Russian figure skating plummeted into depression with the retirement of the stars from 2006. However, while ice dancers and pairs still made the podium at Worlds and Europeans, and some men medaled in the Grand Prix, the future of the ladies seemed bleak.
A top ten-finish at Europeans was suddenly considered to be somewhat of a success, while in the decade before, Russian ladies dominated the event. In just one season, however, Alena Leonova managed a surprising turn-around and put Russia back into business in the single division for ladies.
The cheerful girl from St. Petersburg first drew attention when she skated well in her two Grand Prix events this season, finishing seventh at the Cup of China and fifth at the Cup of Russia. Leonova performed better and better as the season progressed, and placed fourth in her debut at Europeans. She also won the Junior World title —the first Russian lady in eight years— and had a strong debut at Worlds where she placed seventh.
The 2008-09 season ended with good performances and a respectable sixth place at the World Team Trophy.
“I couldn’t even hope after being injured at the beginning of the season that it would turn out to be so successful,” the 18-year-old said. “I didn’t give up after the disappointing performances at Russian Nationals, and I was rewarded for that. Probably I had some luck too, but overall, everything I achieved was thanks to hard work and commitment. This was an extraordinary season, but my best season is yet to come, of course!”
Russian Nationals last December were indeed the low point of the year for Leonova. She skated rather poorly in the free skate and finished only fifth overall.
“For the third year I wasn’t able to skate well (at Nationals),” the Russian sighed. “I don’t really know why. Everybody is saying that I’m skating well at the international events, but I just can’t do it at Nationals. Maybe it was because of the pressure that I put on myself. I thought about making the team for Europeans and things didn’t come together for me. I also skated last and I don’t like to skate last. Everyone already has skated and you know that they skated well.”
Nevertheless, the Figure Skating Federation of Russia still selected Leonova, along with with bronze medallist Katarina Gerboldt, for the European team as the 12-year-old gold and silver medalists were not age-eligible. There was still Nina Petushkova who was ranked fourth, but the Federation gave Leonova the nod thanks to her good results in the Grand Prix. It turned out to be the right decision.
Leonova actually had a slow start into the season as she tore ligaments in her right ankle joint last August during a summer training camp in Sweden. “I didn’t skate for a month,” she noted. “I did a lot of physiotherapy. I’m still stabilizing the ankle.” However, the injury didn’t seem to affect her.
“I started to take practice more seriously and my coach pays more attention to me,” explained Leonova. “At practice I’m training with my coach and choreographer, and they are watching me all the time. And I’m skating my programs like ten times. I’m so tired sometimes. I just crawl off the ice! I’m exhausted, I come home, and I go to bed right away. That’s hard, but it pays off.”
Maybe the illness of Leonova’s friend and competitor, two-time Russian Champion Ksenia Doronina, worked in her favor as it allowed her coach to place more focus on her. Doronina, who is training together with Leonova under Alla Piatova, came down with mononucleosis and missed the whole competitive season. She came back to practice only late during the season, and Leonova was happy to have her back.
“We are very good friends,” Leonova pointed out. “We’re always helping each other, and I learn from her and she learns from me. We are rivals in competition only.”
Leonova’s break-through gave her new confidence. It meant a lot to her to prove that it was too early to write off the Russian ladies. “Obviously it was not very nice when they (the Russian Figure Skating Federation and press) wrote us off and started to talk only about the young ones that are coming up —about Lisa (Tuktamysheva), Polina (Shelepen) and Adelina (Sotnikova). So of course I had to prove that we are still here, that we can fight for success and we —the old ones— are still capable of a lot of things,” she laughed. “I think I proved that.” She definitely did.
Like hundreds of Russian children, Leonova started skating when she was about four years old. Her mother read an announcement for figure skating classes and signed up her two daughters and her son.
“I first skated on a small, rectangular sheet of ice,” recalled Leonova. “There were lots of children, and it was like a public skating session. Everyone was skating or moving alongside the boards. Later, we all moved to the Jubileini ice rink. I ended up in the group of (Tatiana) Mishina and Alla Jakovlevna (Piatova) who was her assistant at this time. Then they started to work separately and I was given to Alla Jakovlevna. I’ve always been with her since then.”
Leonova’s sister and brother, both younger, retired meanwhile from competitive skating. Besides skating, Leonova is studying in the School of the Olympic Reserve. In her spare time, she loves to dance. “When I’m not too tired after practices, I might go out dancing in the disco or somewhere else together with my sister and my brother,” she smiled.
Leonova is a lively, outgoing girl and her skating reflects her personality. She sends out such positive energy on the ice that watching her you just can’t help but to smile with her.
“I’m energetic,” Leonova answered when asked to describe herself. “I enjoy life. I’m a little bit romantic and sometimes I’m whiny when things don’t go well and I might start crying. I’m not so nervous anymore as I used to be. I’m cheerful, athletic.”
“My biggest weakness is probably when things in practice don’t go well,” the athlete continued. “I switch off right away. I just like to relax. When the coach shouts at me, “no, stand up, do it again!,” I’m just like “nah” and start crying.”
Leonova is currently training at the Figure Skating Academy in St. Petersburg, a facility with two standard ice rinks and a big room for ballet and off-ice training. There is also a cafeteria where 40 nationally ranked skaters can eat for free. Recently a new medical center with a massage room and a relaxation pool were added. Since last summer, a psychologist has been working with the skaters to help them to deal with nerves and stress.
Leonova, who lives at home with her parents, gets up at seven in the morning and leaves for practice after breakfast. “It’s actually quite far, one hour and 15 minutes, but they (St. Petersburg Figure Skating Federation) are helping me now to find an apartment near the ice rink,” she said. “Usually my mum or my dad drive me to the ice rink and then it’s like 20 minutes. I have practice, and when the break is not too long, I stay at the rink.”
The World Junior Champion works off-ice on choreography and has lunch at the cafeteria. In the afternoon, she has her second practice or off-ice training. “Then I’m stretching and I go home to rest, to sleep, or I go online to Kontakty or Facebook.”
Leonova is also currently studying at home for her coaching diploma, and since her school is specifically for athletes, she has the opportunity to pass her exams on an individual schedule after the competitive season is over. She would like to work as a coach and choreographer in the future. “I’m creative and I like to put together programs,” she said.
For the Olympic season, Leonova is preparing two new programs. “I can only say that both programs are already done, but what kind of programs they are and the music, I for now want to keep secret,” she explained. In another interview earlier this year, she said that she would like to do a Tango.
For this next important year, Leonova also hopes to include a triple toe-triple toe combination into her routines. “I will work towards it. I had it in the summer before the injury,” she pointed out. The summer preparation consists of training camps in Sochi at the Black Sea and in Novogorsk in June, after which she will go to Switzerland for two weeks. This is followed by the traditional one-month training camp of the St. Petersburg figure skating school in Sweden.
The skater Leonova admires most is two-time World Champion and two-time Olympic medalist Irina Slutskaya, the most successful Russian female single skater in history. “She is my biggest idol. I love how she skated and some people are saying that I’m similar to her in my way of skating and my character. I’m striving to reach her level. I want to do what she did,” Leonova announced with determination.
In five years, Leonova sees herself ‘on the podium’. “I don’t know yet at which competitions, but just on the podium,” she underlined with a smile.
The first step can be done in the Olympic season in which Leonova has set her eyes on the podium at the Grand Prix and Europeans. “First of all, I don’t want the next season to be worse than the last one, especially since it is a very important year as it is an Olympic year,” the skater said. “Physically and emotionally I am already preparing for it. I want the spectators to enjoy emotional and strong performances.”