“We were upset that there would be no Russian girls. We expected that with a strengthened short program we would try to compete with them.” Yulia Kuznetsova, coach of World Junior Champion Isabeau Levito
Interview with Yulia Kuznetsova, coach of World Junior Champion Isabeau Levito. About about Isabeau’s path to gold, the American training system and the attitude to ultra-c elements in women’s single skating.
source: sport24.ru dd. 12th May 2022 by Anastasiia Loginova
Tell us about your path in figure skating.
Yulia Kuznetsova: I trained at CSKA, my maiden name is Myskina. I began to do pair skating in the group of Stanislav Leonovich. After my career ended, I left for the Disney On Ice show with a partner who was recommended to me by my coach. We got married, we have a child. Therefore, I have been coaching in the USA since 2003.
How long haven’t you been in Russia?
Yulia Kuznetsova: I fly every year. My parents are in Moscow.
You have a very large coaching team. How did it get together?
Yulia Kuznetsova: It so happened that at our rink, where I work, there were always Russians. First, there was Evgeni Platov. He coached his English pairs Sinead Kerr/John Kerr, Penny Coomes/Nicholas Buckland and Olivia Smart/Joseph Buckland. Since I had other skaters, I used to ask him for help, Platov took them for additional skating lessons. So, we have good sports relations. Then Evgeni had Otar Dzhaparidze, who skated with Angelina Telegina. When Isabeau was little, I asked him to work with her on skating skills.
In the US, we have a private system, there are no group lessons. It’s like extra lessons in Russia. I had lessons with Isabeau for only half an hour a day, I needed her to have an extra lessons with someone. I asked Otar, because he is young, he is interested in everything. Isabeau was small, only five years old. I even, one might say, was ashamed to ask Zhenya Platov (laughs). Otar Japaridze started helping me with her. What Isabeau has now is a great work of three people – me, my husband Slava Kuznetsov and Otar. Zhenya Platov helped us a lot with his personal experience and advice.
Do you work with Platov now?
Yulia Kuznetsova: We are going to visit him in June. Zhenya and I do not cooperate on a permanent basis. Like in Russia, when you have a certain coaching staff, but you turn to other choreographers to give you ideas and suggestions, to give you professional advice. In August we plan to invite him to our place. About once every two months he communicates with us, looks at Isabeau, adds some things and corrects with a professional look of an ice dancer.
How popular is figure skating in the US?
Yulia Kuznetsova: Not as much as in Russia. Absolutely not, much less. Hockey, American football, basketball, baseball are popular here. Figure skating is secondary.
After the victories of Nathan Chen, did they start bring children to the rinks more often?
Yulia Kuznetsova: Certainly. After the Olympics, when Nathan won, kids started to come. God blesses that there were more boys, because boys are a luxury. Basically, all the boys go to hockey. I hope there will be more of them in figure skating after the Olympics. Thanks to Nathan Chen and Rafael Arutyunyan for a great work with him.
Are there many Russian children?
Yulia Kuznetsova: Not so much. I came across Russian girls, but somehow it didn’t work out with them. Russian boys go to hockey like my son.
How expensive is figure skating in the US?
Yulia Kuznetsova: Expensive. But there is a private system of education everywhere, even in hockey. Of course, this is a team game, but some additional lessons are needed to match the level. Same in figure skating. But in figure skating there are no group lessons, like in CSKA, Spartak or Dynamo, only private lessons. I grew up in CSKA, but I have never trained personally, only in groups. We tried to make some groups and combine children by level, but the maximum that I can gather is two or three people together. If I take three skaters, then I take more ice, and this is already inconvenient for other private coaches. It’s not customary to do so here.
An hour of ice costs an average of $425, which is the minimum price. The average coach at the moment is $80 an hour. Star coaches charge $150-$180. New York is expensive. The system of group lessons in Russia is better developed, so our girls, of course, are on top.
Do the athletes pay for the ice themselves?
Yulia Kuznetsova: In figure skating it turns out cheaper. A maximum of 26 people can be on the ice, so the average is $ 23 per hour at the rinks.
Is the ice booked all day?
Yulia Kuznetsova: There is no such thing here. Hockey players have everything scheduled, because there are twice as many of them as figure skaters. When two teams come, there are 40 people on the ice at once. Skaters usually don’t have much ice, it’s limited. The most unfavorable time is school time, when all children study. It might cost a little less. The amount of people is large, sometimes it is not very convenient to train. We choose the most morning hours, when there are fewer people. Not 25 people, but 15-20.
Do you manage to make good money as a coach?
Yulia Kuznetsova: I have my own price tag, it does not change. I have to give something to the rink, of course. The more I work, the more I earn. The rink doesn’t pay me.
What is your usual day?
Yulia Kuznetsova: At the moment I work all day – both at favorable hours and at unfavorable ones. Approximately from 6.30-7 am, depending on the day. Ice for skaters does not differ, the highest level or the lowest. In Russia, everything is clear – the first sports category, the second sports category, masters of sports and so on. There is a “free style” – ice for skaters. From 6.30 to 9.30 – the first ice, from 9.45 to 12.00 – the next one, then from 12.45 to 17.00 – another ice. I look at where the kids are, where they are not, where to put Isabeau, where to work with other clients, when I can have the general physical training. The rink has ice before hockey, it starts at 17.30. Up to this point, I can walk from one rink to another. I have different clients all day long – from babies who are 3-4 years old to grandmothers 67-70 years old. Isabeau has ice from 8.15 to 9.00, then I leave the ice and have general physical training. Then from 11.15 to 12.00, then other clients.
It turns out that you are fully leading the athletes?
Yulia Kuznetsova: I am responsible for all parts of trainings only for my athletes. All my students are mine. I have been working at the skating rink for 18 years, the rink does not prevent me from holding physical training at a time convenient for the athletes. I conduct the physical training myself, the choreography – Zhanna Palagina, who worked with Evgeni Platov. She has her own hours, which I give her to work with my athletes and she makes her schedule according to it.
How did you start working with Isabeau?
Yulia Kuznetsova: When Isabeau came to the group lesson, she was three years old. It so happened that she came to me, although there were many coaches. We have trial classes for children, we are given beginner groups. I had a group of kids. She was assigned to another group, but for some reason she came to me as best she could and stopped next to me. Well ok, let’s go. Isabeau fell, got up, like all small children usually do on ice. Then she was assigned to another group, but she was crying, and her mother asked to come back to me. So she has been with me in the group since the age of three.
At the age of four, I took her for an individual lessons for a couple of days, her mother asked me to try to do a program. I was afraid that she would not remember anything, she was still little. But she remembered. Learned the best we could. At the age of four years and two months, Isabeau was already competing at her first competitions at our skating rink. There is even a video of her skating, I took her in my arms from the ice (laughs).
This year, Isabeau made a successful debut at the international level – two medals at the junior Grand Prix, getting into the Final, winning the World Junior Championships. What do you think about her performance?
Yulia Kuznetsova: The debut was successful for her. Of course, she could skate a little better in the free program at the World Junior Championships, I’m not entirely happy with the second half. But she is the world champion – and for her this is a title. She has achieved the title, and that’s already good. Of course, I’m satisfied. I think that we did well with her, we successfully passed the first step of the junior level. Isabeau will start next season at the senior level by American standards, as she has already skated at the US Nationals and now must compete as a senior. Let’s see how she will pass this step according to the American system, what our bosses will tell us and what we will do in junior international competitions. She is 15 years old, she can compete in seniors at the international level, but we have not been told for sure yet. Probably, we will prepare for two levels, and then see how it goes. We’ll be ready for anything.
Did you expect medals at the US Nationals?
Yulia Kuznetsova: To be honest, I didn’t think about it. Isabeau did not perform at her maximum at the US Nationals. She had an age related problem with her leg. When girls grow up, this happen for many – Osgood-Schlatter disease, a disease of the periosteum. Before the junior Grand Prix final, it suddenly happened to her. The girl worked quite calmly, we were preparing for the competitions. One day she came and said: “I can’t jump, it hurts me.” She didn’t fall, we didn’t overload, we didn’t learn anything new. I ask: “Why can’t you jump?” Answer: “I can’t, it hurts.” We decided to take a break for a couple of days and see how it goes. After that, she comes, and it got even worse. The right leg does not work at all, it hurts. Three weeks before the Grand Prix Final, we took a complete break and did an MRI, which showed age-related changes in the periosteum.
She did not have a stress fracture, but they found damage caused by increased load (stress reaction – ed). The girl is growing, the bones have grown, but the muscles have not grown enough yet. She didn’t skate for three weeks, she didn’t jump for six weeks. She started jumping only five weeks before the US Nationals – double axel, Lutz, triple salchow a little. A maximum of 10-15 jumps per day, and this is five weeks before the competitions.
When we approached the American Nationals, we could not take painkillers or other medicines, we had to act very carefully. It was very difficult for her. We didn’t count on the lutz-loop at all, which she tried in the short program. We did not expect that she would reach the end of the free program, because five weeks for preparation is very little. Any coach will say that this is impossible. To be honest, I didn’t expect anything. Let it be as it may, and then we’ll see. The main thing is to start, to move after the injury. In both programs at the US Nationals, she made a little mistake, but she was lucky – she is a bronze medalist, this is also a title. From the first attempt – very good. I did not hope at all and prayed that she would endure on adrenaline what she had to endure. I just let go of the situation – we will train and build up what we missed.
Whose idea was it to choreograph Tchaikovsky’s “Russian Dance” for the free program?
Yulia Kuznetsova: All programs are my ideas. Every day I drive a car and think what and how to do. What for the next season, how it will be better and what the audience will like. “Russian dance” is also my idea. Tchaikovsky, “Swan Lake” is a classic. I am a man of the old school, I love all this very much. This music has been in my head for a long time, but there was no idea – whom and how to choreograph it. A year ago, when she won the US Junior Nationals, Isabeau personally got many offers from other choreographers. Benoit Richaud texted her, a French choreographer. She told me that there are such proposals. I told her: “Listen to this music.” Gave her “Swan” and “Russian dance”. How to explain … I am a mother myself, and Isabeau has been with me since childhood. When I turn on “Russian Dance”, her eyes lit up, she began to move, dance something, jump. We then sat in the hotel complex – Isabeau, her mother and I. For me, as a coach who has been leading her since the age of three, it became clear that we found it.
There was a lot of music offered, somewhere around 15-16 options – classics, operettas, operas, modern. And here she liked the music. Eyes are burning, she’s smiling. She has been growing up with Russian coaches since childhood, she understands music and culture. We talked a lot with her about it, showed her the video. If we don’t know something, then we take encyclopedia and read the history of the work, I explain it to her. We try to present each work in such a way that she understands what she is skating, what is the idea of the program, what is the meaning. She liked this program – the idea, the music. I showed our leading ballerinas, she watches ballet a lot. We decided that since she was so interested, we should try. And so it happened.
At the junior Grand Prix, Isabeau spoke to our girls, which surprised them very much. What language do you communicate with her?
Yulia Kuznetsova: We speak English at the rink. When we train, somewhere around 70% is English. But there are moments when we speak Russian. She understands some things – “turn on music”, “well done”, “you did it well”. She can say: “I want more, I will go, I will.” This means that she will try again. If you speak Russian to her, she will look at me and ask me to translate for her. In Austria, with Sofia Muraviova and Nastya Zinina, she was alone and began to talk with Sofia. I was far away, they were on the ice, as medalists. She began to use her brain and recalled what she was taught at the rink (laughs). She began to tell them what she remembers. Then, of course, she already called me to translate. But that’s ok, communicated. During the award ceremony, then they did some kind of dance and posted on social networks. Isabeau is a sociable girl, very calm, conscientious, diligent. Not always dutiful, of course, but I don’t think that all stars are dutiful.
In early March, the ISU suspended Russian skaters from participating in competitions. Isabeau went to the Junior Worlds as a favorite. Did it add nerves?
Yulia Kuznetsova: Of course, we were upset that there would be no Russian girls. Russian girls push us forward. We expected that with our strengthened short program we would try to compete with the Russians, because we had a lutz-loop planned in the second half, which she performed quite consistent and clean in training. We were very unhappy that the Russian girls were withdrawn. It didn’t really make it more nervous for her, because I told her that we would try to score the same points that they score. It doesn’t matter who will perform what elements. I told her so: “You will do what we trained for. Let’s hope you skate clean. Let’s look at the scores and compare ourselves with the top figure skaters from Russia.” This is how we train. She did well at the World Junior Championships. In the free program, I was a little worried, but I think everyone was worried there. I expected that she would skate the free program a little more confidently, but it’s ok. This is an experience.
In your opinion, how fair is the suspension of Russian skaters?
Yulia Kuznetsova: It’s not fair. No children and no athletes have anything to do with it. Including coaches, of course. We just do our job, no matter where we live.
At the beginning of the season, Isabeau showed an unsuccessful attempt at a quadruple toe loop. Are you still working on ultra-c elements now?
Yulia Kuznetsova: At one point we were put it on hold because of the growth when she missed half of November and half of December. Then Isabeau returned on the ice, and we gradually began to continue – a triple Axel, a quadruple toe loop, we try other quadruples as far as possible. We are not going to stop there. I hope that we will be able to learn at least one ultra-c by next season and be able to include it into the program.
Quadruple jumps are criticized a lot – big pre-rotation, under-rotation. Is it worth paying attention to?
Yulia Kuznetsova: Since only few people do this elements, this should not be paid attention to. They are performed only by Russian girls and a couple of Japanese girls. Recently, another 12-year-old figure skater from Japan appeared, Mao Shimada. If everyone in a row will jump ultra-c and it will be necessary to look who jumps it cleaner, then yes. And if they are made by a few. I think it’s a feat. It’s really very difficult. And including them into the program and finishing the second half of the program with combinations, like Anna Shcherbakova. She is a hero. Both Anna Shcherbakova, and Sasha Trusova, and all our girls. I think that this should not be paid attention to, because it is difficult and very dangerous, it takes a lot of energy. Let those who can do it and move the sport forward.
A large number of controversies arose at the Olympic Games. Sasha Trusova went for unrealistic content with a triple axel and five quads, but still lost. Is this is fair?
Yulia Kuznetsova: I can’t comment on what is fair and what is unfair. I bow to Trusova, because we can see her character. She doesn’t give up. This is a unique child, the heritage of the country, just space. They tell her: “Do three and skate clean and beautifully – you will win,” but she does not go for an easy one. For her, three quads is easy. Sasha sets herself a task and fulfills it, it worths a lot. She is 17 years old, she is a child, but such a strong child who goes to her goal. She is the only one in the world like that. Just like Anya Shcherbakova, who is just a hero. She cannot be broken, an iron girl, although she is very small and fragile. The same with Kamila Valieva, this is something incredible. No offense to the whole world, but our girls are our girls. Of course they are heroes.
If Sasha hadn’t gone for the triple axel, which she doesn’t succeed in competitions, would she have won?
Yulia Kuznetsova: Sasha could not have gone for a double axel. She would have been ashamed. Not in front of the whole world, but in front of herself. This is a child who set herself a task. She won’t leave until she fulfills it. Here she is a winner, because she does not give up. I can’t say who should have won. Anya Shcherbakova is an Olympic champion, a unique athlete. But Sasha Trusova is also a winner and champion. Again, that triple axel. Everyone said, “Make it double.” And she said, “No, that’s not enough for me.” It is purely sporting qualities that make her unique. But that’s just my opinion. Since I work with a large number of athletes, I evaluate their athletic qualities. The qualities of our girls – only few in the whole world have them. We look up to them. I try to set our girls as an example to my skaters, who are also trying to achieve something.
If we talk about triple jumps, then there is an opinion that top skaters are forgiven for mistakes – an unclear / wrong edge on a flip and lutz. Is it really true?
Yulia Kuznetsova: To be honest, the question about the edges is very controversial. Depending on where the element is placed, sometimes it is more visible, sometimes not so much. But if someone is given, but someone is not, I can’t comment on it, I’m not a judge. I look from the side of the coach and see where the element is performed correctly, and where it is incorrect. But this is not in my competence.
With the advent of high-profile successes, a large amount of criticism poured on Eteri Tutberidze. Is there such a thing in the USA?
Yulia Kuznetsova: Some are for, some are against. It has always been, is and will be. You can’t please everyone. Someone wants to achieve the same results, but they cannot, so they will criticize and look for some options: “They have achieved it because they have this.”
In America, there is basically not such things. Rafael Arutyunyan has great results with Nathan Chen. Mariah Bell is also a gorgeous figure skater by American standards. She achieves success, gets on the podium. But there is no criticism here, I have not come across this. For my part, Eteri Tutberidze, Sergei Dudakov and Daniil Gleikhengauz are the best coaching staff in the world. They are the best.
At the Olympics, the doping scandal of Kamila Valieva attracted a lot of attention. If they introduce the responsibility of a coach for minors using doping, is that right?
Yulia Kuznetsova: I can’t comment on it. I heard about the situation, but more than sure that everything is clean there.
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