The interview is by Elena Vaitsehovskaja, whome I consider the best sports interviewer in Russia.
Russian public doesn't normally see the life of professional figure skaters working in the US. Sometimes, though, they come back, as did a few days ago the Salt Lake City Olympic champion Alexei Yagudin. He started off immediately with a "I am back for good!"
"What do you mean - for good", I checked.
"I was going to get back to America in late May, but then I postponed it by a week. The more I'm home, the more I understand how I've missed it. So I decided not to go anywhere. Not until I have to start working on Stars on Ice.
"I AM RECOGNIZED!"
We started talking right at the Peter airport Pulkovo. "I'll meet you myself," said Alexei before over the phone. "I can't imaging how much I enjoy just driving around the city. Just walking along the Nevsky. I can't stop being amazed at how many gorgeous people our city has.
And, can you imagine it? - I'm reconized in Peter! I was standing on the street waiting for my cousin, and all of a sudden this man walks up to me. He says, "I keep looking at you, and I just can't believe it. Is it really you?" I was amazed - I haven't been in Peter in a long time, and the Olympics were a long time ago. It was so nice.
I visit Antoshka all the time. The first time I went to his restaurant Sphynx, Sikhuralidze himself wasn't in town, but all the waiters started smiling and fussing over me. I've been to that restaurant about five times - I like it a lot. Technically, it's a cafe/ bar - the prices are reasonable, but everything is very good and fresh, and the portions are plentyful. It's very cozy. Anton keeps trying to talk me into getting into business in Peter together. We should stop by there, OK? Though I promised to stop by the TV station first. We can talk on the way."
"I had no idea Anton and you were such great friends."
"Life brough us together. We were never really friends while on the team. Even when we first started skating together in Stars On Ice, there was a bit of tension in both of us. Then, though, we relaxed. He changed a lot, became more mature; so did I. People say we even skate differently now - more free, so to speak."
"I somehow assumed that after the Stars On ice tour you'll do some coaching, same as you did last year".
"I guess I'm just very tired. On the one hand, coaching is still very attractive to me; on the other - I can't force myself to make an extra trip to the rink. Stars On Ice is a hellish job, even compared to other tours. While I no longer do quads, the overall load is no less than for any amateur.
Starting in October, I didn't have one free weekend. I did two pro competitions - World Wars and World Team Challenge. I do as many triple as I can - salchow, lutz, flip, and toe loop. In the first competition (they are both team based) the World team comprising of Kurt Browning, Yuka Sato, Oksana Baiul and myself won over Brian Boitano, Todd Eldredge, Kristi Yamaguchi and Nicole Bobek. In the second competition in Canada, I skated the best among men. After the technical program, I shared the lead with Browning, and then I won the artistic outright.
By the way, competiting is not that easy. In theory, a pro skater can do whatever he wants to in his artistic program, but the rules contain a reminder - if a program doesn't have enough humps, the judges may consider it too easy and lower the mark. I got burned by it last year. In one of the competitions, I won the technical program (which is supposed to have three jumps), and decided there was no point in continuing to force myself. In the artistic program, I only did one triple jump, and ended up in third place. That's when I made an important conclusion - if you show up for a given competition, you must give it all you've got."
"To get into the Pro World Championships conducted by Dick Button through 2001, one had to go through qualifying rounds. How is it done today?"
"They invite whomever the audience likes. Unfortunately, there are only two such competitions left, which is clearly not enough. Pro sport today is no less interesting than the amateur one. Look at the men - Eldredge, Boitano, Browning, Kulik, myself... Everyone does jumps, despite the age. Boitano does his signature lutz with a raised hand, Browning dows his triple axel...
On the other hand, the interest in figure skating in the US keeps declining. You feel it even by the audience at Stars On Ice. Even though the program is far more interesting the previous year, the attendance is down."
"How do you explain this?"
"I think the extraordinarty popularity of figure skating in the US ten years ago was closely related to the Kerrigan/ Harding scandal, following by Oksana Baiul's win in Lillehammer. Then it started declining. In addition, America now lacks its own athletes who'd take top honors at major events. The shows themselves should be done different. Perhaps with a different music, choreography, costumes, ideas. Most ice performances are too conservative. There should be something that the people can look at and say Wow!"
"The was people reacted to your air number?"
"Yes. Consider, also, that the Strs On Ice producers, while going along with my idea, did not really believe in it to the last. Tatiana Tarasova came up with it, but at first it was rather nebulous - let's come up with something original. She started going over her ice shows. Actually, Tatiana never says, "Do this." She hints, and forces one to come up with ideas independently.
I bought a video of Cirque Du Soleil, and saw the number with an air gymnast. I thought - why couldn't I do this over the ice? I found a acrobat in the US, Cristine Van Lu, flew out to her in California, and we did the number right in the yard outside her home. Cristine has all the necessary equipment for working in the air, but we practived just a foot off the ground. We bought a special net, which can be used both as a rope and as a hammock - this gives me a chance to get a little rest in the air. I am not, after all, a gymnast.
When I got back to Lake Placid where Stars On Ice is rehearsed, I was first asked to sign a paper releasing everyone of responsibility in case something happens during the number. Don't forget, I was doing it without the safety net."
"Is it allowed in America?"
"You can work without a safety net at a height of no more than 21 feet. That's exactly the height I was working at".
"How does it feel?"
"The first time I was raised, I didn't even wait for the top height, I just screamed for them to get me down. Then I got used to it. The main problem was that at first I'd work my hands to the point they are bloody. At first I worked in my gloves, with a special padding at the knees and the waist to protect my back. Once we started touring, I really got used to it; ultimately I didn't need the gloves and padding any more. Almost after every performance, I'd get thanks for coming up with such an unusual number."
HOUSE ON A HILL
Having spent his time at the TV studio, and giving his place at the microphone to the Zenith soccer player Andrei Arshavin, Yagudin continued our conversation, but on a different subject.
"I'm buying a new car today. In this one", he patted the wheel of the old Chevrolet, "I spend half my life, but it's falling apart. So I want a new one. A Mercedes. With dark windows."
"You aren't planning to buy real estate?"
"Mom, granda, and I all live in the same appartment, but I don't want to buy another one for myself. There is no point while I don't have a family of my own. I am, though, dreaming of a house. We have a relativly big dacha, which my uncle and I built with our own hands. Mom and grandma conitnue growing vegetables and flowers there. I'd like their life outside the city to be more comfortable. I think it'll be beautiful. Our land is on a hill, with a great view. And it's only half on hour drive from the city".
"What are your plans for the future? If I recall, your contract with Stars on Ice expires in a year"
I hope to extend it. If the tour was eight months out of a year, it'd be different. Four months, though, are endurable. Despite the difficulties, I still greatly enjoy my work, especially toward the end of the tour when the programs feel very comfortably and you just do everything automatically. I wouldn't skate for money alone. Besides, I alwasy wanted to skate with that group. I told my agent that back when I skated in amateurs. He, though, said, "Lesha, to do that you must win the Olympics."
To this day, I don't know if I'd be invited to Stars On Ice had I not won at Salt Lake City. Perhaps I'd still be in, but certainly with a different compensation. Perhaps not. Most contracts are for four years, so the owners can always rework the group after the Games."
"It appears that, coming into Stars On Ice, you pushed out the Nagano Olympic champion Ilya Kulik. So after Turin the owners can similarly forsake you for another skater?"
"That's OK. There is, though, a catch. I don't know if Zhenya Plushenko will want to skate in Stars On Ice. Even if he'll win the Olympics, he'll encounter some problems. The show is owned by IMG, while Zhenya is represented by a different agency. I don't know of a single case when Stars On Ice took on someone from a competitor company. So it's not so easy even for the Olympic champions.
Though Kulik keeps skating as well. This years he did 20 shows with Stars On Ice. Overall, by the way, any skater in the group is replacable. During the shows in Canada we get more Canadians. For instance, this year Jennifer Robinson took Yuka Sato's place. And Jeffrey Buttle took the place of Sarah Hughes where she suddently appears on the ice from empty boxes. In other numbers, Sarah was replced by Shae Lynn Bourne, who skates alone after her partner Victor Kraatz left skating; she is actually quite good. I was (for a short while) replaced by Kurt Browning in a group number."
"I know you often visit Ilya Kulik and Katya Gordeeva in Simsburry."
"I wouldn't say too often. Ilya and Katya are busy people, they have two kids, which leads to other interests. But while Kulik skaters with Stars On Ice, I tried going to all of his performances. Ilya has many interesing ideas in his programs. He is also a good jumper. We were actually quite friendly even as amateurs."
"Even when preparing for the Nagano Games? I recall your then coach Alexei Mishin often saying that had you not caught the cold then, you should have won Nagano."
"I never though that. I knew I had a chance at the bronze at best. I walso saw that Tarasova would give it her all for her student. I was their interaction in 97, when Kulik got sick at the Europeans. I was in his room when Tarasova walked in. I was amazed by the warmth she radiated. She was like a mom - she brough some pills, something to drink. She was very worried about how Ilya felt.
I was astonded that such relationship could exist between coach and student. I was very jealous. I couldn't then dream that a year later I'd skate with Tarasova myself."
"Many think she's just very fantastically lucky at the Games."
"I wouldn't say that. Rather, she has a fantastic intuition about each of her athletes. There were times when I'd want to train, when everything was perfect, but she'd just end the practice. Or the reverse - you go out onto the ice with no energy, nothing is working, but she'd make me do to things again and again. In hingsight, she'd always be right.
I remember the Good Will Games in Brisbane in 2001? Tarasova was categorically opposed to me going there. I, on the other hand, thought I was in a better form than ever. I did four different quads at practices - flip, loop, salchow, and toe loop. I knew I'd never need those jumps in a program, but I just enjoyed being able to do them. I Australia I had lost dramatically.
Sikharulidze restaurant "Sphynx" didn't dissapoint. The owner lit up seeing us, and led us to our table. Great cuisine (Yagudin knowingly ordered meat carpaccio), cozyness, candles on the tables - a perfect set up for a conversation.
"I recall in 2000 after winning the Worlds you seriously tried convincing me that you didn't want to win the Olympics. Do you remember that?"
"More often, I recall 2001, when I lost all I could. Until then I didn't really loose. In 2000, I didn't get the gold at Europeans or Grand Prix Final, but I won the Worlds, and so had warm memories of the season. In 2001, everything was lost. The sock was absolute. More importanly, I remember well feeling the whole season like was playing roulette - will I have luck, or won't. Tarasova would hint of needing to loose weight, to work more, but she was waiting for me to come to that realisation independently.
Finally, I reexamined many things. In late may I took a vacation in Dominican Republic, and there I started running regularly. Despite the hear, I'd do it in three sweat suits. Perhaps, had I not had such a disastarous season, I wouldn't get there. Coming back to America, I moved in with Tarasova for a month - basically to put myself under her strict control, so I couldn't slip even if I lost the will.
There were relapses. I'd get so hungry I'd just go to MacDonalds and stuff myself with hamburgers. The next morning, I'd run not 30 minutes like I normally did, but an hour and a half. All summer I worked like crazy, most of it off the ice. I revised my own system of preparation. I intuited what was needed to loose the weight while maintaining the muscle mass."
"Did you have no time left for personal life, or were you so engorssed in your work?"
"I don't think you can get that engrossed in that kind of work. I just knew I had to do it. By the time the day was over, I knew I had no more energy to go anywhere or do anything. I'd just get myself to the bed. Even if I'd go out Friday night, I'd stay reserved.
It was a period of complete inner self-isolation. I'd even say of a need to be alone. If I were told I needed to go through that again, I'd probably refuse. Then, though, I had one driving force - Olympic Games. The harder I worked, the cleared I understood that no other competition can interest me at all."
"What would have happened had you lost in Salt Lake City?"
"I don't know. I wouldn't go crazy, but it'd take me a long time to get over it."
"I like skating at home. The opera will open in September in Saint Peteresburg and Moscow, but I hope to tour in other cities as well, while the Stars On Ice schedul will allow it. The idea for the opera is an old one. At first, it was a short animation film, which sort of used my image. That even won a prize. A bit later, we tought of a live show that would use opera and pop singers, live orchestra, and the theater of Igor Bobrin. I think it will be cool.