Newspaper issueDecember 19, 2006
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 GIRLThe 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.
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.
Sankt Petersburg – Moscow