“There are athletes who always go forward”: Rafael Arutyunyan about Trusova’s potential and her transition to Plushenko
Rafael Arutyunyan told why it’s a big risk for foreign specialists to take Russian skaters, refused to consider athletes’ transitions as betrayals and told how he builds the work with his skaters during pandemic.
by Elena Vaitsekhovskaya for russian.rt.com dd. 12th May, 2020
When it became known that Alexandra Trusova decided to leave the group of Eteri Tutberidze, you said that Russian skaters are very dependent on the conditions created for them and any step they take in one direction or another is considered escape. Please explain what you had in mind.
Rafael Arutyunyan: You just need to understand that all Russian athletes (and this is not only about Trusova) did not grow up on their own. Certain organizations and people invested their work, their finances in them, so any transitions are perceived so painfully in Russia. It seems to me that foreign coaches do not always realize this. They think: an athlete from Russia came, they can take him and continue to work in the same way as they work with any other skater. Although I have been living in the United States for many years and am considered an American coach, I understand this specificity very well. I believe that any transitions of Russian figure skaters first of all should be thoroughly coordinated with former coaches and with the leadership of the national figure skating federation.
That is, you can’t just leave and start a new life?
Rafael Arutyunyan: This is unreal. This is not a situation where an athlete paid for himself for many years, chose a coach, hired other specialists, who also participated in the training process, and then suddenly decided to change everything. And he changed: he hired new people with his money. In Russia, this cannot be. Until now, a lot of things exist on the principles and concepts laid in Soviet times. When our athletes start to pay for everything themselves, then they will do what they want. Although the same Eteri Tutberidze, as it seemed to me, doesn’t overreact so much as it was before.
Controversial statement. One of the group’s choreographers recently gave an interview in which he called Trusova’s transition to Evgeni Plushenko a betrayal, comparing this to a stab in the back. And he remarked: “When a man betrays, he ceases to exist for us.”
Rafael Arutyunyan: I cannot understand this at all. Why, then, none of the coaches said that Trusova betrayed her former coach Alexander Volkov when she switched to Tutberidze? It turns out that all those who come to the group from other specialists are never traitors, but become so when they leave? This is even funny. In my opinion, you can’t do that. When you take an athlete, say thanks to the one who prepared him for you. And wish a good luck when he leaves you.
As soon as some talented Russian girl leaves her coach, your name is immediately called as a likely mentor. Did the story of Trusova’s transition somehow concern you?
Rafael Arutyunyan: I almost always relate to such stories. Athletes apply often enough, including Russian athletes. But taking into account all that I have already said, I try to refuse some offers right away, because I don’t want to get involved. When I start working with a skater, I am interested in everything: how and where the child grew up, what he aspires to, how he is used to train. I understand a foreign skater quite well in this regard, but I don’t imagine how to work with a Russian athlete, with his parents. Because they grew up in other conditions, where they were provided with ice for free, where there was a group of coaches who worked with them from morning to evening, as I myself did when I lived in Russia. And now, for example with Nathan Chen, I work on an equal footing, we are more like partners.
But you had a period of quite serious confrontation with the family of this skater, if I am not mistaken.
Rafael Arutyunyan: Yes. At the same time, strangely enough, I always perfectly understood the position of Nathan’s mother. She at one time put a lot of effort into making her son a real skater. In the West there is no centralized training system, and its absence must be compensated by something else. In the case of Nathan, it turned out to be his mom, in the case of Michelle Kwan – dad, and so on. Therefore, I always tried to respect the fact that Chen’s mother has her own view on his preparation, even though she takes steps that I, as a coach, do not like. The time has come, and Chen’s mother herself said to me: “You did for him what no one else could do.”
So, it’s all about coaching patience?
Rafael Arutyunyan: You can say so. I just endured some things, and now an adult guy listens to me, catches every word, fulfills all my requirements. But this is not blind submission, but relations at some completely different level of trust and respect for each other.
Did Chen manage to solve issues related to academic leave at Yale?
Rafael Arutyunyan: Yes, he had the last exam just the other day and said: “That’s it, I finished my studies, now I can completely focus on work.” Nathan had already returned to California, rented an apartment and started training. Now I’m trying to arrange a separate ice for us when the ice rink opens.
We have good conditions: five to six people on the ice. But sometimes you want to be able to work separately, as they say in America, face to face. I want to do something really good, to turn Chen into an elite skater.
With regard to the man who won all the top titles, except the Olympic, it sounds interesting …
Rafael Arutyunyan: I get your irony, but many details can be improved, developed in all aspects. Not so long ago I talked about this with Nathan and honestly said that I don’t like a lot of things in his skating.
And what was the reaction?
Rafael Arutyunyan: He answered: “Me too.” So, we plan to do a lot of things. Go to some dance schools, try new programs, come up with some new element, increase the complexity. We watched all his performances from the last two world championships and came to the conclusion that the second one turned out to be weaker than the first. Although, in fact, a man won.
I want to return to the Trusova theme, because with her fantastic desire for complexity, she strongly reminds me of your skater. After her transition to Evgeni Plushenko, several experts immediately expressed the opinion that, despite having different quadruple jumps, Sasha has a huge number of shortcomings: skating skills, spins…
Rafael Arutyunyan: Remind me, what place did Trusova take at the senior Grand Prix final?
Rafael Arutyunyan: That is, do I understand correctly: we are now talking about the fact that the girl became the third in the Grand Prix Final, and then, when she decided to change her coach, she suddenly started to have shortcomings?
Agree, when the skater has so many quads in the program (and this is not Nathan Chen), the program turns into skating from jump to jump. After all, you yourself have repeatedly said that when the program is oversaturated with jumps, there is simply no time left for everything else.
Rafael Arutyunyan: This is so, but let’s reason logically: you created a certain value system, paid for it, the athlete fulfilled all your requirements, became the third, and now we are starting to say that he is skating wrong? Well then, make a change to your existing system. But I do not understand when someone undertakes to criticize an athlete for playing according to the rules that we have.
If you were in the place of the Trusova’s coach, would you think of how to save five quadruple jumps in a free program, or would you try to convince the athlete that it is in her interests to make the program simpler?
Rafael Arutyunyan: The things is that even if Sasha in her free program has not five quads, but three, this is already a lot for the girl. Especially when you know that with age all the girls begin to jump less. I am 100% convinced that keeping such a number of quadruples will be very difficult. Therefore, it is necessary to work on skating, improving technique, skating skills, spinning, mechanics of jumping, even if a person knows how to jump. When you don’t do this every day, your skills begin to go away very quickly. The same Nathan knows how to jump all quads, except for the axel, but he works on them every day.
When Trusova became the third in the Grand Prix Final, having previously won both of her stages and then qualified for the main competitions at the Russian Nationals, the mother of one of the athletes from the Tutberidze group told me: “Sasha managed to overcome the enormous psychological barrier, and her coaches (thanks to her) – also. She is the first child who, on her own initiative, tried a quad jump only because she really wanted it. The quadruples have been forbidden for everyone else for a long time, because the coaches were afraid of injuries. Trusova, on the other hand, began to jump the first quadruple as a child, and only then, after her, everyone else began to try it.”
Rafael Arutyunyan: This motivation played a role. I don’t know, Sasha herself was so motivated or her parents, but she wanted to do five quadruple jumps in the program and did it. In principle, Nathan once behaved exactly the same: I want – I will! Well, his mother also wanted this, and although I tried to contain a completely unjustified risk, I realized that progress is progress and there is nothing to be done. Another question is that we must be able to weigh everything. Nobody has canceled the tactics in our sport, like in football, where everyone knows how to play in different positions, everyone runs well, but not everyone goes on the attack.
If Trusova or Nathan had been more professional as athletes at one time, they probably would have agreed that tactics should be used in some situations: today two jumps, tomorrow three and so on. But they are both just super-motivated people who, without looking back, go forward. And you won’t do anything about it. So, the coach just needs to stand next and help with all his might.
In your opinion, how much Trusova’s technique allow her to develop in jumps?
Rafael Arutyunyan: She, by the way, has a good technique. I can’t say that everything is just super, but Sasha jumps quite well. You can work with her and she herself is a very demanding person, motivated and wants to jump a lot. This is a very fertile ground for the coach.
As a professional athlete, I understand another thing: if the girls from Chrustalny make 50 jumps in 40 minutes at the official practices of the main competition, it means that they jump much more during regular training and their they have much stronger muscle memory than those who jumps not so intense. In such cases, re-train an athlete as he grows up and even just fix some technical flaws becomes an incredibly difficult task.
Rafael Arutyunyan: I agree. I will give simple statistics: 100 jumps in one training session are 200 jumps per day, 1200 jumps per week, almost 5000 per month and about 50 thousand, or even more, per year. And all these girls have been skating in this mode for five or six years. Then such an athlete comes to you, you begin to work with her, but from all sides you hear “She’s been training with you for six months, but nothing has changed.”
Guys, for six months you can, relatively speaking, only ground the canvas on which you want to write something. Therefore, when I say that I need two years to see at least some changes in my athlete, I do not just call this figure. Two years are spent only on laying a new muscle memory. And only then can you start talking about some new technique and consistency.
It turns out that Brian Orser performs a feat working with Evgenia Medvedeva?
Rafael Arutyunyan: Of course. He has accomplished the feat already when he agreed to train her. I think, only Orser and could afford that.
Do you think that if the Canadian knew about the risks that we are talking about, he would have refused?
Rafael Arutyunyan: I definitely can’t say this.
How is your work built in the context of the coronavirus pandemic?
Rafael Arutyunyan: We don’t have a quarantine, so Chen returned to Los Angeles without any problems. A round-trip flight now costs $ 50, and this is actually three hours of flight. We train in the park or on the beach, which is also not prohibited, we do two workouts a day. In the morning, stretching, then physical training, strength and special training. Nathan jumps, I watch this from a distance, make adjustments. In the same way we work with Mariah Bell, Vera and Nadezhda Kanaeva work with the rest of my athletes.
I have heard more than once that doing a large number of jumps not on ice, but on a hard surface is dangerous for the legs.
Rafael Arutyunyan: Yes. Even high jumpers, as far as I know, jump only twice a week, the rest of the time they train muscles. When Nathan was injured two years before the Olympics, he was not allowed to go on the ice for a very long time even after everything had healed. Then we worked very hard to get stronger physically, to become stronger before starting to jump. And just when all this work was completed, Chen easily mastered the quadruple lutz and quadruple flip. Now we jump very carefully and do it only when I am present at the training session, that is, under strict control. On the rest of the days, Nathan is involved in physical training, continues to work on strengthening the muscles.
Do you already have any perspective on resuming training on the ice?
Rafael Arutyunyan: In the near future it is planned to open a skating rink for those who are professionally involved in sports, and to allow three or four people on the ice. These measures actually seem to me to be reinsurance: figure skating is not hockey, there is no contact, especially if you control this. With public skating, it’s more difficult, I don’t think such sessions will resume soon.
Are you not concerned about the psychological state of your athletes in connection with the pandemic?
Rafael Arutyunyan: No, although the general uncertainty is a bit confusing. This condition, when you understand that you have nowhere to go and nothing to do greatly relaxes both the athlete and the coach. On the other hand, only with the beginning of all the events I suddenly realized to what extent I was tired for 45 years of work. All the while Nathan was taking exams at the university, I was lying at home and thought: how great it is to do nothing. I have never thought that it’s so cool!