports as a means …

Of propaganda?

Valentin Nikolaev: No, of course not. I assure you that neither Tutberidze nor Dudakov think about propaganda, no one, being on the ice, thinks about competitions as an element of politics! How it’s all built? They gather to their school all the talented children they can find. Among these most talented children, the most severe selection is carried out immediately, and then from the remaining ones someone will survive. Why is this happening? Sport in Russia today is not a way of propaganda, it is a way for people, parents to satisfy their vanity. Let’s say that earlier in the Soviet Union it was a way to travel abroad. In America, basketball and boxing for what? It was developed among African Americans, not because they are tall and jump well, but because for them it was the only way to break out into a brighter life. Another thing is that no one thinks that one out of millions reaches this bright life. And winning the Olympics is much harder than winning the lottery.

Now in society there is a big discussion about the sport of the highest achievements. Does humanity need it at all? After all, it has nothing to do with health, it often ends for an athlete even with a disability.

And the second. Does the state need to finance sports of highest achievements? In the United States, if I am not mistaken, the state does not spend money on sports, this is an exclusively private matter.

Valentin Nikolaev: Yes, the state does not participate in sports in any way here. There are certain disciplines in the public school that are supported by the local budget. This is mainly American football, baseball, athletics, basketball, volleyball. This is supported at the school level, but not all. For example, the US national women’s volleyball team, one of the best teams in the world, does not have state support. And while in America there is no professional volleyball league. Everything is at the university level. No, the state does not intervene in this matter, but the sponsorship movement is very developed here, and as for Figure Skating, this is one of the richest federations in the world. It has a fairly large number of sponsors, plus a huge number of coaches pay money to the federation too. Let’s say I pay for various papers related to coaching about $ 700 a year. Of course, this is a drop in the ocean, but you can make a trickle out of drops.

Therefore, with regard to the sport of the highest achievements, we did not finish that topic, in the Soviet Union there were 2 directions. This is the direction of Stanislav Zhuk, this is to get in line and march. And the direction of Igor Borisovich Moskvin, in which the coach-athlete relationship was built on human relationships. Therefore, this approach is much closer to me and that is why Moskvin did not have a huge amount of injuries. We cannot cancel the sport of highest achievements because it is human nature to compete. We won’t go anywhere from this. It just needs to be not one-sided. For all the time that the Zmievskaya Nikolaev group existed, with all its results, and we worked together for 12 years, we had only one injury, which was to some extent associated with coaching negligence. Only one injury, which we missed, did not notice in time. During all this time. With a huge number of children and fairly high results.

You are talking about different approaches, do I understand correctly that the form of mentorship is closer to you, not the corporation that Eteri Tutberidze built?

Valentin Nikolaev: Let’s take Japanese corporations as an example. How are they so different from the rest of the world? The Japanese corporation is built on the principle of a family. What is family? There are ten children in the family, one is an idiot, another is talented, the third is crippled, the fourth is underdeveloped. Which of these children should be thrown out of the family? Nobody! This is what the principles of the Japanese corporation are based on. When a person rises through the ranks, he gets to some level above which he cannot rise in terms of his mental and technical abilities, he is taken to the so-called outer circle. He has the same salary, but he already ceases to influence the company’s activities in the future. He doesn’t advance to the next level. But they don’t throw him away. There is no unemployment in Japan. They are worse, better, but they keep everyone. This is also a corporation. And such a scheme, such a corporation worked in an Odesa school! What is the so-called outer circle? These are groups that instead of 10 hours of ice a week have let’s say seven, or not the most convenient schedule, but at the same time they were not thrown anywhere, they continued to work. We could expel an athlete from school only for some extremely bad deeds.


Related topics: ,

3 Responses to ““The press says that Tutberidze cripples skaters, that for one star there are 30-40 rejected, crippled athletes? This is the absolute truth.” Interview with former Ukrainian coach Valentin Nikolaev”

  1. Vladimir says:

    He didn’t control what she does off the ice, he is responsible for what she did on the ice when she was under his tutelage. You’re not making any sense.

    The results speak for themselves. They got an OGM for both a man and a woman. Almost no male skaters can survive Tutberidze, because the entire premise of their training methods are based on pushing prepubescent female bodies as far as possible to race towards Worlds or Olympics and then replace them with the next best thing.

    The boys all break before they can peak. I was really rooting for Pitkeev, too :-(

  2. Jacko Man says:

    To be prone to injuries, let alone crippled, an athlete had to jump 100-200 triples a day. The youngest stars are Petrosian, Akatyeva and Dvoeglazova. That means TT created and kicked out at least 90 triples ready skaters. Problem is, TT dont have the time or resources to do that.

  3. Václav Sedláček says:

    So the coach of a skater who literally drunk her brain out of her head feels entitled to judge. And he obviously has not the most basic knowledge what he talks about. This can’t be a piece of fiction :)))

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.