Elena Buyanova: “MY HOME IS OFF LIMITS TO MY STUDENTS”
She is a coach with the God’s gift. Elena Vodorezova started thinking about this profession more than 20 years ago, right after being forced to quit the sport because of a difficult and progressing illness – rheumatoid polyarthritis. First, though, she got married, changed her surname, and had a son. Only then did she go back to the rink.
Her own career was a flash. Vodorezova was the first Soviet lady skater to mount the podium at European championships, dominating the skating that no longer seemed “lady”-like. She won the first medal for the country at the World championships in 1983. She competed at two Olympics, going to the first one in Innsbruck at the age of 12.
Buyanova’s skaters on the international scene have likewise produced a flash. This is true of the 16-year-old Georgian girl Elene Gedevanishvili in 2006, and a 15-year-old Kazakh boy Denis Ten at a recent World championship in Los Angeles. It’s unprecedented for skaters from completely “non-skating” countries to premier into top ten at a senior competition.
In short, the word “never” is not in Buyanova’s dictionary. It just has no place there.
RODNINA AND ZHUK
“Coffee, tea?” Elena busies herself at a coaches’ lounge, simultaneously turning on a kettle, sorting paperwork, and answering questions of people intermittently popping into the room. She glances at my recorder:
“Hold on. I’ll sit down, and then we’ll talk.”
“How do you keep your energy up?”
“When you always overcome yourself and keep pushing, everything in life just comes naturally. People often start talking about their problems, and while I listen to them, I realize those things just aren’t a problem for me. I notice that I don’t even think of things that are supposed to worry the women my age.”
“Perhaps this has to do with your tough sports life?”
“And yours was easy? Is there such a thing?”
“I guess. If one’s isn’t wacked about the sport.”
“Well, and which of use isn’t wacked? A coach, no matter how fanatical they are about their work, will never get results if their student doesn’t burn with that same passion. You can break the little kids, making them do something; it doesn’t fly with 15-year-olds.”
“You started training with Stanislav Zhuk when you were just over ten. What does a child that age understand?”
“I didn’t understand anything then. I just liked the atmosphere there. CSKA, hanging out with skaters… I suffered through the days off, having no clue what to do with myself. My whole life was at the rink.”
“You were in the group of one of the toughest and goal-oriented coaches in the world. Did you realize at the time how great a coach Zhuk was?”
“Of course not. For me, the “greats” were Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev who trained with him at the time. I actually didn’t want to skate with Zhuk at first. I was sent to him at the time when he only trained pairs. There were no other singles in his group. I only acquiesced when my parents explained that Stanislav Alexeevich had no plans to make me skate pairs.
Even then, I was attracted not by Zhuk but by the group of Rodnina and Zaitsev. Nadezhda Gorshkova and Evgeny Shevalovsky also trained there, and they were all much older than I. it was a different world, with a different generation. In fact, it is only now that I can appreciate how difficult it was for Stanislav Alexeevich to learn to work with me. He never worked with children before then.”
“Have you ever considered why Zhuk noticed you? What did he see in you that everyone else lacked?”
“I was a jumping bean. Dad did height jumps when he was young, and my son is also a very light jumper. I was the same way. More importantly, I always peeked at competitions. There was a time when I spent two months at the hospital, then trained for one month, and went to a competition. Not a Moscow championship, either, but Europeans or Worlds.
Besides, Zhuk needed a single lady at the time. The country didn’t have any, and he was up to the challenge. He is an interesting work for him. As a coach, I understand this well. I now train a pretty big girl who can’t really do anything, but does all triples. It just so happened that our school didn’t have athletes her age. So I took her on to see if I could do anything with her. I, too, learn as I go along. I start coming up with ways to get the results faster. At that age, it’s not that simple.”
“Do you ever blame your health problems on the load you had to put on with?”
“No. Those who trained with me had just as big a load. Some even had a bigger one. There is not connection. At the hospitals, I saw plenty of people who never participated in any sport at all.”
“You can now reason like an adult. What about back then? Where you angry at the whole world full of healthy people?”
“Everything is easier when you’re young. I never thought of consequences. I thought my illness was like laryngitis. I’d have to stay in bed for a while, heal up, and it would all be OK.
Sometimes, there was pain. So much that I couldn’t lift a saucer and hold it. At first, my finger started to hurt. I laughed, thinking I just hit it during a fall on the ice. Sometime later, during a practice camp in Zaporozhye, all the little bones in the wrist started to hurt. They tried massaging it, but it hurt so much I screamed. When the masseur heard that this pain is chronic and constant, he didn’t even finish up, just grabbed in and brought me into the nearest hospital. They did a blood test there, and diagnosed the rheumatoid polyarthritis.
I think the sport helped me even then. Many people I met in the hospitals just didn’t know how to live with it. I, though, was used of overcoming pain. Even after I quit skating, I knew I had to keep moving. Doctors came up with a medicine regiment for me, and explained what I had to do to train the joints. A friend I met at the hospital and still keep in touch with once said, “Without you, I’d have given up long ago”.”
WORK AND FAMILY
“Sorry to get personal, but I know that you could quit your job at any time, live the life of comfort without the need to make a living. I’ll bold enough to assume that your family has suggested you quit more than once.”
“Yes. My husband has talked about it repeatedly, especially when I started traveling to competitions with my students. He worries. I think in general it’s very hard on a man when his wife becomes successful and famous. I truly respect Sergei for allowing me to keep coaching. It’s not every man who can do this. Moreover, I can tell that my husbands’ friends don’t understand him. I myself never though when I got married that he’d let me work. Sergei grew up in the family, where his mom, a truly wonderful woman, was the model of how things should be at the home. At first, she just didn’t understand how her son lived with me.
We got married in 1984. All skaters spent a month on tour in Australia following winter Olympics in Sarajevo. I got married two days after coming back to Moscow. This started a new life.
The funny thing was that I didn’t know anything at all. On the first day of our life together, I was foolish enough to ask him what he wanted for breakfast. I thought of sandwiches or something. Sergei asked for an omelet. I remember standing in the kitchen and having no clue how to start on it. My husband even threatened a divorce. When we started dating, he was 26, and I was 18. What’s 18 for an athlete? It’s like kindergarten age! So, my husband started teaching me everything, and I liked learning.”
“25 years together is a rarity in our age, especially for a woman coach.”
“That’s why I am very grateful to two men, my husband and my son, for giving me the opportunity to go to the rink. My husband, though, said, “If you want to work – work. But make sure there are no disturbances at home.”
Now, I can’t even understand how I made it all. I had every minute of the day planned. I used both grandmothers and the grandfather. I came home after the first practice, cooked dinner, waited for my son to come home from school, then grandpa took him to the practice while I went to the rink again; in the evening I picked up my son and rushed home to prepare supper for the family. If one link in my carefully constructed link chain went awry, the whole think collapsed.
Problems resumed when Olga Markova, then one of the strongest skaters in the country, asked to train with me and I started traveling to competitions with her.
My husband was categorically opposed to my travels. I don’t know how he survived it all. Something would always happen once I left. For example, the child would get sick or something. But I somehow managed it all. Sports training helped me organize everything meticulously. I think that in that sense an athlete wife is perfect for a normal man.”
“I beg to differ. Most men have a problem both with a female independence and with the very fact that a woman can make decisions. This, though, is exactly what the sport teaches.”
“I guess I've been lucky – all those years I’ve fully felt what it’s like to be truly married. Sergei makes all the decisions in the family. He is the head. I’m meek as a lamb.”
“You leave all the excess emotions at the rink?”
“Yeah, I’m awful there. My husband once stopped by my practice and saw my work – I was scolding someone at the time and was really enraged. This has shocked my husband so much that he swore never to set foot at the rink again. It really rattled him – what kind of work is this? You come, you yell, you leave. In life, though, I’m real homy.
I think this really played a role – no matter how busy I was, I never sacrificed my home or family. It just took me an hour or two to do things that a non-working woman usually does throughout the day. So I had time for everything. When my son was still little, though, I never considered wasting time on an extra hair cut, massage, or spa. If we went out, I’d come home from practice, take 20 minute to “make myself pretty”, and leave.
“What if you had to choose between home and work?”
“I’d choose family. I think my husband always knew this.”
“What does coaching mean for you?”
“Sergei teases that it’s my hobby. Of course, I get attached to my athletes, not because someone skates well, but just because of human attachment. I think my athletes get horrified when they realize that I know and foresee their every move. They spend a lot more time with me than they do with their own families. Also, I never just worked with one athlete. I always trained several.”
“Do your students come over to your place?”
“No. That’s taboo. Once I’m home, I just forget about work. I never even talk about it. My husband, likewise, has never been interested in where I’m going, why I’m going, and what happens at the rink. I think he only knew my students from the TV screen. I recall back in 2006 I couldn’t accompany Elene Gedevanishvili to Europeans, and Tatiana Tarasova sat with her in the kiss and cry. It so happened and Sergei and I watched the competition together, and he was very much surprised to learn that Lena is my athlete.”
“Nonetheless, I heard that it was your husband who helped resolve the issues around the deportation of Lena’s mom from Russia. Did this help surprise you?”
“No. Besides love, family members should have mutual respect. That’s the key, for me at least. When something bad happens, I never try to seek help from the outside. I always turn to my husband.”
“Does your heart ache when you see Gedevanishvili taking the ice with a different coach?”
“No anymore. When she left, though, I just wanted to quit altogether. When Lena was being honored in Georgia after the Turin games, I could see that something was happening that I had no control over. I was hurt and devastated. By now I’m on good terms with her and her mom, but when something inside me dies, it’s forever.”
“When made you go back to the rink?”
“My husband, surprisingly enough. I thought he’d be happy. Suddenly, though, he said, “the other kids didn’t do anything to you.” It was also great when athletes and coaches I work with at CSKA started texting me. They were too scared to call, but the messages I received on my phone touched me to tears. Without being asked, other coaches picked up my athletes, and continued preparing them for competitions while I was making up my mind. If it weren’t for that support, I wouldn’t have come back.”
“Where did Denis Ten come from?”
“I first saw him at some children’s competition in Odintsevo. Denis was really tiny, hardly jumped, but was so artistic and so “in character” that the other coaches and I couldn’t help laughing looking at him. Back then, I certainly didn’t think of working with him. I never even think of taking anything from others. Then, though, Denis’ mom suddenly brought him to my rink. We got to know each other better, and she said that she just wanted to see if her son could work with me.
Denis isn’t a simple kid. He is very thoughtful. You can’t yell at him. In general, you can’t yell at the boys the same way you can yell at the girls. Girls are usually lazier, and need more of a push. Boys, on the other hand, understand earlier what it is they want.
At first, though, I did yell at Denis. He never looked me in the eye, no matter what it was I was explaining. I’d just take his head in my hands and turn it to face me. It took me a long time to get used to him.”
“How long have you worked together?”
“Six or seven. Denis and his mom moved to Moscow to train here, while his dad remains in Kazakhstan with their older son. I have utmost respect for the parents who can sacrifice so much to allow their child to train.”
“Why doesn’t Ten represent Russia?”
“It was happened that when he started skating our country had many able boys his age. At the time, it would have been easy to change citizenship, but nobody needed Denis here. Now, though, his own country is plenty interested in him.”
“You realize that the same situation as happened with Gedevanishvili can play out again with Ten?”
“Of course. It’s not like nobody tried. Figure skating world is very tough this way. There are plenty of those who’d like to get their hands on some else’s strong athlete.”
“As a coach, were you shocked by Ten’s 17th place after the short at the World championship given that he skated flawlessly?”
“This is nothing new. Year before last, Denis went to Junior World for the first time. He skated well, but didn’t pass qualification because he was perceived and judged as a boy from Kazakhstan. This year, he went to his first Grand Prix event but didn’t medal for the same reason. He was killed by the new system – they judged his footwork and spins as level one. Nonetheless, Denis made it to exhibitions, and got an ovation there.
After that, Ten was perceived differently. He won the Grand Prix event in Gomel, and came fifth at the series final. At the Junior Worlds, he last to the third place by 0.63 points. That’s when the media, both Japanese and American, really noticed him.
The scariest part was that in Los Angeles Ten had a chance to not even make it into the final. The championship is special, as it qualifies countries for the Olympics. At the start of men’s competition, and counted 22 “non-killable” participants from the countries that have been in figure skating for decades.
What’s Kazakhstan by comparison?
So, we only won the short over those who were just playing Zamboni.”
“How do you explain it all to your athlete?”
“I was very tough with Denis when I saw him worrying over the marks. I explained to him that all he could do under the circumstances was to skate, and to prove his strength on the ice. If, that is, he wanted to be respected. Then, when the audience got on their feet after the free…
This was the first – for the audience to get up for the athlete in the second group. I was very proud of Ten. It was easier with Lena Gedevanishvili – she just took the ice and did the jumps that no one else could do. This forced everyone to reckon with her. It’s the same, actually, with my other student, Adelina Skotnikova, who won senior Russian Nationals at 12. With boys, though, it’s different since everyone does the jumps one way or another. It’s impossible to shoot to the top without any support.”
“You went though it all yourself, though.”
“Yes. That’s why I follow Zhuk’s path in my work. He liked to say, “don’t work with mediocrity, but work with talent”. He was sort of right. It’s always more interesting to work with talent. It’s not so easy to find, though…”
“The season is essentially over, but you are again at the rink.”
“I am also the head of the CSKA team. I mounted this unnecessary and very manly profession onto myself.”
“It just happened. I long worked with my athletes at the rink of Elena Anatolievna Tchaikovskaya because I couldn’t do it at CSKA. The then-head of the club Olga Smorodskaya once called me in and said she wanted her athletes and her coaches to work at her club. Previous team head was fired, and Smorodskaya asked me to temporarily assume his duties.
The first year was awful. I’d bring the paperwork home, didn’t sleep nights, until finally my husband couldn’t stand it anymore and said he was giving me a month to get all those ETGESM’s in order…”
“What was that again?”
“That’s the abbreviation for the educational-training groups of elite sports mastery. CSKA didn’t have any of that. The system had to be built from scratch. To do this, we needed to understand how it should work, which is exactly what I did. Now, though, we have wonderful staff with a director, coaches, and choreographers. Now, we really have a school. Here, I can quietly do my work, knowing that I’ll always have support. I realize now that the team is key to everything.
Besides all else, we now have to think of next season’s programs. I hope Tarasova will help us here. She’s got a good eye, and sees all areas that need work the second she shows up at the rink. I immediately get angry with myself for not seeing it myself.”
“Such people are hard to work with.”
“Indeed, it’s really cool to have Tatiana Anatolievna’s help. It’s not for naught that she’s raised so many Olympic champions. I learned a lot from her. At least I’d like to think that. I like it when my athlete’s superiority with visible to the naked eye. I don’t like it when one wins without being different from everyone else.