Golden Skate

Monko and Tkachenko look for a strong senior debut

Russia's Maria Monko, 17, and Ilia Tkachenko, 21, perform to Song of the Spirit by Karl Jenkins at the 2008 World Figure Skating Championships.

Russia has a long standing tradition of producing one strong ice dancing couple after the other. Two young skaters are paired up and then quickly see success in international competition. Maria Monko and Ilia Tkachenko seem to follow this pattern. They teamed up in late summer of 2006 and made it to Junior Worlds in 2007. If not for a fall in the OD, they could have contended for a medal, but they finished 5th.

The skaters and their coaches Alexei Gorshkov and Oleg Volkov, as well as choreographer Sergei Petukhov, were aiming for more during the 2007-08 season. After a silver and a gold medal win in the Junior Grand Prix circuit, Monko and Tkachenko then won the Junior Grand Prix Final in Gdansk, Poland, ahead of their top rivals Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates (USA), Kristina Gorshkov and Vitali Butikov (RUS), and Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier (CAN). They not only showed technically excellent performances, but also expressive and emotional dances to the Russian folk song I’m Going Out on the Street for the OD and Song of the Spirit by Karl Jenkins for the free dance. Their maturity was what set them apart from the other couples.

The Russians were then the top favorites for the World Junior Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria last March, but then two errors destroyed their dream of winning the title. Monko fell on a twizzle in the OD, and they slipped to fourth place after standing in second place after the compulsory dance. She fell again on a twizzle in the free dance and the couple remained in fourth place overall. There is no room for error in the new judging system.

“I can’t even explain what happened,” said Monko. “Everything was going as it should have been. We were well prepared and we practiced very well, but then we already ran into trouble in the OD.” Her partner agreed. “We were more nervous before the OD, because we wanted to move up,” said Tkachenko. “Maybe it was nerves, but I’m not sure. We skated very well up to that moment, to the twizzles. I think the error didn’t happen out of nervousness, but most likely it was just an unfortunate coincidence.”

Indeed, it was unfortunate that this very promising team was left off the podium in what was their last year of junior eligibility. Monko is only 17, but Tkachenko turned 21 last December and has aged out of the junior division. The couple will move up to the senior level this year, and they have learned their lesson. “You have just to go on. Even after these kinds of mishaps, you have to pull yourself together and to finish the competition with dignity. You have to give a 120 and even 200 percent,” Tkachenko summarized. Now the Russians are looking forward to the upcoming season. “We want to present ourselves well in our first (senior) year,” added Monko. “We want to show interesting programs so that people will remember us.”

Their goal is to become number three in Russia behind Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin and Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski. “There will be an interesting fight for the third spot on the team as there are a lot of couples who are claiming it for themselves. Probably four or five teams will fight for that spot, and it will be tough. On the one hand, this strong competition is pushing everybody, on the other hand it would be better (for us) if it was easier,” Tkachenko said with a smile.

The team has put together new routines with coach Gorshkov and choreographer Sergei Petukhov in May, choosing Russian music for the original dance and Peter Gabriel’s famous piece The Feeling Begins for the free dance. As always, both Monko and Tkachenko participated actively in creating the programs. “We come up with a lot of things, and our coach agrees with us or he makes some changes.” Tkachenko revealed. “We are contributing a lot to our programs. When we create something between the two of us, it’s always more comfortable than something the coach suggested. He makes corrections, because he knows the technical levels of difficulty better than we do. He provides us with the parameters and we try to think of something.” However, the coaches mostly decide on the music. “Once our coaches like a certain music or once they made a decision, we can’t change their minds anymore!” laughed Monko.

Both started to skate as single skaters in different cities, switched to dance at the age of ten and later moved to Odintsovo to pursue their ice dancing career. Monko was born and raised in Kirov, like Oksana Domnina. “We skated under the same coach, in the same ice rink, but I was very young at this time,” Monko recalled. Tkachenko comes from Perm in the Ural mountains. Monko’s 16-year-old sister Ksenia is also an ice dancer and competes at the international junior level, but Tkachenko’s now 17-year-old brother wasn’t drawn into the sport. “One skater is enough for the family,” he grinned. “My brother spent his childhood in dressing rooms and he realized that skating is not for him. He says ‘it’s too cold’, and on top of everything, the coach is scolding you’.”

Tkachenko competed successfully at the international junior level with Anastasia Gorshkova, the daughter of his present coach. Gorshkova and Tkachenko took the bronze medal at the 2005 World Junior Championships and were ranked 5th in 2006. However, Gorshkova was suffering from a hip injury and retired from competitive skating in the summer of 2006, leaving Tkachenko to hunt for a new partner.

“Gorshkova stopped at the beginning of the season, in July (2006) when she realized that it wouldn’t work out anymore,” explained Tkachenko. “Then there was a test skate and we went to have a look, but there was nobody that we liked. But then we remembered that Masha is skating somewhere out there, so we called her coach, didn’t we?” he recalled, looking to his his partner for confirmation. “Yes,” said Monko, “they called my former coach and then my mother and me. I just had moved with my training group to Rostov, but I didn’t see a real perspective for myself there and so I agreed immediately. I was ready to pack my stuff and to move if it worked out with Ilia.”

It worked out, and Monko moved, however, the beginning wasn’t as easy as they had hoped. “Our first practices went well,” said Monko, “but then it was difficult for me. I never had a partner that was stronger than I was.” “It was quite hard in the beginning,” agreed Tkachenko, “because we wanted to get in shape very quickly. We wanted to compete in our first event in November, and we started training together only at the end of August or early September. We had to learn our programs and the compulsories very fast. We had to take my partner on a higher level in a short time and we had to compete against strong couples, although we hadn’t skated together for a long time. The most difficult part was to get ready for competition so quickly.”

Despite the time crunch, the team achieved their goals. There success was mostly likely due to the fact that they felt right away that they were a good match on the ice. “Just before teaming up with Ilia, I had a partner for one and a half months, and I just couldn’t skate with him,” said Monko. “When I started to skate with Ilia, it was much more comfortable for me. It didn’t feel like we just teamed up.”

Tkachenko is Monko’s fifth partner, whereas he skated with quite a few girls, looking for the right one. “There was a time when I trained with different girls for just a very short period,” he said. “I skated one month with one girl, it didn’t work out, and I was looking for the next one. I had like six partners in two years. I just couldn’t find a suitable girl, or the coach didn’t want them.”

Monko, however, seemed to fit the bill. Both skaters have similar point of views and both name two-time World Champions Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski as their idols in skating. “We really like them. Now nobody is skating like they did,” Monko sighed. They also look up to Domnina and Shabalin, who trained together with them until they suddenly switched coaches in June. “We would like to reach or surpass the technical and emotional level of Maxim (Shabalin) and Oksana (Domnina),” Tkachenko elaborated. “I think that on the emotional level, they are currently the best you can see in ice dancing. On the technical level, I don’t know how who to name as an idol right now.” When they were training together with Domnina and Shabalin, they felt their support and got some help from them – especially in the compulsory dances. Now that the top team has left, Monko and Tkachenko are number one in the group.

The Russians are not a couple off the ice, but they have a friendly relationship. “Obviously there are sometimes problems when something doesn’t work in practice, but basically we have a very good relationship,” Monko conceded. If they quarrel, it’s mostly about training and skating-related issues. “Luckily we never had any big arguments so far,” she added. “We quarrel mostly about small things and it’s over quickly. Ilia is very calm, good natured and funny, another partner probably would have killed me already,” Monko joked. “Maria explodes sometimes when she runs out of patience,” said Tkachenko, “but in general she is also calm – a nice girl and an interesting person.”

Off the ice, they are both studying. While Monko is still in school, Tkachenko has been studying civil administration since last summer. “I have classes on Saturday from nine in the morning to five in the evening, and so I don’t have a day off,” he explained, referring to the fact that the ice dancers practice from Sunday through Friday. “I’m not attending a special class for athletes, but for adults who are looking for further education. Some of the other students know that I’m an athlete, but I’m not spreading it around. I don’t like to be at the center of attention,” the skater added.

Currently, Tkachenko does not see a future in the sport of figure skating. “Once I finish my skating career, I would like to have something of my own, like a business. I would like to be the boss and to have a cushy job. I don’t want to strain myself anymore. I think we do enough of that in our sports career,” Tkachenko said with a mischievous grin. Monko doesn’t see herself as a future coach either. “I would like to study management. As a coach, you need strong nerves in order to take a couple on a high level, and I think coaching isn’t interesting for me.”

Both like to travel and are interested in arts and music. Tkachenko likes concerts, musicals and watches independent movies, while Monko likes visiting the theatre and museums. However, she admits that she doesn’t have much time for these hobbies ever since she moved to Odintsovo. Now training is consuming most of her time.

Coach Gorshkov is happy with the progress the team has made in the past one and a half years since they started out together. “They are lacking in experience, as you could see at Junior Worlds,” he said, “but this is the only problem. We still have a lot of work ahead of us, but I really like this couple – they are very interesting. They are hard-working and we found some nice new things for the spins and footwork. Not so many couples make it from juniors to seniors. It’s tough for everybody. I want Monko and Tkachenko to develop year by year.”

The skaters agree, and they both feel that their lack of consistency is their biggest weakness so far. “We continue working hard on our technique so that we’ll be able to perform at another level,” Monko elaborated. However, technique is not everything to them. “The emotional side is our strong point,” Tkachenko said. “We want to be interesting to watch. We don’t want to show just clean edges, but a real dance. I believe you only can set yourself apart at the emotional level.” Monko nodded in agreement, adding: “It has to come from our hearts. It’s not only about what the coach and choreographer put together, but you have to give something from your own soul and do it with love.”

The young Russians are planning to compete in a small international event this fall in preparation for their two senior Grand Prix assignments at Skate America and Trophée Eric Bompard.