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“Russian joker” Evgeni Semenenko celebrates break-through season

When 17-year-old Evgeni Semenenko took to the ice for the Short Program at the 2021 ISU World Figure Championships in Stockholm, Sweden, the very first major championship of his life, a Russian official joked: “Here comes our joker.” The man was right. Semenenko proved he had nerves of steel when he delivered two flawless programs with two quadruple jumps in each and finished eighth his debut at this event. Who is this teenager from St. Petersburg who played a decisive role in giving Russia the chance to have three spots in the men’s event at the Olympic Winter Games for the first time since 2002?

The 2020-21 season proved to be a breakthrough for Semenenko, who has been training in Tatiana and Alexei Mishin’s group since he was eight years old. He showed good performances in almost all competitions of the season. Only in his senior debut at the 2021 Russian Championships did the skater’s nerves fail him—he made several mistakes to finish eleventh.

“After that, of course, I was very disappointed, but then I worked hard again and prepared for the junior championship,” he said. He won that with over 10 points to spare and made his coaches happy as it was the first time since 2012 that both the men’s junior and senior title (Mikhail Kolyada) went to the Mishins in one season.

The selection for the second spot at the 2021 ISU World Championships was difficult. European Champion Dmitri Aliev missed Russian Nationals following his Covid-19 illness and was not able to get into shape for a while, and other candidates did not show consistent performances. The Russia Cup final in February was determined as a qualifying event, and although Semenenko won ahead of Petr Gumennik and Aliev, he didn’t really expect the federation to send him to Stockholm. But that’s exactly what happened.

For the most part, the Russian skating community, social media and fans took this decision critically. How could the federation send such an inexperienced skater, who only had one grand prix (Rostelecom Cup) under his belt and had not yet even competed at the World Junior Championships yet? Many insinuated that Russia risked ending up with only one quota for the Olympic Games.

Semenenko felt that criticism, too. “I read positive, but also many negative comments on Instagram,” he said.

The pressure on him should not be underestimated. In order for Russia to have the chance for three spots for the men’s discipline for the 2022 Olympics, the combined placements of Kolyada and Semenenko at worlds could not exceed 13. This would ensure that the country could then send a skater to the Olympic qualification competition, Nebelhorn Trophy in this case, to try to earn that third spot for Beijing.

And Semenenko delivered. The newcomer finished eighth in his debut, three spots behind Kolyada, to seal the deal. The Russian men have now secured three spots for the next World Championships by their placements without any additional qualifying process.

“I especially want to thank Misha Kolyada for cheering me up,” said Semenenko. “He told me not to pay attention to what people say, just do my thing. I qualified honestly; it was fair. I deserved this trip to the World Championships.”

Coach Mishin agreed and he was pleased with how his student did. “Zhenia (Evgeni) helped us all out and he helped out the federation that got a lot of criticism for sending such an inexperienced skater,” Mishin pointed out. “People were saying ‘send an experienced one, send an experienced one,’ but they sent an inexperienced one. I think this was the right decision.”

“Our guys had to show an even higher level (at the World Team Trophy) than at Worlds and that was difficult,” the coach added. “Our leader, Misha Kolyada, and our debutant, Zhenia Semenenko, presented themselves from their best side and surpassed themselves.”

Semenenko kept his nerves under control. “I am actually equally nervous in every competition,” the skater confessed. “The most nerves this season I felt were not at the World Championships, but before the short program at the Russian Junior Championships, because the Lutz didn’t go well in training.”

Evgeni Semenenko was practically unknown and came out of nowhere. A sixth-place finish at the Junior Grand Prix in Salzburg in 2017 was his only result at an ISU competition. That was mainly due to injuries that kept slowing him down.

“I was 14 when I had the first injury,” Semenenko recalled. “I had a stress fracture in my tibia and I didn’t skate for a month. That happened during a growth period.”

Semenenko struggled for two years with injuries, including hip problems and other ailments, however, he didn’t think about giving up. “I believed in myself and I know I’m not the only one who went through something like that,” he said. The coaches didn’t let him down either and kept encouraging him. During the 2019-20 season, the skater slowly came back and celebrated his major breakthrough.

There are several reasons for the improvement of the St. Petersburg native, who, in addition to the quad toe and Salchow, has landed the quad loop in competition. On one hand, he was healthy and could train continuously. On the other hand, Kolyada, a top international skater and role model, switched to coach Mishin.

“I am very happy that such a strong athlete as Misha, whom I can look up to, has joined our group,” said Semenenko. “I am watching him and try to take the positive things from him. His jumps are rated +4 and +5 (grades of execution). This motivates me not to lag behind and to develop.”

This was also something master coach Mishin had on his mind when he took Kolyada on. The sparring partners push each other in training, compete with their quads and exchange ideas. With Lisa Tuktamysheva, the 17-year-old has yet another world-class skater in front of him every day.

Semenenko is more than satisfied with his first season on the big international stage. “I am very happy that I could participate in competitions with world level athletes and see how they skate,” said the teenager. “I gained huge experience at the World Championships and the World Team Trophy and I’m happy that I was able to achieve good results.” He particularly looked up to stars such as USA’s Nathan Chen and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu. He also liked Chinese skater Han Yan and the Japan’s Shoma Uno and Yuma Kagiyama at the World Championships.

Semenenko knows he can still improve his overall skating and the quality of his elements, but he also sees his progress. “I recently looked at older performances and saw a big improvement in the components,” he said. “Now, at the Team Trophy, I was already much better than at the beginning of the season, and you can see what we have been working on. The jumps have also become more consistent. Before, I sometimes underrotated jumps, but that’s also better now.”

Now the Russian Junior Champion is looking ahead. He will graduate from high school in early summer and plans to take up studies afterwards, preferably in medicine. “My mother is a doctor and she can help me study. I would also like to become a doctor,” he revealed.

For now, Semenenko will remain a figure skater. He and his team will probably do two new programs for the Olympic season. “The coaches will give me their suggestions now and we will come to an agreement, I hope. The style in the short program will certainly change, as for the free skate, we’ll see.”

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