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Thread: Arutunian interview (translated)

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    Post Arutunian interview (translated)

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    Newspaper issueDecember 19, 2006
    FIGURE SKATING

    Rafael ARUTUNIAN: “ASADA RESTS FROM SKATING ONLY TO SLEEP”


    In Russia, Rafael Arutunian is mainly known as the coach of Alexander Abt, one of our strongest skaters from the recent past. In the USA he is known as the last coach of the five time World champion Michelle Kwan. In August of this year, the Russian specialist started working with Mao Asada – an athlete who is considered one of the most likely stars of the new Olympic cycle

    A SPECIAL GIRL
    The world fell in love with Mao Asada a year ago, when the 15-year-old brilliantly won the Grand Prix final, but was denied the opportunity to go to the 2006 Games due to an age limit determined by the International Skating Union (ISU). Had Mao been born three months earlier, nobody knows who would have been celebrating the victory in Olympic ladies’ skating; even among the Japanese specialists there was a common opinion that Asada is no weaker than Shizuka Arakawa, and that it was imperative to make the ISU grant her a special permission to compete in Turin.

    That did not happen. Therefore, the Grand Prix series, where young Asada ecstatically played her first adult part, remained the brightest impression. This season, she unexpectedly decided to change almost everything in her life – country of residence, climate, coach, and choreographer. That’s how she ended up in California’s Lake Arrowhead with Arutunian.

    For the coach who has barely had time to get over the shocks of the Olympic season, for which he has been preparing Kwan for two years while she has been unable to take the ice, Asada’s arrival has been a complete surprise. At the same time, it was fate’s gift. It’s not for naught that Arutunian himself said, “This girl is absolutely special. A huge talent. And a great mind. In that regard, by the way, Mao much resembles the very young Michelle”.

    How did Asada end up at your rink?

    By coincident. That’s how everything works in my life. I never seek out anyone myself, and I never invite anyone – I have enough work as is. Sometimes, some of the famous skaters stop by, such as Jeffrey Buttle. I work with him from time to time, but mainly as a consultant. Then this summer I got a call that Asada is going to come to see me in Lake Arrowhead.

    She did come – with her mom, her sister, and her manager, and she skated for about a week. A already knew that they’ve visited Canada and East Coast US by then. At the very end of summer, Asada came to California again to say she’d like to work with me permanently. It is, however, too early to talk of true collaboration, since Asada came to America so late that the preparation period was rather jumbled up.

    Did she say what she expected from you?

    Experience tells me that the athletes of this level seek not only a coach, but the best training conditions. Nobody knows how long Asada will stay in Lake Arrowhead. If she stays a long time, then we can talk about contracts.

    Do you want a guarantee that the athlete won’t leave you?

    It’s not that. It’s just how thinks are done in America. Each coach, including me, always has a certain number of students. If a strong skater joins the group, and the coach needs to accompany them to competitions, other athletes may leave. As long as the coach is working with the star, he doesn’t usually lose financially. However, if the star suddenly leaves, a coach may be left with nothing. Don’t forget that living in America you have to pay the bills regardless of whether or not you have ample work. That’s why contracts are sighed. Luckily, American figure skaters understand very well that coaching in the USA is primarily a business.

    Myself, I only understood this recently, though. We grew up I a different world, where nobody taught us those things.

    Athletes are different here as well. You don’t have to force them to work, as they always know exactly what they want. That’s another thing you have to learn in America. Also, you have to learn that you’re not a despot, not a baby sitter, but just a coach. You can suggest something, but you can’t insist. It would be in bad taste. You can’t tell your students the word “must”. Here, people are raised with a feeling they don’t owe anyone anything. It’s even unethical to repeat something twice, as this may suggest to a skater that you think him a fool.

    Remember the cooperation between Sasha Cohen and Tatiana Tarasova? The progress was visible right away – I could appreciate this as a coach. Cohen wasn’t afraid of work, and she understood Russian. In other words, everything seemed to be working out. Yet Cohen left. She was not willing to be constantly under a coach’s pressure.

    It took me a while to understand that working the US you have to consider each sentence, each word. There shouldn’t be “too much” of the coach. The athletes don’t usually say “no”. However, if you see that the person listened to you, yet is continuing to do things his way, then he is consciously rejecting your point of view. It’s pointless to insist. Your students will just leave.

    That’s how I now work – if you like what I’m suggesting, the heed the advise. If not – no one is forcing anyone. I offer my professional services, no more.

    I haven’t yet acquired a new homeland

    It seemed to me that you had some rough time at the beginning of your work with Kwan. It seemed, especially after the Dortmund 2004 Worlds, that you were afraid to loose her, to not live up to the expectations.

    That’s true. I think anyone would be scared in my place.

    Kwan is an era, a milestone. Also, Michelle turned to me on the decline of her career, when everyone saw her as a descending star. Kwan understood this herself very well, but I, as a coach, didn’t have the slightest right to display in any way that I see her as someone whose time is slipping. We never discussed this, but I still have a feeling that Michelle was grateful to me for sharing that weight with her all that time.

    It’s unclear, by the way, if we’ll live to see another personality of such magnitude in figure skating. Just as there hasn’t yet been a new Irina Rodnina. One could marvel at her style, or reject it, but one can’t argue that our sport hasn’t produced another athlete like that. And this has nothing to do with how well one skates.

    I still don’t understand how Kwan found the strength to live through the Turin nightmare. The injury, then the forced withdrawal from competition…

    She had a surgery right after the Olympics. When Michelle returned from Turin to America, she was in so much pain she couldn’t walk or sit normally. I was in shock myself. When we first started working together, Kwan at times complained that she could feel the bones in her pelvis “move within”. I could never understand how this was possible. However, analysis at the clinic showed that the right “wing” of the pelvis has been splitting away from the base. So Kwan has been struggling though this for two years before the Turin Games.

    This is how our session sometimes went. Michelle would arrive, and begin to skate around the rink. I’d only look at her facial expression. If she shook her head ever so slightly when she passed me, I knew we wouldn’t have a session that day. That her hip hurt so much she can’t handle it. When things would get really bad, Michelle would go to see some Chinese doctor in Los Angeles, and he could somehow return the bones into place.

    What made the injury much worse was that a short time before the Games, Kwan opened here own rink in Los Angeles; for business reasons, she had to train there, though the ice was much harder than what she was used to in Lake Arrowhead. The pelvis joints started to fall into pieces even more because of constant hard landings. I saw this, I got nervous, I got angry. But what could I do? I couldn’t leave her like that.

    What does Kwan do now?

    I suggested an idea that I think she liked – get involved in skating-related charity. Not all families can afford to pay for their children’s skating classes. In America, it’s quite pricey. Kwan is exactly the person to create a special fund to allow talented children to skate. When she asks the rich folk for money for this purpose, she always gets it as people trust someone with such a reputation.

    Michelle doesn’t want t coach. She doesn’t want to continue skating either. She is 100% athlete, with a constant eye on the result. That’s why Kwan never liked exhibitions. She only likes to compete.

    WORK QUANTITY BECOMES QUALITY

    While you worked with Kwan, did you get a chance to observe Mao Asada’s progress?

    Just on video, from the very moment Asada started competing at junior competitions, never worrying about either results or responsibility. It was a great thing to see. She’s different now; there is already a weight on her shoulders. Time will tell how she handles that. Asada doesn’t just train a lot – she lives on the ice. I don’t know who pays for her training, but I sometimes think that Japanese skaters have unlimited possibilities in that regard.

    By the way, I think Asada already has an IMG contract. That’s good. I can only hope we can also one day understand that talented athletes require not only professional coaching, but also good financial “hands”, allowing them to think about nothing but training. Japanese skating federation has adopted a very wise policy in that regard.

    I’ve noticed that the athletes from that country are always surrounded by many officials at competitions. That’s how it was when Arakawa trained with Tarasova, and when Fumie Suguri trained with Oleg Vasiliev. Not it’s the same with Asada. Is that a form of controlling a foreign coach?

    Rather a concern. I always feel this attention. Wherever we train, there are always water and napkins at the ready. Everyone always asks, “Are you OK?”

    At the same time, I understand that if at any time the Japanese federation isn’t satisfied with me, I’ll be replaced with another specialist.

    Does Asada speak English?

    Not too well, but she’s trying. Sometimes, it’s difficult to explain some nuances, but I always tell her “If you don’t understand something, tell me right away – I’ll try to explain it better”.

    She’s now at a difficult age of 16. I’m always asked if I’m afraid that this transitional period will destroy the well practiced technique.

    Are you?

    I think that Eastern girls’ transitional period goes smoother than Europeans’ or Americans’. Kwan says she had a tough time then. However, that was likely because Michelle ate whatever she wanted. Before she knew it, she gained too much weight. Her then coach Frank Carroll once told her directly, “Michelle, look at yourself. Don’t you think that something is off?”

    For now, Asada too is eating whatever she wants. If it turns out that this is harmful, then she’ll have to limit herself in some way. Though I have to say that the Japanese in general don’t like to do things preemptively. You can see this at practices. As a professional, I can always see when one of the athlete’s qualities start to diminish. I try to change things a little before those flaws become apparent. The Japanese, on the other hand, when they see that something is no longer working, they concentrate more, the put more effort in, they work twice as long if needed, and eventually everything returns to normal.

    Asada is forcing me to work more as well. Sometimes I think I’ve already given her too much work, but she doesn’t stop.

    I’ve heard that the Japanese skaters don’t work as much off the ice as athletes do in Russia.

    That’s true. But Asada is like a fish. Fish don’t stretch out on dry land before swimming, right? She takes the ice, and does the entire warm up as she skates. She doesn’t skate only when she sleeps. She knows how to train hard, and the important thing is that she likes it. It seems that the Japanese in general are taught from childhood to enjoy even the hardest work. And they believe religiously that quantity will sooner or later transform into quality.

    Elena VAJTZEHOVSKAYA
    Sankt Petersburg – Moscow
    Last edited by Ptichka; 01-08-2007 at 11:14 PM.

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    MY TVC 1 5 SeaniBu's Avatar
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    Thanks, nice article, interesting about Mao and MK.

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    Thanks for the translation- I read this over at FSU a couple of weeks ago and I wonder if Mao will hold up under these conditions for many years to come.

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    Custom Title Mathman's Avatar
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    Thanks for the outstanding translation, Ptichka. There is already a long discussion going on about the content of this interview here

    http://www.goldenskate.com/forum/showthread.php?t=14988

    based on excepts from a different rendering. It is very interesting to compare the two. There were quite a few questions from posters who did not have access to the full article, so they will be glad to see it here.

    Kwan is an era, a milestone...It’s unclear, by the way, if we’ll live to see another personality of such magnitude in figure skating. Just as there hasn’t yet been a new Irina Rodnina. One could marvel at her style, or reject it, but one can’t argue that our sport hasn’t produced another athlete like that. And this has nothing to do with how well one skates.
    What exactly do you think Mr. Arutunian means here? That the whole "Michelle phenomenon" somehow transcended her mere talent as a skater?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mathman View Post
    It is very interesting to compare the two. There were quite a few questions from posters who did not have access to the full article, so they will be glad to see it here.
    Ptichka's translation:
    Kwan is an era, a milestone. Also, Michelle turned to me on the decline of her career, when everyone saw her as a descending star. Kwan understood this herself very well, but I, as a coach, didn’t have the slightest right to display in any way that I see her as someone whose time is slipping. We never discussed this, but I still have a feeling that Michelle was grateful to me for sharing that weight with her all that time.

    It’s unclear, by the way, if we’ll live to see another personality of such magnitude in figure skating. Just as there hasn’t yet been a new Irina Rodnina. One could marvel at her style, or reject it, but one can’t argue that our sport hasn’t produced another athlete like that. And this has nothing to do with how well one skates.
    Nadya's translation on FSU of the same section re. Kwan -- FYI, Nadya's entire translation is now published on journalist Elena Vaitsekhovskaya's personal website in the Translations section at:
    http://www.velena.ru/translations/rafael-eng.html
    Kwan is an era. She’s a massive phenomenon. Michelle started working with me when her career was nearing the end, when everyone understood her star is beginning to set down. Kwan knew that as well, but as a coach, I had no right to let her know in any way, no matter how small, that I think her time is beginning to go. We never discussed that, but I still feel that Michelle is grateful to me for carrying that burden with her for so long.

    We don’t know whether figure skating will have a star of that magnitude in our lifetime. We still don’t have another Irina Rodnina. You could like her style or not, but you could not NOT agree that there is simply no more skaters of that caliber around. And it is not at all about the skating skills.
    Thanks very much for taking the time to do your own translation, Ptichka! I'm always interested to read different translated versions of articles.

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    Forum translator Ptichka's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mathman View Post
    What exactly do you think Mr. Arutunian means here? That the whole "Michelle phenomenon" somehow transcended her mere talent as a skater?
    Essentially, yes. That sometimes a skater comes along whose personality, work ethic etc. make a disproportionate impact on the sport.

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    My thanks too, Ptichka.

    I think he had a lot to say and I was very much interested and pleased with his frank observations on many points. This section was a bit puzzling:

    Do you want a guarantee that the athlete won’t leave you?

    It’s not that. It’s just how thinks are done in America. Each coach, including me, always has a certain number of students. If a strong skater joins the group, and the coach needs to accompany them to competitions, other athletes may leave. As long as the coach is working with the star, he doesn’t usually lose financially. However, if the star suddenly leaves, a coach may be left with nothing. Don’t forget that living in America you have to pay the bills regardless of whether or not you have ample work. That’s why contracts are sighed. Luckily, American figure skaters understand very well that coaching in the USA is primarily a business.

    Myself, I only understood this recently, though. We grew up I a different world, where nobody taught us those things.
    The reason for this is that a Government sponsored figure skating program is vastly different than the individual skater fending for himself. Well, he does now.

    Athletes are different here as well. You don’t have to force them to work, as they always know exactly what they want. That’s another thing you have to learn in America. Also, you have to learn that you’re not a despot, not a baby sitter, but just a coach. You can suggest something, but you can’t insist. It would be in bad taste. You can’t tell your students the word “must”. Here, people are raised with a feeling they don’t owe anyone anything. It’s even unethical to repeat something twice, as this may suggest to a skater that you think him a fool.
    This is true to some degree with some Americans but I would not say all of them. If a coach sees a young kid with budding talent and takes an interest in that kid, the coach will become a second parent and all the 'musts' will be obeyed. I doubt there will be the normal fees for lessons. Maybe even none. I might suggest Weir as an example of getting a coach's interest.

    Remember the cooperation between Sasha Cohen and Tatiana Tarasova? The progress was visible right away – I could appreciate this as a coach. Cohen wasn’t afraid of work, and she understood Russian. In other words, everything seemed to be working out. Yet Cohen left. She was not willing to be constantly under a coach’s pressure.
    Yes, indeed, the cooperation produced a beautiful Swan Lake, and just before Dortmund, what happened was basically speculation. I'm of the ilk that Sasha's mother became too demanding with TT. So I am not at all convinced that Sasha just left. Some things, like MK and FC as well as SC and TT will never be fully explained. JMO

    Joe
    Last edited by Joesitz; 12-29-2006 at 05:48 PM.

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    Joe, I agree with much of what you say. Let me share my opinion of what Arutunian says - the opinion of an immigrant. When one comes to US to visit - it's all great and fun. When one actually moves here, there is a huge culture shock. There are many things that one simply does not understand. Foremost among that is political correctness. Many things we Russians say seem extremely rude to Americans. I am sure that Arutunian would say things to skaters that they found quite outrageous. It surely took him years to learn to mitigate his behavior. After an immigrant gets over their culture shock, there is a next stage - you think you know it all, you think you've figured it all out. This is the stage that Arutunian is at right now. This, though, is a penultimate stage before going on to appreciate the diversity of your adopted country. Add to that the fact that Americans do tend to be far more reserved and private than Russians, and you see a fuller picture.

    Also wanted to answer to what you said about money and government subsidies. What Arutunian says, however, is much deeper. In USSR, we were taught that worrying about financial matters was lowly and underserving. It's not something intelligentsia was supposed to be doing. One of the first lessons you must learn in the US (same lesson is being learned back in Russia as well) is that money is not a bad word. That, in fact, having self respect can mean demanding more money for your work. This reminds me of a story Protopopov likes to recall. After he turned pro, he was was offered to skate in a South American tour; when he found out he would be paid the same as the chorus line, he refused because he (rightly) saw this as highly dispresectful to him as a two-time Olympic champion. However, most athletes and even his friends in Russia could not understand this attitude, accusing him of being greedy and not loving his sport enogh - if only he'd really love the sport as he claimed, he would have accepted the tour even if it were for free! What Arutunian and almost all other coaches who have started their careers in USSR but are now working in the US all say is that they had to learn to see their work as a commodity - something that is only given for appropriate remuneration. Your example of a coach taking on a talented student for free does apply - but only if the coach can afford this.

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    Very nice response Ptichka!! I agree. With any two countries it is not just the type of regime but the cultural atmosphere in any given country which makes the difference. I learned that through work.

    BTW - Do you have any specs on the Cohen/TT split?

    Joe

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    Quote Originally Posted by Joesitz View Post
    BTW - Do you have any specs on the Cohen/TT split?
    Not really. I do think that the catalyst was Sasha skating in the cheesefest while ill. From that point on, the partnership was really falling apart. The question then is - why did Sasha skate at the cheesefest? It has been assumed that it was Galina's decision, based on contractual issues. It is, however, possible, that Sasha balked at Tarasova telling her unequivocally that she could not take the ice that day.

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    Custom Title Mathman's Avatar
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    I think it's hard for skaters to turn down those cheesefests. The latest Phil Hirsh article mentions that Michelle Kwan earned more than 6 million dollars over the course of nine years, doing three cheesefests per year.

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    Custom Title Joesitz's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mathman View Post
    I think it's hard for skaters to turn down those cheesefests. The latest Phil Hirsh article mentions that Michelle Kwan earned more than 6 million dollars over the course of nine years, doing three cheesefests per year.
    I can believe that, the money is in the cheesefests - not the GPs. Maybe it was Danny who thought to save the hip and just compete for the money. MK was the breadwinner in that family. Nationals and Worlds were there to keep up the reputation. Just my thoughts.

    Joe

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mathman View Post
    I think it's hard for skaters to turn down those cheesefests. The latest Phil Hirsh article mentions that Michelle Kwan earned more than 6 million dollars over the course of nine years, doing three cheesefests per year.
    WOOH! I wonder if that is saying something about the marketing of ISU events or MK?

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