Denis Ten: The surprise from Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan's Denis Ten performs a flamenco to music from the soundtrack of Once Upon a Time in Mexico at the 2009 World Figure Skating Championships.

On March 26, 2009, at approximately 6.30 PM (PST) in Los Angeles, Calif., 15-year-old Denis Ten single-handedly put Kazakhstan on the worldwide map of figure skating. The young skater stunned the crowd, the press, and the judges with a magical performance that catapulted him from 17th after the short program, to eighth overall. This was by far the best ever placement any skater from Kazakhstan had achieved at Worlds.

However, setting this kind of record was nothing new to Ten, who already had become the first skater from Kazakhstan to win a Junior Grand Prix event (in the fall of 2008). He also  earned the best placement thus far of a skater from his country in an ISU Championship event when he finished fourth at the 2009 World Junior Figure Skating Championships.

Ten moved ten thousands of spectators in the Staples Centre and on television with his beautiful Rachmaninov free program that featured text-book perfect jumps, fast paced footwork, elegant spins, and expression beyond his age. At the end, he fell on his knees and kissed the ice while the crowd rose to give him a standing ovation.

“It was a big joy,” Ten said as he recalled the moment. “I just wanted to show everything that I was capable of. It was the best performance of my life so far. Now I have to build from there and develop further.”

“When the audience stood up, it was like a positive shock,” he continued. “When Evan (Lysacek) skated clean and got a standing ovation (in the short program), I was watching as well and I stood up and I thought how nice it was to skate well and to get a standing ovation. So I’m just very happy that the crowd stood up for me. I was able to experience something at my young age that many skaters never experience in their career.”

After observing him in Los Angeles, many journalists and figure skating fans were puzzled. Who is this immensely talented young skater and where did he suddenly come from?

Ten was in fact born and raised in Kazakhstan and is not an “imported athlete” from another country. His family is part of the Korean minority in the central Asian country between Russia, Uzbekistan and China. For him, like for many others in this multi-ethnic country, Russian is his native tongue. Kazakhstan certainly isn’t a figure skating hotspot, and little Denis was dabbling in all kinds of different activities when he grew up. He practiced some taekwondo and karate, he skated, played tennis, went swimming and even tried acrobatics.

Ten also sung successfully as the youngest member in a boys’ choir that won the silver medal at the World Choir Games in Korea in 2002 (no gold medal was awarded). He went to music school for five years. “My mother signed me up for everything when I was little,” he laughed.  But he loved skating so much that he took his skates to Korea for the choir competition, found an ice rink and trained on his own during his spare time.

Skating eventually won out as Ten’s mother Oksana liked it. He did his first step on the ice on an open-air ice rink in his hometown of Almaty. “When I was little we didn’t have an ice rink,” Ten explained. “Only in winter, but not in summer. We had a big sports hall. It is there until now. That was also used and when it was minus ten degrees (Celsius) outside, then it was there on the ice minus 20! It was so cold you needed to dress warmly, but then it was uncomfortable to practice. Then they started to build shopping malls with ice rinks. When I was little I skated a lot in the mall.”

The conditions at home were not suitable for high-level figure skating, however, Ten was lucky. In 2003, he went to Omsk (a city in southwest Siberia in Russia) to compete in a figure skating competition. He won the event and head judge Alexander Kogan, who recognized the talent immediately, invited him to participate in another competition in Odintsovo near Moscow. There, Ten met his current coach Elena Vodorezova (Buianova).

“Some children just are so enjoyable,” Vodorezova said. “He didn’t really jump much. His doubles were cheated, but he was so artistic that he was the crowd favorite. I took him on as a student with pleasure. What won me over [was that] he was so emotional, so little. In real life, he is actually rather quiet. Very quiet, very shy, but he transforms on the ice and seems so emotional.”

Ten joined Vodozrezova’s group in the CSKA club in Moscow when he was ten years old —first just for training camps, but then he was told to stay full-time. His mother moved with him to Moscow, while his father and elder brother Alexei stayed behind in Kazakhstan. Under the tutelage of the experienced coaches in Russia, Ten progressed rapidly.

“My impression is that his talent is very harmonious,”  Vodorezova commented. “He is skating beautifully and he can interpret classical music and modern music. He dances very well, but at the same time I think that he is technically very strong; there is this harmony within him which I myself appreciate and like in figure skating.”

“He jumps easily [now], like a cat,” the coach continued. “He has a phenomenal jumping ability [and] is very coordinated. It is a pleasure to work with him. Of course, he has a character of his own —he is not easy, but I think there is no easy athlete. I really like working with him and I respect him a lot as a person. He is thoughtful and serious.”

Ten studies in a regular school, but admitted that he has been missing a lot of classes since last season due to his training and competition schedule. “I’m even telling everyone a joke that I went to school, nobody recognized me. In my class everyone is very supportive.”

Spare time is rare and precious, as for any high-level athlete. “When you have some spare time, you just relax,” said the teenager, who turned 16 on June 13. “I like to go outside for a walk, but I usually don’t have any special plans. I do homework. On Saturdays we have athletic training after practice, and I stay to do some homework. Sometimes there is someone who helps and can you tell something.” He also likes music a lot, and he probably inherited his musicality from his mother, who studied violin at the conservatory.

One of his idols in skating he looks up to is USA’s Evan Lysacek. He noticed him at the 2005 World Championships in Moscow where he was a flower kid. “We were running to him to get his autograph, and I have little souvenir flag of Moscow 2005 with his signature. I still have it at home. It’s fun to remember this now,” Ten smiled.

Then he was really impressed when he competed at the Four Continents in Vancouver earlier this year together with Lysacek. “When I got here, I was sitting in the dressing room and suddenly Evan came in!” Ten said. “For me to compete with him —not only that such a famous skater came, but that I was in the same competition with him— meant a lot to me.” Ten skated well, especially in the free skating to come in 9th in his first ISU senior level championships.

At Worlds, he not only made a name for himself but met an important goal —to qualify a spot for Kazakhstan for the Olympic Games. He even secured two spots which made him happy for his teammate Abzal Rakimgaliev. Thus far, Kazakhstan has not been represented in the single skating division at the Olympic Games. Only once in pair skating in 1998 with Russian-born Marina Khalturina and Andrei Krukov.

The preparation for the Olympic season started more or less right after Worlds. Ten got two new programs and showed off incredible footwork and effortless triple Axels in practice in May before the summer training camps started. The world famous coach and choreographer Tatiana Tarasova worked with him on the programs. The short is to a rarely used arrangement of Sing, Sing, Sing. He will be using a Paso Doble for the long.

Ten also would like to add the quad toe to his arsenal. He landed the jump already at the end of 2008, but then had to reduce his practice of the quad, as he got injured. As a result, the quad wasn’t ready yet for Worlds. Judging from Ten’s talent, it will be only a matter of time when this jump is consistent. Maybe he will try it when he debuts on the senior Grand Prix this fall in China and Canada.

“This past season was overwhelming and unexpected for me,” confessed Ten. “One of the most important things for me was to gather experience at the international World level and I understood how hard it is for the top skaters to compete at this level and how much I still have to work in order to skate like they do.”

His talent and work ethics should get this athlete very far. “When I was little, I always said ‘I want to become Olympic Champion’,”Ten explained. “Obviously I understand now that this is very difficult especially in figure skating. I know that the sport is very competitive, but still I want to get closer [to the top] and I still would like to become Olympic Champion. I want to earn the recognition of the audience and to please the judges.  For next season, I don’t want to disappoint and I will try very hard.”

For sure, he has already fulfilled part of his goals.

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