Khokhlova & Novitski interview
Jana Khokhlova, Sergei Novitski: “WE’RE STEALING FROM OURSELVES”
Athletes’ summer preparations are usually beyond the attention of the press. However, it is now that the work is at its peak – the programs for the new seasons, normally secret until autumn, are now being created. I made it to the “Sokolniki” rink right when the 2008 bronze World medalists Yana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski conducted their last ice practice before a brief summer break.
The previous season was tough for the team – in March, literally days before the most important championship of the season, it turned out they would be the main representatives of the country, as the European champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin were forced to withdraw due to injury. I was planning to discuss this new experience with the skaters, when Yana suddenly started talking about her dissertation.
“Can you imagine”, she laughed while taking her skates off, “we were recently tested by psychologists, and it turns out I have the lowest motivation of the whole group. Just a couple of years ago, it was the highest. I was first surprised by the results, but soon realized that it makes sense – while Sergei and I competed at a lower level, we wanted the impossible. We wanted to win. Now, we just set more realistic goals.”
“Such as getting to a new level of interaction on the ice. Relationship in a team is the subject of my dissertation. It’s the subject that concerns me the most right now.”
“In your opinion, what is the most important think in those relationships?”
“First of all, being able to listen, to hear what he’s trying to tell you, to understand him. This has to happen at the level of intuition and the subconscious. This is a very sensitive interaction. I came to this realization quite recently. Demands upon athletes grow considerably upon getting to the elite level. To get the results, one needs something much greater than a perfect execution of dance elements. I have to sort of anticipate my partner’s thoughts, and to feel what he’ll do in the next moment.”
“In other words, you have to live his life as opposed to yours?”
“Basically, yes. It turns out it’s not so easy to find things in common. That’s what we’re learning right now.”
“Don’t you get tired of the constant need to respond to your partner’s expectations? It is, in some ways, rather unnatural.”
“It’s very tough, I agree.”
“Don’t you sometimes want to rebel, to do what you want and not what you have to? To just be spontaneous?”
“Of course I do. But I can wait in the name of getting the results.”
“When did you understand that this was what you needed to work on? Was there some special moment for that?”
“I got a feeling Sergei and I were missing something at the beginning of this season. We got a very memorable program; the fans took to it right away, and welcomed us with delight at every performance. However, when we competed at several events including the Worlds where we were up against the leading teams, most praise objections to our team centered on the lack of interaction. We sort of skate together, but a sense of togetherness is lacking.”
“Are you sure you would have felt this had you been the second and not the first Russian team at Worlds? If so much attention of coaches, leaders, fans, and the country weren’t so focused on you?”
“I personally got this feeling much earlier. I am glad my intuition hasn’t failed me.”
“Did it hurt to listen to all the criticism? It’s one thing to understand something yourself, and a totally different thing to hear it from strangers.”
“What’s hurtful about it? I came to a conclusion long ago that if I am to be an athlete and to strive to win, then I must strive to be head and shoulders above the competition. Constructive criticism is good. Why not work on it? We’re not invalids or anything…”
“Do you and Sergei need to practice more now?”
“I still have trouble with the amount of work ahead of us. We have just finished the choreography of the new free dance. It’s a difficult program, and we haven’t really started working on its execution yet.”
“You certainly know that you free dance from last season was very highly praised. I’d guess it’s incredibly hard to come up with a worthy program to follow that. You’d want it to be at least on the same level… Do you think you succeeded?”
“I think so.”
“How hard was the process for you?”
“I came up with the music early on. At first, I didn’t quite understand how the coaches see Sergei and me in this program, but once the dance came together I realized that they were right. The only serious problem we encountered has to do with lifts. The rules now greatly limit the elements allowed in the lifts. You then have to be creative to see how to combine moves to create visually exciting lifts. I think we managed this.”
“Are you tempted to borrow successful finds from other teams?”
“We see all kind of material while creating the program. This is not limited to the sport. Obviously, we could see something and basically pinch it. However, it is our lifts that many skaters now use as a model. We’d just be stealing from ourselves then.”
“Could you explain the reason for this incredible secrecy around new programs and music? I know figure skating has always been like that, but why?”
“It is rather a ritual and a mystery. A superstition, if you will, that you can’t reveal your program until a certain time. I fell more comfortable myself when I know that no one has yet seen our program, and can’t even guess what it will be.”
“Does this information sometimes leak?”
“In our sport, even the walls have ears. The rink we train at is full of little kids and their parents. Someone has heard or seen something, and it’s off into the great grapevine. Original information is immediately supplemented by guesses and rumors, so by then end, the very heart of the information changes beyond recognition. However, it has never been that we’d keep the program a secret, and suddenly everyone would know about it.”
“Having had time to ponder the past season, did you get a chance to see why you didn’t manage to show the best result in Göteborg?”
“The whole situation was quite unexpected for Sergei and me. Everyone got nervous the second it became known that Domnina and Shabalin won’t be at Göteborg. This especially concerned the leadership. Everyone kept discussing if we’d rise to the challenge. All those doubts were immediately relayed to us, together with a ton of advice of what we needed to change in the program. Now, what does it mean to change a program on the eve of a competition? You could break the well-practiced old now, and not get very far with the new. We chose a compromise – we agreed, nodded, tried something new, but deep down we knew we wouldn’t be changing anything. However, all this led to us being way too nervous before the free dance in Göteborg. I guess we then played it too safe…”
Once Novitski showed up in the changing room, I switched my attention to him. “Sergei, what happened with your leg?”
I got a confused look in response. “What leg?”
“The one you injured at Worlds. Or am I confusing something?”
“No, it’s t rue. I tore a knee joint on the last day of Worlds, during the exhibitions. It was a stupid injury, it happened on the low lift Yana and I haven’t practiced for a while, and the bent leg unfortunately got twisted. I got the diagnosis in Moscow, but they said I wouldn’t need a surgery, just 10 days of physical therapy. It was a great relief, because at first I was almost certain I injured the meniscus. It felt the same as when I injured the other leg two years ago and had to undergo a surgery.”
“Do you have to do a lot to safeguard your legs from possible injuries?”
“Yes. We are in a professional sport where feet, knees, and back are under great stress. You therefore have to constantly control what you do and how you do it. Before, I could play soccer a bit, for example. Now, though, I know it’s out of the question. The risk to the legs is too great. Every injury entails a long recovery period. Also, it’s a great fallacy that injuries heal for good. For example, the knee that was operated on sometimes still bothers me quite a bit. Also, old injuries have a tendency to come back at the most inopportune moments.”
“In your opinion, what changed in your team over the last year?”
“In short, we started judging ourselves and others differently. This changed our approach to work, as well as our attitude toward the work and ourselves.”
“Are you prepared to be relegated to number two again in the upcoming season?”
“I don’t think it will be a shock or a tragedy for us. In sport, you have to be ready for things like that. That same World championship showed that everything is possible in ice dance. Americans came to win, yet where did they end up?”
“Did you follow your competitors during the championships?”
“I actually never do, but I did accidentally see the Americans fall. Tanith and Ben drew one of the first numbers, and skated while we were just getting ready to leave the hotel. The TV was on, with figure skating being shown live…”
“I even screamed of unexpectedness of it”, chimed in Yana. “My mind started racing like crazy. Sure there are falls, but not in the compulsories, right? Especially a team that clearly came to win! My first reaction, therefore, was just sock. Subconsciously, I understood that I shouldn’t go down that path. The very thought that you now have a chance can break both the mood and the concentration.”
“Me, I don’t think it’s right to think of competitors giving or not giving you a chance,” disagreed Novitski. “It’s much more important to do all you can out there, whatever is happening around you.”
“True. I can’t get out of my head the incident at the Sydney Games, when Svetlana Khorkina got stock with an improperly leveled apparatus. It got her so flustered, that she even fell in the next segment, on the bars! When the judges decided to let her redo the jump, it was quite meaningless…”
“Olympics are quite apart from all other competitions. The passions run really wild there. Especially if you’re fighting for medals.”
“How did you come to see that? You weren’t even contending for the top ten in Turin.”
“Nonetheless, during the whole competition I felt like touching the air would make it ring. Plus, Yana and I saw what was happening with those who did fight for the medals. We saw their state, and how they related to those around them.”
“In other words, you now know exactly what to expect at the Vancouver Games?”
“We know what to expect. As to how we’ll cope with it all…”
“Do you feel like stars already?”
“Well, following the Worlds we’ve just been torn to pieces. We go to some openings, we award someone, we attend events as guests… We even have our own tree at CSKA – a silver fir. It was planted for the club’s 85th anniversary. We’re constantly asked for interviews. A TV group even came to my home, and Yana cooked something along with a professional cook.
As to the athletic achievements, you must always remember that any victory is a result of many people’s labor. It’s silly to think you’ve achieved something on your own.”
As we were saying our goodbyes, I posed one more question to Khokhlova: “In sport, I’ve often seen yesterday’s friends become today’s worst enemies. Athletes are unwittingly in the middle of many people’s competing interests – coaches, choreographers, fans, etc. In addition, in figure skating the latter I think especially tend to deify their favorites and put down their competitors. Have you already started feeling that the closer to the summit you get, the rougher and tougher human relations become?”
“I’m getting that feeling”, admitted Yana.
“Does it get in the way of living your life?”
“Humans adapt to anything. This, too. Of course, it hurts at first. But what else am I to do?”
Translation in my journal
Thanks much for the translation! They are just as interesting and complex off the ice as on!
K/N are my favorite dancers and I always love hearing about them. They are inspirational in many ways. I especially like their attitude about taking constructive criticism and making themselves better skaters.
I dont know what their new program will be like, but I hope it will be different enough from Bald Mt to impress the judges with their versatility.
It was interesting to me that Jana wants to work on connecting with Sergei. IMO their connection - to each other, to the audience and to the music - is their greatest strength. No team at the moment does it better. To me, their main weakness is the steps and the CDs. They improved a lot last year, especially on the steps, but they could improve still more.
I certainly hope the Russian Federation now pays for a specialist CD coach or extra ice time for them. For most of last year, it was the CD scores that held them down. At Worlds, they had really practiced the CD and it showed in the scores. When they are not down by 3-4 points after the CDs, they have a good chance of winning a medal.
To Jana and Sergei - Congratulations on your Bronze Medal! May you have even more success this year. I can't wait to see your new programs.
Thank you Ptichka You succeed in giving them their individual voices!
The Zamboni Rocks!!!
As always, thanks for the translation. It was very interesting.
Ice Dance Obsessee
Thanks for posting! I always enjoy their interviews, they have such great personalities! Can't wait to see what they do this next season.