Andrei Lutai is a strong contender for the Russian Olympic team this season, but it won’t be a walk through the park, and he knows it. Competition inside Russia has been tough for decades, and once again, there is whole group of talented young men competing for two spots at the Olympic Games and World Championships in 2010.
Last season, Lutai placed seventh at Europeans and 10th at Worlds, overtaking two-time National Champion Sergei Voronov at both events. Besides Voronov, Artem Borodulin, Alexander and Vladimir Uspenski, up-and-coming Ivan Bariev and others are in the hunt for a spot on the team.
Evgeni Plushenko’s return to competitive skating only adds to the excitement, and Lutai knows exactly what to expect from the Olympic Champion since he is training with him once again in the same group under Alexei Mishin’s tutelage.
“Well, I’m forcing myself to work even harder!” Lutai laughed when talking about the impact of Plushenko’s comeback. “It is actually a good motivation for me. I’m watching Zhenia (Plushenko) and I watch how much he is working and I’m comparing myself. He is the [current] Olympic Champion. I’m looking at him, even when we go to play soccer. I’m just striving to work harder, to do even more in order to become the best. I just have to prove that I’m not worse, that I’m not the number two. I’m still striving to be the number one. The aspiration is there and this is helping me in my work. I’m not upset at all about his return.”
The preparation for this important season is well under way. Lutai took part in Mishin’s summer training camps in Tartu, Estonia, Pinzolo, Italy and Mittenwald, Germany in June and July. He returned to St. Petersburg earlier this month. “Maybe I’ll go to Belgorod for two days, to my hometown. Then we’ll so we’ll prepare for the test skate [at the end of August] and for the upcoming competitions,” the athlete explained. A lot of work was done at the training camps, and the skater now has two new programs.
Lutai chose the dynamic Carmina Burana by Carl Orff for the short program and the more lyrical Peer Gynt Suite by Edvard Grieg in a modern arrangement for the free skating. “My girl friend Ina (Demireva, Bulgarian ice dancer) suggested the short program to me. I showed it to Alexei Nikolaevitch (Mishin) and he also liked it,” revealed Lutai. “The only thing is that a part of the music contains lyrics. I have a friend who suggested a good musician and DJ to me and he will now arrange the music in a way that the lyrics are completely dubbed.” Lutai learned from Brian Joubert’s mistake when the Frenchman received a one point deduction for allegedly using lyrics in his short program at 2008 World Figure Skating Championships.
Lutai explained that it took him a long time to decide about the free skating music. “We had different ideas ranging from cheerful to serious music. In the end, Alexei Nikolaevitch (Mishin) suggested this alternative to me, and the choreographer Evgeni Kovtun traveled to us to Italy. As soon as he arrived, we switched on the music. I liked it and I’m all for it. I liked all parts. So we started to put the program together. It is not a completely classical version and I think there are different moods within this music. Some parts are more cheerful and others are more sad. I like it because it is easy to listen to.”
The 23-year-old plans to go to Finlandia Trophy and to one competition of the national Cup of Russia series in order to prepare for his two Grand Prix assignments (Rostelecom Cup of Russia in Moscow and Skate America in Lake Placid). He also would like to compete at the Coupe de Nice in France if it fits into his schedule. “I like competing there and it is a nice place. I went there four times,” Lutai said, smiling.
For Lutai, it is important to do well in these competitions. He doesn’t want a repeat of what happened at the beginning of the past season. “The last season was difficult for me. First of all, because I took a long time to get into shape. I didn’t skate my best at the Grand Prix. I skated with errors. At the time Russian Nationals came around, I basically started to do better in practice. But when Nationals started, an old injury started to hurt – the foot that I had broken four years ago. The right ankle started to hurt and obviously I took care of it, but I continued to practice. By the time of Europeans and Worlds I skated well. The only setback was the injury. In practice before competitions I only rarely practiced the quad. I was even careful with triples. When I did a few, the foot really started to hurt for a long time,” he recalled.
After Worlds last season, Lutai took care of the injury. “I had more time to heal my foot, more time for rehabilitation and prophylaxis. We were in Sochi at a special rehabilitation camp. We took therapeutic baths and had all kinds of therapies, so the injury is not so bad now. Although I still feel it, but it is not [the same] kind of pain. I’m practicing my programs full force now. I’m getting into shape,” he pointed out.
Lutai wants to be ready this fall. “Of course at the Grand Prix [events] I’ll try to skate without mistakes and to be in shape. The most important goal is to make the team for the Olympic Games. Obviously the Olympics would be the most important competition and the goal is not only just to qualify, but to put out 200 percent there and all season. I want to give my best performances this season. I want to land all my jumps. I was told that I’ve got good programs now and I want to show high level skating and achieve high results,” he stressed. Right now he is planning to include a quadruple toeloop in his long program.
Like many other skaters, Lutai had to leave his home and family in Belgorod early for his skating career. His mother, who is now retired and used to work as a speech therapist in a kindergarten, sent all three children to skating. Lutai’s sister Elena, who is 15 years older, became a coach and even coached her little brother. “She (Elena Malakhova) coached me when I started. She was my first coach. She was coaching me until I was 12 years old,” he recalled. “I had to call her by her first name and patronymic, Elena Vladimirovna (like all the other students), but only in practice. As soon as the practice was finished everything was back to normal,” he added. Lutai’s 31-year-old brother, Alexander, didn’t stick with skating and is now working as a manager in a firm.
Lutai left his hometown in pursuit of more professional practice conditions when he was 12 years old. He first went to Samara for one year and was then accepted into Mishin’s group in St. Petersburg. Although the two-time Russian silver medalist adapted quickly to life in the “northern capital” and feels comfortable there, he still feels homesick at times. He gets to go home to see his family in Belgorod (in the south of Russia) about twice a year.
Lutai first names technique as his strength as a skater. “I think I can do difficult jumps, including the quad. I think my strength is [not only] within the technique, but now also within the programs. While you can say that I wasn’t too artistic a few years ago, I now think that I achieved a high level in the choreography. We’ve worked a lot on that in the past year and in the year before. Obviously it is getting better and better,” he noted. His biggest weakness seems to be inconsistency. “When I’m not in the best shape, my weakness is lack of confidence,” Lutai admitted. “When I just start the season, it is hard for me to get into it, but I just have to overcome myself. Like last year, I started the season without confidence, but this year I will take it more seriously. I will force myself not to pop jumps and not to do any other individual errors. I will try to make less errors,” he vowed.
The athlete likes almost everything about his sport: “I like communicating, the competitions, the training camps – but not the long ones,” he laughed. “I like them even though I’m a little homesick and want to get back to St. Petersburg. I feel more comfortable there.” Is there anything he doesn’t like about skating? “Too much work,” he joked. “Actually, when we are at a training camp we are skating for five, four hours and you don’t even notice how quickly the time goes by. I like that. When you are going to a training camp you are thinking, ‘oh, we’ll skate a lot’, but in fact the training sessions are over very fast, and in the evening you are in a very good mood. We also have some distraction and we play soccer in the evening. We are playing carefully. All of us are athletes. We all have to watch out and play not too roughly. But overall it’s a good additional off-ice practice, we are running after all. It’s fun.”
Lutai sometimes seems a little shy and introverted and doesn’t like to talk too much about himself. However, he has a good sense of humor and is open-minded. Asked which three things he would take if sent to an isolated island, it doesn’t take him long to decide. “I’d take a magic wand and that’s it,” he laughed, “so one thing is enough for me.”
When asked to describe his personality, Lutai shook his head. “I can’t. You’ll have to ask my coach!” Mishin thought for a moment and then answered: “You know, he is a very good-natured and nice boy. As he came from the Volgograd region he lived with families of other athletes (after he came to St. Petersburg), and the parents of these athletes always spoke highly of him. He is polite, he is always cleaning the dishes, he is always tidying up. He is respecting the people that are around him. But I think it would be better if he would be less good natured and more fierce. More fierce, not only in life, but during the practice process. As we saw with Zhenia (Plushenko), he is not good-natured but fierce in practice. If Andrei can acquire this kind of fierceness and is demanding more from himself, he can achieve very high results,” the experienced coach analyzed.