They teamed up on their own initiative but then almost broke up because they didn’t get along anymore and had trouble finding the right coach. Now Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov have achieved a viable working relationship, found a suitable coach in Oleg Vasiliev, and are ready to fulfil the promise they have given when they won the 2005 World Junior Championships.
That win was a victory against the odds. Not only was Mukhortova suffering from a throat infection that almost forced the couple from St. Petersburg to withdraw, but they were also up against the talented Canadian team of Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison. However, Mukhortova and Trankov pulled off a strong free skate and moved up from third place after the short program to take the title. It was typical for this couple as nothing seems to come easy for them.
In search of a new partner, Trankov moved from his hometown Perm to St. Petersburg in 1999 when he was 15-years-old, but he didn’t have money to rent an apartment. “At the beginning, I more or less lived in the coaches’ room at the ice rink for about half a year,” the athlete recalled. “At this time, I trained in the SKA ice rink in St. Petersburg, and then I moved in with the soldiers who worked at the ice rink. I stayed with them in their rooms underneath the tribune of the rink and lived like a soldier,” he smiled. “There was a cafeteria at the ice rink and I got one free meal there per day. I had to take care of the other meals myself. Sometimes the coaches or my partner brought me some food.” Trankov lived like this for three years before moving into an apartment.
Mukhortova is a native of St. Petersburg but her father is from Lipetsk, a city about 375 kilometers southeast of Moscow, and she started to skate there when she was six-years-old. She wanted to skate pairs because she found the discipline attractive, and she moved back to St. Petersburg together with her mother when she was 13-years-old as there were no pair skating opportunities in Lipetsk.
By 2003, both Mukhortova and Trankov had trained with different partners in the same practice group of coaches Liudmila Velikova and Nikolai Velikov. Mukhortova had traveled to the Junior Grand Prix and World Junior Championships before with Pavel Lebedev, while Trankov was skating with Natalia Shestakova. “We skated for one year with different partners in the same group,” explained Trankov. “We actually could have teamed up one year earlier, but Masha (Mukhortova) decided not to switch partners. She had an important season with Lebedev (they were ranked 4th at the 2002 and 2003 World Junior Championships).”
Eventually Mukhortova and Trankov decided to skate together. “She and Pasha (Lebedev) didn’t get along, and for me it was hard to skate with (Natalia) Shestakova as she was so small,” explained Trankov. “So when Masha and Pasha had another fight, I suggested that we skate together.” Mukhortova agreed right away. “I asked her Saturday and the next Monday we were skating together!” Trankov said. Shestakova and Lebedev teamed up as well and won the 2004 World Junior Championships while Mukhortova and Trankov claimed the bronze.
But it wasn’t easy for Mukhortova and Trankov to gel as a team. “No element was working and we asked ourselves why we ever switched partners,” recalled Trankov. “We weren’t really prepared when we went to our first Junior Grand Prix (2003 Czech Skate) and we hadn’t even skated our complete program in practice. But when we won there, we started to believe in ourselves.”
Mukhortova and Trankov moved up to the senior level with the 2005-06 season and left a good impression on the senior Grand Prix and were sent to the 2006 post-olympic World Championships after Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin declined the spot. They finished in 12th place. However, their coaching troubles started right after. Nikolai Velikov, who mostly works with junior teams, suggested that Mukhortova and Trankov should be coached by his wife Liudmila from then on. “But she is a soft person and we needed a strict coach who could show us our place,” Trankov pointed out. So they went to Tamara Moskvina, who offered them help.
“We worked a lot for a month,” recalled Trankov. “We did new programs, we were busy, and it was going well between Masha and myself. But then we started to lag behind her schedule and we started to lose our jumps because of the other elements.” Their relationship with Moskvina began to deteriorate. “It was partly my fault because I have more of an artistic approach to the work,” explained Trankov, “but Tamara Nikolaevna didn’t value our opinion too much. She was the boss and our input wasn’t needed.”
Moskvina and the couple felt that their alliance was not working. The skaters then went to Artur Dmitriev, a two-time Olympic pairs champion and former student of Tamara Moskvina, who just had returned to Russia after working in the USA for some years. Dmitriev, however, was busy with shows in Russia and couldn’t commit to coaching full-time. “We had about ten practice sessions with him in three months, so we basically trained on our own,” admitted Trankov. “Obviously we ran into trouble. It’s very hard to train on your own, and we aren’t professional enough for that.”
On top of that, Trankov pulled a muscle in his leg during the short program at Cup of Russia in November 2006. Plagued by injury, personal quarrels, and being without a coach, the couple thought about retirement or splitting up. “It was a hard time and we thought about retiring and going to a show or ice ballet,” Mukhortova revealed. “I’d had enough. Psychologically, I was a broken person.”
Tatiana Tarasova noticed the problems of the skaters and asked Oleg Vasiliev to take them. He agreed and he turned out to be exactly the coach Mukhortova and Trankov needed: Understanding but strict, calm and able to quench their emotions when they would flare up, and demanding but reassuring. A month later the couple won Russian Nationals in early January 2007 with a great short program and a good free skate.
Mukhortova and Trankov seemed ready to challenge at the 2007 European Championships, when bad luck struck again. On the landing of a throw jump in practice, Mukhortova spiked her foot with her own blade. She was in a cast for a while and the team was forced to watch Europeans on TV. They came back for Worlds, but they obviously weren’t fully recovered and finished 11th. It was the end of a turbulent season. The 2007-08 season, on the other hand, was a bit smoother.
Mukhortova and Trankov medalled for the first time at the Grand Prix, taking the bronze at Trophée Bompard. They were narrowly edged out for the bronze at the Cup of Russia by teammates Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov, and as a result, ended up being the first substitutes for the Grand Prix Final. At Russian Nationals, Kawaguchi and Smirnov came out on top again, but both teams made some errors in their performances. Finally, Mukhortova and Trankov debuted at the European Championships and earned the silver medal ahead of their national rivals.
However, Trankov had been battling an injury since the fall, and unfortunately it hit him hard at the most inappropriate time – during the free skate at Worlds. The skater suffered from swelling in his right arm, couldn’t really bend it, and had trouble performing the lifts. “Maxim told me just before we went out to skate that his arm is really bad and that he doesn’t know if he can finish the program,” Mukhortova recalled. He stopped 3.11 minutes into the routine as there were still two lifts coming at the end and he didn’t want to put his partner in danger. Luckily, Trankov was able to finish the performance (including the two lifts) after a short medical break where Russian team doctor Viktor Anikanov cut open the sleeve of his costume to facilitate the blood circulation. Mukhortova and Trankov came in 7th place.
“There were positive and negative aspects of the season. There was the problem with Maxim’s arm that prevented them from delivering a good free program at Worlds. It was a rather serious problem and it took us two months to find out what was wrong,” said coach Oleg Vasiliev. “Everything else was good in the season, except for some results that we had planned differently. Overall it was a significant progress compared to last year.”
Trankov agreed. “Considering my injury it was a good season overall.” The injury problem started with what he thought was a stiff neck in the fall, but in fact he luxated the first cervical vertebra. “It’s a rather difficult problem,” explained Trankov. “The doctor told me that you can’t fix it with massage but only with osteopathy, which needs a lot of time. We’re doing that now and I feel that my body is adjusting. My body had already orientated itself to the left. I adjusted to the left, for the jumps and for everything else, and that wasn’t good. It’s better now and I didn’t have any problems anymore with my arm during the last one and a half months. Obviously I was doing less lifts and twists, but I started doing more now and so far it’s fine.”
“There is progress and the most important thing is that we realize what we are doing, which wasn’t always the case before,” Mukhortova pointed out. “We just used to come to practice, we were told to do something, we did it and we went home. Now we know what we are doing and why we are doing it. There was a change within ourselves and our coach helped us to change our mind set. We grew up and we got more experience.”
During spring after Worlds, Vasiliev worked a lot on the basic skating skills with his students, mostly with Trankov, who was lacking in this area. “I’ve worked a lot on the footwork, on the basics, because nobody taught me this when I started skating back in Perm,” Trankov conceded. “So when the new judging system with all these steps came, it was hard for me because I couldn’t even do the simple stuff, to be honest. Now it starts working out and I understood what I have to do with my feet.”
The couple, who has used Prelude by Sergei Rachmaninov for the free skate for two seasons, are currently working on a new long program. “I’m very happy that we are changing the free. I never liked it,” Trankov revealed. “Rachmaninov is my favorite composer, but it was hard for me to skate to this music because I never felt adequate performing to it.” Both Trankov and Mukhortova, who prefer not to reveal the music yet, have high hopes for their new program.
“This program, if it works out as planned, is about Masha and myself,” explained Trankov. “We don’t really have to play anything on the ice, because it’s just us. We’ll play ourselves.” The team, together with their coach, chose the music. “We really like it,” said Mukhortova. “We are enjoying working on this program and we think that this music really suits us.” Trankov will play the role of a hooligan, while Mukhortova portrays a young lady who tells him not to come too close to her. “I think we’ll be able to illustrate that,” added Mukhortova, laughing.
The skaters and Vasiliev haven’t yet decided if they will change their short program or keep Otonal by Raul di Blasio from last season. Trankov actually hopes to change it as he is always looking for something new and different which suits his artistic temperament. The 24-year-old is a huge fan of Russian hip-hop and writes lyrical song texts.
Mukhortova and Trankov are currently practicing in Chicago from June 22 through July 13 before they return to St. Petersburg. In early August they want to spend two weeks at the annual training camp of the St. Petersburg skating school in Sweden and then continue preparing in their hometown for the upcoming season. Vasiliev plans their first competition for the end of September or early October and wants to send his students to one of the international fall events in Europe. They are currently scheduled for Skate America in October and Trophée Bompard in November. Their plans are set: the Russians want to challenge their national and international competitors.
“The strong point of this couple is their individuality that isn’t yet completely exposed,” Vasiliev remarked. “Technically the skaters have two different very consistent side-by-side triples in practice, and it’s just a psychological factor that prevents them from performing these jumps a 100 percent in competition. But we are working on that and I’m sure that we will achieve a 100 percent eventually. Consistency is our reserve that we haven’t used yet fully. We are refining the elements. We are working seriously to achieve the highest possible score with the technical skills that they have. Our job is to do what we can do for a 100 percent. This will be not just one, but two or three steps forward for the team.” “I totally agree,” nodded Mukhortova. “The most important thing is consistency and confidence – and to skate with so much joy that judges and spectators like it.”
“Our goal is to qualify for the Grand Prix Final, because Masha and I never competed in this event,” Trankov added. “Secondly, we want to fight at least for the same place at Europeans that we had last season (second) and to come as close as possible to Aljona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy – meaning, not to lose so clearly and even try to win if this is possible. At Worlds, I think we can compete for a spot in the top five or top three.”
Mukhortova and Trankov have ambitious plans for the new season and hopefully the ride will be smoother than in the past.