“Yuzuru Hanyu will not become an Olympic champion for the third time in a row, but Nathan Chen may also be left without a gold medal.” Alexei Urmanov about upcoming Olympics
Interview with Alexei Urmanov, Olympic Champion and coach about upcoming Olympics, raising the age minimum and judging.
source: russian.rt.com dd. 28th January 2022 by Elena Vaitsekhovskaya
1994 Olympic figure skating champion Alexei Urmanov shared his opinion that Yuzuru Hanyu will not become an Olympic champion for the third time in a row, but Nathan Chen may also be left without a gold medal. According to him, the greatest do not always manage to get to the top of the podium at the Games. He told what mistake Alexei Mishin made before the Olympics in Salt Lake City, praised Mark Kondratiuk for his work in the gym before going on to the ice, and recalled the dialogue between Denis Ten and Frank Carroll at the first training session.
At one time, you became the first to perform a clean quadruple jump at a competitions. In complex technical sports, a new level of complexity usually occurs when the equipment changes dramatically, but in figure skating there did not seem to be any big changes in this regard. Why, then, it was considered heroism to make a quadruple toeloop in the 1990s, and now, on the same ice and the same skates, athletes began to jump quadruple lutz, flips, loops?
Alexei Urmanov: Let me disagree with you a little. I jumped the quad toe loop in 1990, which was 32 years ago. And if we talk about equipment, it has changed a lot. Not so long ago, I even talked to my students about this. I ask: “Guys, how do you manage to break your boots like that after using them for several months?” At our time we skated in WIFA boots, which now, probably, none of the skaters use at all. They were terrible, in fact, absolutely wooden. Alexei Nikolaevich Mishin called them “Spanish boot”. It was impossible to bend.
It took at least two weeks to break into these boots. My grandfather, God rest him, constantly strengthened something in these boots, additionally glued it with leather from the inside, so that it would be more comfortable for me to skate. Today people put on new boots and the next day they are able to perform all the triple jumps on them. That is, they do not even need to break into, they are immediately ready for work. And the assortment has become much larger than 30 years ago – each athlete can choose the boot that suits him. Plus professionalism has grown.
Coaches’ or athletes’?
Alexei Urmanov: There are certainly more specialists in figure skating now. Many additionally studied at seminars, at some master classes, that is, in this sense, there was also a development, thanks to which the athletes improved their technique. And the quad toe loop in men’s single skating is now not an ultra-c element at all.
Your first Olympics happened in 1992 in Albertville, where you finished fifth. Do you think that if you had not had those Games in your life, you would have been able to perform so successfully at your second Olympics? In other words, did the experience of Albertville come in handy in Lillehammer?
Alexei Urmanov: I don’t think it played any significant role.
My point is this: The games in Lillehammer were only two years later, and there were skaters whose chances for a gold medal seemed much more obvious than yours. Do you admit that a similar story could be repeated in Beijing? That, relatively speaking, the conditional Mark Kondratiuk, whom no one takes into account now, will be able to “shoot”.
Alexei Urmanov: First of all, thank you very much for your question. It is complex, but very correct. I often say that there are quite a lot of competitions in figure skating: challengers, Grand Prix, European, World, Four continents championships. But there are the Olympic Games. It’s a completely different competition. And the absolute truth is that they put tremendous pressure on some athletes. There are very cool, professional people who simply cannot win medals at the Olympics. It’s just not their competitions.
Alexei Urmanov: Therefore, I believe that anything is possible at the Olympics. The same Kondratiuk impresses me very much, especially this season. I saw this boy not only at the European Championships, but also at other competitions. For example, at the Denis Ten Memorial. He amazed me.
Alexei Urmanov: I noticed that, even while working in gym, on the floor, Mark absolutely understands how to prepare himself for the performance. When you look at him from the side, there’s a feeling that the guy is generally sleeping. But he stepps on the ice – and you understand that there is no question about sleeping.
As the two-time Olympic champion Artur Dmitriev likes to say, perhaps in this way the athlete simply saves magical energy. I will cheer for Mark at the Olympics. But here, as we say, you need to do your job, and then see how others will cope with theirs.
As someone who once pushed the limits of difficulty, do you understand the desire of two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu to jump the quad axel at all costs, risking to get a serious injury and missing the Olympics altogether? Is he crazy or is there a great idea in this?
Alexei Urmanov: Probably every person at the highest level of sports is a little crazy. Zhenya Plushenko, if you remember, dreamed of doing all five quadruple jumps in one program. But this did not happen. I don’t think it will happen with Yuzuru either. But, let’s put it this way: if the guy is crazy about this jump – okay, let him go and try. Mishin, by the way, was once asked if he thinks that it is too early to start learning a triple axel or a quadruple jump at the age of 13? To which he replied: “Listen, my friends, if the boy wants and I see that he is ready, why stop him?”
Are you more willing to work with boys or with girls?
Alexei Urmanov: With everyone. I do not divide athletes by gender.
If the age minimum for girls is raised, will it change something in coaching, in training technology?
Alexei Urmanov: To be honest, I don’t see any particular problem in this. Even if this happens (which, by the way, I’m not very sure), we, I think, have nothing to worry about. Because few people will be able to fight with Russian girls anyway. If you are afraid of raising the age minimum, you shouldn’t do coaching at all.
That is, a coach is a profession that involves the ability to adapt to anything?
Alexei Urmanov: Let’s discuss it this way: 20 years ago the rules of figure skating changed dramatically. Have we, as coaches, quickly adapted to this? Yes, lightning fast. Therefore, I am sure: if tomorrow they raise the age minimum in women’s single skating, everyone will quickly adapt to this too.
As far as I remember, you are an ISU technical specialist.
Alexei Urmanov: It would be more correct to say – I was. And, in fact, I was one of the first to pass the ISU exam and got the right to work at competitions in this capacity.
Why did you stop?
Alexei Urmanov: Let’s just say: I saw the judging from the inside and realized that it’s just not for me.
With that in mind, I wanted to ask a question. Not so long ago, Olympic champion Oleg Vasiliev said that in his opinion, the current judging system is becoming very obsolete. Judges have learned to manipulate the results within the system, and this manipulation becomes a negative that burdens all figure skating. Do you agree with this point of view?
Alexei Urmanov: Partly. Let’s start by saying out loud that figure skating has never been an objective sport and never will be. The judges really understood a long time ago how to manipulate the results, how to arrange the “correct” placement. But I would talk about something else here. When the new judging system first appeared, a lot of changes were made to it every year. We all went crazy, grabbed our heads. Now there are negligible changes, and this, in my opinion, is wrong. There must be some balance.
Can you explain?
Alexei Urmanov: Take the same step sequences. In the short program it takes, relatively speaking, 45 seconds, while the entire program lasts 160. Why? To see how the athlete masters the loop and twizzle or performs blocks? Why did they equate men to women in terms of the duration of the free program, reducing it by 30 seconds and removing one of the jump elements? To make the skating cleaner? This is not happening. Weaker skaters will still continue to fail jumps, regardless of whether there are seven of them in the program or eight.
I remember 30 years ago, after returning from a long Tom Collins’ tour you told me that you can unlearn how to skate very quickly. Does this mean that the athlete is really capable of losing the skill of skating?
Alexei Urmanov: I probably said then that you can very quickly loose the shape that you kept, relatively speaking, preparing for the Olympics. If the usual training is abruptly stopped, the skater really quickly loses the ability to perform ultra-c elements. This is especially true for girls. But if an athlete initially had good skating skills, he will always have them.
Do you follow how your former coach works now?
Alexei Urmanov: In one way or another, I follow all the coaches. Why are you asking?
When Mishin, whom the entire figure skating world does not accidentally call the Professor, undertook to train Mikhail Kolyada, many believed that Alexei Nikolayevich, like a magician, would touch Kolyada with a magic wand – and he would stop popping the jumps. But it didn’t happen, and I’m trying to figure out why.
Alexei Urmanov: I am quite an adult person and I do not believe in coaching magic. As a rule, some kind of visible transformation happens with an athlete only at the initial stage of work with a new coach. And then everything returns to usual. A person either works or he doesn’t. Either he has psychological risistancy, or he does not.
It seems to me that many athletes also sincerely believe that the result should be made by the coach, and not by themselves.
Alexei Urmanov: I will tell you one story, a very cool one, in my opinion, although sad, because it is connected with the deceased Denis Ten. When Denis came to Frank Carroll, a well-known specialist, and went to the first training session, Carroll was sitting at the board and reading the newspaper. Ten goes on the ice, comes up to the coach and says: “Hello. What should I do?”
Carroll puts the newspaper aside and answers: “My dear, I want to ask you: what do you consider it necessary to work on? It’s you who changed the coach, it’s you who want to get something from me. So explain what is it.” I think it’s very cool. It is not the coach who should make the result – he can only help. That’s all.
You once said that Mishin always considered returning to the old programs a step backwards. Now quite often people bring back old programs for the Olympics, and I would even say that this has become a trend. What do you think about it?
Alexei Urmanov: I agree with Mishin – this is the first. But there is also a second one. A return to the old program is probably justified and there is nothing terrible about it when the athlete and coach realize the hopelessness of their situation. They understand that they, figuratively speaking, have a fire and they urgently need to do something. Perhaps few people know, but in the year when Zhenya Plushenko lost the Olympics to Lyosha Yagudin, he and Professor, in exactly such a fire situation, changed the already choreographed free program to Carmen. The previous program was massively criticized, including by quite influential people in figure skating, Mishin gave in to this – and this, in my opinion, was a big mistake.
At that moment, we were training with Plushenko on the same ice, and I couldn’t even stand it, so I asked Mishin: “Why? You and Zhenya have a month before the Olympics. Maybe it’s worth just polishing the program, not paying attention to what they say around? But to change it – what’s the point?” Nevertheless, the decision was made. As a result, Mishin and Plushenko began to devote some crazy amount of time only to the free program. And in Salt Lake City, what should have happened happened: in the short program, Zhenya fell, and this was the end of the fight for the Olympic gold medal for him.
Once I asked you to make a prediction before the World Championships – and you guessed the names of all the winners. If I ask you now to do the same before the Olympic Games, will you?
Alexei Urmanov: I don’t know if it makes sense to write about it now, everything is too shaky and vague. Besides, I’m not a fan of predictions at all. But purely intuitively, it seems to me that Hanyu will not become an Olympic champion for the third time.
Will lose to Nathan Chen?
Alexei Urmanov: I would generally say that some unexpected person, on whom no one is betting now, can become an Olympic champion.
Like Yuma Kagiyama?
Alexei Urmanov: May be. Personally, I would like to see Shoma Uno on the Olympic podium. He, it seems to me, finally made friends with his own head. There is another guy who can “shoot” – this is Vincent Zhou. All three are from the category of those who are commonly called “dark horses”.
Why do you have doubts about Chen’s chances, can you explain? Still, for quite a long time, Nathan won all the competitions in which he participated, he won the last world championship with a colossal advantage, breaking away from Hanyu by more than 30 points.
Alexei Urmanov: Do you remembr what happened to him at the Pyeongchang Olympics?
Certainly. I think he will always remember his 17th place in the short program. I even remembered how your older colleague Valentin Nikolaev explained that such things are so firmly stuck in the athlete’s head that it becomes impossible not to think about it at the time of the performance. Especially when an Olympic gold medal is at stake.
Alexei Urmanov: That’s exactly what I mean. I can only repeat what we talked about at the beginning of the conversation: even the greatest champions do not always manage to win the Olympics. Although Nathan, like no other, deserves to be on a podium.
“How many people, so many opinions. I won my first Grand Prix at the age of 15. This is my answer.” Evgenia Medvedeva about raising the age minimum