TUESDAYS WITH Elena VAITSHEKHOVSKAYA
At the 1994 Lillehammer Games, famous figure skating coach Alexei Mishin led Alexei Urmanov to the top of the podium. In Turin in 2006, he scaled that height with Evgeny Plushenko. The challenge facing Mishin and his star pupil now, though, is far more difficult –it’s the attempt to win the second Olympic gold in Vancouver.
Two years ago, I talked to Mishin in Peter. He admitted to feeling a great sense of relief since Plushenko won the Turin Olympic gold and left the sport. The need to win at all cost was too heavy a burden on his shoulders. There was also a second burden – that of subjugating his whole life over four years to one student, his moods, and his problems.
Even then, we did talk about the possibility of a Plushenko comeback and Mishin’s willingness to again be by his side. In later talks, the coach invariably emphasized that he wasn’t ready to train strong athletes until Evgeny finalizes his plans. To be fair, his words led one to the heretical thought that the coach consciously did not want to get back to elite sport with anyone else. Perhaps he was too tired. Perhaps he, like Plushenko, needed a break.
Following Evgeny’s win at the traditional skating challenge in Saint Petersburg after being absent from amateur sport for three years, Mishin and I agreed to meet. His only condition was to not tie the interview to a practice session. He explained:
A journalist at the rink automatically creates extra stress for the athlete. We don’t need any additional attention now. Many of your colleagues tend to get to emotional – Oh! Look! He came back! Few understand that resuming practicing and coming back are two completely different things. In my opinion, one can only talk about a comeback after the first few competitions with their short and free programs…
Honestly, did you take your student’s athletic ambitions seriously yourself?
Despite rarely seeing Plushenko after the Turin Games, I felt in him the smoldering of the fighting fire. That’s why I didn’t want to accept other skaters who asked me for help.
Do you mean World ex-champion Stephane Lambiel?
Not just him. It was also Brian Joubert. I received a proposal to work with him from the French federation president Didier Gailhauguet at the Europeans in Helsinki. As for Plushenko… We’ve been together for 11 years. Such longevity is not exactly unique, but it’s quite rare. It’s not for naught that many athletes who get high results switch coaches, as did Lambiel, Joubert, or Sasha Cohen. They need a new push and a new motivation. So, when Zhenya told me he was ready to resume training, I immediately felt his need to work differently from what he did before.
When an artist starts a painting, he automatically goes through a familiar sequence of stretching the canvas, mixing the paints just so, using the brush just so, etc. To my surprise, Plushenko has accepted certain things that used to be completely foreign to him. He didn’t even argue.
For example, Zhenya never did spins before the jumps. I explained to him how we could change that, and in general how to learn to do something he couldn’t do or couldn’t do very well before, and Zhenya accepted all of my proposals. There are many such details allowing one to ascent to the next step.
I’ve heard that in preparing for Turin Games, Plushenko was highly conservative regarding anything new.
Yes, that’s true. Frankly, I expected him to be negative about some things now as well. Zhenya, however, started doing some things from scratch, and felt now inner dissonance because of it. Being an outstanding athlete is about more than muscles. It’s also about how one take in the new.
ON THE BOAT “RA”
Following the Turin games, you talked about the pressure of the need to win. How’s it now?
The need to win hung over me ever since Urmanov won in Lillehammer. It only intensified when Plushenko and I failed to win gold in Salk Lake City. Now, though, it’s all much calmer. I consider the very fact of Zhenya’s comeback as a serious competitor in man skating to be a great achievement.
Has Plushenko changed much since Turin?
I’m glad his skating hasn’t lost its youth and freshness, as well as the desire to surpass itself. For example, at the Petersburg competition he did a combination of a quad, a triple toe loop, and still went in for a triple loop. It made no sense in light of current rules. If you already did a triple loop in a combo, you can’t then do it separately. The marks for the loop are also the same whether it is in a combo or by itself. Zhenka did it just out of athletic fervor to see if he could pull it off.
By the way, have you already calculated mathematically, what exactly you’ll need in Vancouver?
I’d be a fool not to.
Can you be more specific?
Frankly, not really.
Let me ask it a bit differently then. In Turin, I got the impression that Plushenko cannot physically spread the difficult elements evenly throughout the free program. That’s why it was choreographed in a way to have all jumps toward the beginning…
I understand your question. I can tell you we’re working in that direction; Zhenya plans some of the jumps in the second half. However, I don’t want to dwell on the technical aspects and start feeding the imagination of our friendly rivals.
Is that why you asked for Plushenko’s skating at the Saint Petersburg competition not be taped?
It’s not necessary now.
Do you think the most difficult period of Plushenko’s comeback is behind or ahead of you?
Time will tell. If I tackle the question now, it can sound like a promise, even if it’s just a promise to myself. I don’t want to promise anything. I feel like Thor Heyerdahl[i] launching on his boat “Ra”. It remains to be seen where my boat will encounter underwater stones and where it’ll meet warm currents.
Did you have to give up some plans to resume Plushenko’s Olympic preparation?
I wouldn’t say that. The 2014 Sochi Games have been a general beacon in my coaching for some time. However, I didn’t have any serious ambitions for Vancouver.
What about your student Andrei Lutai?
It is certainly prestigious to make the Olympic team. However, that’s not exactly the level I’m used to or that can satisfy me.
In other words, you’ve realized that Lutai’s potential is not powerful enough to compete for the top places?
Each athlete has his own fate. Lutai ended up in my group almost my accident. After a figure skating school in Belgorod was named after me, I took on Andrei as a sort of a moral boost. Well, he’s become tenth at Worlds, and that’s not at all bad. Incidentally, I in no way consider Lutai’s potential dried up. Even though nine athletes proved stronger than Andrei at the last Worlds in Lost Angeles overall, specific components of his programs surpasses many of them.
SECRET OF LONGEVITY
Do you find it insulting that for many, you’ll always remain “Plushenko’s coach” despite your many other achievements?
Zhenya has spent so many years proving that he is indeed a distinguished athlete, and the level of his current popularity is so high that there is nothing here to be jealous about. The athlete’s financial wellbeing will always exceed the coach’s. That’s to be expected.
In fact, coaching is far more multifaceted than first appears. For example, many of my students including Plushenko have long existed and traveled abroad due to my work, my name, and my money. Coaching well means never reminding athletes of that.
I was recently interviewed for a show dedicated to the anniversary of Irina Rodnina. Among other things, I was asked about the secret of the longevity of my athletic cooperation with Plushenko. In response, I recalled how I used to cuff Zhenka. One time in Italy, he ran off the ice to play soccer in the back yard. He was holding the ball with his hands; I was furious and missed in kicking the ball out of his hands, breaking his finger as a result. Luckily, Zhenya has a very wise mom. She well understood that her son needed tough love at that point. Who knows what he’d grow into otherwise?
However, such a relationship can’t survive forever. It needs to change. The athlete grows, matures, becomes wiser, and needs to be consulted about everything. Whereas I assisted Plushenko’s first acquisitions such as the apartment and the car, now Zhenya advises me on what car I should buy to stay at a certain level.
Would that be “Plushenko’s coach” level?
It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we continue to work together, and never talk about who’s more important. The result is all that matters.
Does it matter to you what car you drive to the rink?
Of course not. It’s enough for me to be Mishin. By the way, many asked me after Turin how I felt now that I was no longer coaching a distinguished athlete. How am I supposed to feel? My respect for Tamara Moskvina, for example, has nothing to do with whether or not she’s coaching Kavaguti and Smirnov at the moment. I’d like to think my colleagues think of me the same way.
Did you agree with Plushenko ahead of time that he won’t have any honeymoon following the wedding?
Obviously. That wasn’t even discussed.
For those not familiar with the sport, the situation is a bit unexpected, you have to admit. There was so much noise around the wedding…
Actually, there was no pomp. There was calm normal socializing without anything official. I can’t say it’s “my” world, but I’ve got plenty of acquaintances there.
Is it difficult for you to find common ground with Evgeny’s new wife?
No more difficult than with Zhenya himself.
Let me explain why I asked. I keep feeling that Plushenko’s seriousness about his athletic goals has been largely stimulated by Yana[ii].
I don’t think so. Zhenya is his own person. I can tell you that I never tried to convince Plushenko to get back into sport. Moreover, that would’ve been a huge mistake on my part. The desire to submerge, once again, in that violent current must come from a deep inner confidence.
BRIDGE TO NOWHERE
Where you nervous at the boards when Zhenya was about to take the ice at the Saint Petersburg Cup?
There is a Georgian fable about a young man whose mother didn’t want him to work, and simply gave him the money so the man could bring them to his father as if he’s earned it. Every time, the father would throw the money into the fire. Once, though, the son did earn something himself. When his father again threw the money into the fire, the guy immediately rushed, burning his hands in getting the coins out of the fire. The point is clear – when it comes to work that you’ve put your hands, heard and soul into, you can’t remain passive.
I didn’t worry about the result though. I needed to see if Plushenko retained his appetite for the athletic fight. Could he still compete? Could he keep up the tension of the competition? Recall the Lillehammer Games, when previous Olympic champions Brian Boitano and Victor Petrenko came back to compete. They didn’t lose on elements. They lost because they no longer had the fight in them.
Boitano once noted that he lost because he yearned for a victory when he should have been yearning for the fight.
Aren’t you scared that Plushenko can get used to inflated marks that he’s sure to receive at all domestic events (as it basically happened in Peter), and can become unglued when such marks don’t come through at Europeans for example?
Neither one of use pays any attention to marks. We have no illusions there. Also, it’s not so easy to get the high marks even at domestic competitions. One has to at the very least make an impression.
I admit that judges can be partial to Plushenko. It does scare me a little. I think Zhenya is one of a small number of athletes that exude something besides technique, artistry, and grace. Unfortunately, the current judging system that attempts to gauge harmony with algebra has a major drawback. It can’t reflect individual magnetism the way the artistry 6.0 could.
Is that nostalgia?
That’s a different question. I’m just stating the fact.
Many coaches give their students relatively specific goals going into major competitions. For example, Elena Tchaikovskaya long told Maria Butyrskaya that she mainly had to worry about a clean short program. For others, it’s a specific set of jumps or other elements. What’s important to you now?
I think this approach is typical for coaches whose athletes aren’t really well rounded. They constantly have to cover it up. We have no need for this. Our goal is different. Every day, we have to discover something. It may be an enhancement to footwork, a more striking jump exit, or a connecting step. You know, when one builds a house for himself, he always looks for ways to improve it. He may tighten a bolt here, or put an extra board there. If this work is uninterrupted, Zhenya will improve in the process. He’ll become stronger, nimbler, and better able to complete larger tasks. That, in turn, will give more room for creativity.
For now, it’s just important to have a training process without any illnesses or injuries. Now, by the way, Zhenka knows exactly when he needs to rest – not just because he wants a break, but to be more effective in the next training session. In other words, rest has become an integral part of work for him.
As people get older, they generally understand better what and why they’re doing things.
Plushenko understood this back when he was just beginning to get his family from poverty to a decent quality of living. Nobody could have said it better than another one of my students, Lesha Yagudin – “I have to skate well so my family doesn’t live in a communal apartment[iii].”
Does your lifestyle allow for anything other than figure skating, something for your soul perhaps?
Yes. I love gardening and building. I grow decorative shrubs and build bridges on my country estate. I want to have my own Potseluev and Dvortsovy bridges[iv]. For now, though, I just have a bridge to nowhere. That’s because the swamp begins right where it ends. You can’t step there for fear of drowning. Naturally, I don’t build the bridges myself, but I always plant the shrubs with my own hands.
Where do you get the saplings?
I buy them. I once brought a lemon tree from Sochi by hiding it in the luggage. Everything takes on my land. I love watching how what I’ve planted is growing. I keep imagining what my garden will look like in five or ten years. That largely compensates for the small coaching setbacks that always accompany my work.
[ii] Plushenko is currently married to Yana Rudovskaya (http://paparazzi.ru/userdata/FROL935...7_fullsize.jpg), producer for the international sensation singer Dima Bilan. Her official bio is here - http://www.rudkovskaya.ru/htm/en/bio/.
[iii] In a communal apartment, each family would typically have one room, with everyone sharing kitchen and lavatory (for a bath, families would typically go to the public baths). While there weren’t too many of them left in Moscow by the 80’s, Leningrad still had a lot, including the apartments shared by literally a dozen families. A relatively small number of communal apartments still remain, largely populated by the elderly who reject the alternative of moving to the outskirts of the city with its poor infrastructure.
[iv] Bridges in Saint Petersburg. The former is a relatively small bridge over Moika river - http://ostmetal.info/wp-content/uplo...v_bridge1.jpg; the latter (“Palace bridge”) is perhaps the most famous bridge in the city, going over Neva right next to the Hermitage: http://www.spbtur.ru/uploads/posts/2...most_full2.jpg, when drawn, it looks like this: http://img-2004-10.photosight.ru/28/661882.jpg.