Ukrainian ice dancers Alexandra Nazarova and Maxim Nikitin celebrated their biggest success when the won the bronze medal at the 2015 ISU World Junior Figure Skating Championships earlier this year in Tallinn, Estonia. Aside from Natalia Gudina and Vitali Kurkurdym, who also earned a bronze back in 1996, they are the only Ukrainian ice dance team to make the Junior World podium.
However, the 2012 Youth Olympic silver medalists were on “double duty” this past season. Not only did they compete at two senior level Challenger Series events, the Junior Grand Prix circuit, and Junior Worlds, but at the European and World Figure Skating Championships as well.
For the upcoming season, Nazarova, 18, and Nikitin, 20, are preparing to compete at the senior level only, although they still would be junior eligible this upcoming season.
“The first impression from the past season is that it was difficult because we had three programs,” explained Nikitin. “At first, it was difficult to switch from the Samba/Latin (junior short) dance, to the Flamenco/Paso Doble (senior short dance).
Although their free dance remained the same for both levels, the senior version was 30 seconds longer by requirement.
“Once we managed that, it was probably just physically hard because we went to many competitions which cost energy,” said Nikitin.
Nevertheless, competing at the senior events and at Europeans gave them confidence going into Junior Worlds, especially when they came in 11th in Stockholm. After Europeans, they felt it would be a bit difficult to go back to the junior level when they competed in Tallinn.
“I just liked it in seniors,” said Nikitin. “It was more interesting for me and I preferred the Paso Doble, for our short dance. However, we had to end our junior career at a high note. It has been a long time since the Ukrainian flag was raised at such an important event. We had a chance and we didn’t want to miss it and it worked.”
While the Ukrainian champions had success as juniors, they realized at Worlds in Shanghai that they would have to start from scratch again to work their way up in the senior ranks.
“At the World Championships, I realized that that this is really our level, our place,” Nikitin pointed out. “We finished 17th and I know that there is a lot of work ahead. In order to move up just one spot, you have to put in a huge amount of work and there are a lot of competitors.”
Armed with this knowledge, the team is motivated and understands that they cannot be “stagnate in their development.”
“We are working on new elements to integrate them into our programs,” Nikitin offered. “We try not to keep one element and we want everything to be new.”
This is what the Ukrainians, who had moved to Moscow in 2013 to train in Alexander Zhulin’s group on the suggestion of their long-time coach Galina Churilova, set out to do this spring and summer. At the end of the season, they first worked on their new free dance in Olimpiski ice rink with their coaches and choreographers. While the ice dancers call it mostly “teamwork” that leads to their original elements, much comes from Nazarova and Nikitin themselves.
“We prepare the lifts in the gym with our acrobatics coach,” Nikitin revealed. “We get done quickly and we have nothing else to do and we are thinking of something else, so we are growing step by step. Many lifts or elements we created ourselves.”
“I’m often watching shows and performances in the internet,” added Nazarova. “For me, it is interesting how it is done on the floor. In dance, not only are there lifts, but just nice transitions and I think about how to transfer them on to the ice. Sometimes at home, I come into the room and say (to Nikitin), ‘Look, let’s try!'”
She praises her partner for never shying away from a new challenge.
“Usually I’m pestering him, saying I want this and this and this,” Nazarova admitted. “We start trying something and many partners would say ‘No, what do you want, this is hard, I won’t do it, it doesn’t work,’ but here is nothing like that with him. We always start trying and he might add something and make it even harder and it works. This is what I like best about him.”
The ice dancers stand out, and when you see them among other teams, you can’t help but look twice. The young team captures the spectator with their originality, expression and unique elements. They recently attended the Russian Acrobatic Rock’n’Roll Championships to watch their acrobatic coach compete and to look for new inspirations.
“After that, we had many ideas that we could take from their sport to our sport,” Nikitin explained. “We have many lifts that are currently not allowed by the rules, but we can do them in exhibition programs. Just for our development, we do what is not allowed, and from this, something personal and unusual comes out.”
In mid-May, the team took a month off training to return home to Kharkov to pass university exams and spend time with family and friends. On June 15th, they resumed training in Moscow for two weeks before leaving for a five-week training camp in Erzurum, Turkey.
“When we were at home, (former coach) Galina (Churilova) suggested that we start coaching and help the younger generation, which we did during our whole vacation,” said Nazarova. “We tried to stay in shape and skated our programs all the time.”
“Now we are in Turkey and we’ll return to Moscow on July 30,” she continued. “The first time, it was a bit tough to train in the mountains, but we got used to it already. Our job now is to skate our programs, get into character and build our physical shape. We really like being here. There are excellent conditions for training.”
For the free dance, the team is skating to a selection by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
“We wanted to show something new, because everybody expects something fun from us,” Nazarova explained. “We are always fooling around, doing weird programs. We like that, but we realize that people want to see something else from us. Plus, we are moving up (to the senior level) and we need to show something different.”
“In 2012 at the Youth Olympic Games we had a program to Evanescence, a rather serious one, while the other ones were funny,” said Nikitin. “So we decided to do something more serious, something classical. This will be a new character for us. It is interesting to see if it works or not. Yes, if we do something fun and crazy as usual, it will be funny and good, but we have to grow and we cannot always do the same.”
On the same token, the World Junior bronze medalists made sure to keep their originality.
“We changed the music and did everything differently, but we want to keep our specialty in the elements,” Nazarova pointed out. “Therefore, we thought of some ideas and I think it will be interesting to watch.”
“We’ll try not to disappoint,” added Nikitin. “We’ve already prepared some interesting things for the new season and I think people will appreciate and like them.”
For their short dance, the Ukrainians picked a Waltz and March by Johann Strauss.
“We skated the Waltz many times in juniors as pattern dance,” noted Nazarova. “One year we skated in juniors and novice and we skated five or six Waltzes and I didn’t like one of them. We skated the one for this season in juniors as well, but this Waltz (Ravensburger) is the fastest and I like it. Right now, it doesn’t feel so comfortable yet, but I like it better than the Samba.”
Although Nazarova and Nikitin don’t really like to talk about it, the difficult economical situation in Ukraine with the civil war in the eastern part of the country affects them. They feel the lack of money and they have to pay for training and living in Moscow, one of the most expensive cities in the world. They are currently renting an apartment together, half an hour metro ride away from the rink.
“We try not to think about it, not to watch news or read anything, just live here (in Moscow) and work and do our job,” Nazarova said.
“Of course, our financial support could be much better,” Nikitin added. “There never was a lot of money in Ukraine for our sport, and it is difficult to ask for money at this time, because there really isn’t any. Therefore, we are glad to receive some help, but it is hard.”
Nikitin, for example, had to keep a pair of skates for two seasons as he couldn’t afford buying new ones. The dancers are grateful for the support they receive from their federation, the city of Kharkov, and their mentor, Ukrainian ice dance judge Yuri Balkov, and are happy when they can earn some prize money.
“We’ll find some solutions, because we want to skate and we will skate,” said Nazarova. “You do the maximum to live your dreams.”
The team has been selected for one Grand Prix, Skate America, and they’d like to do two senior B events. While they’d like to do one before their first Grand Prix event, they not yet finally decided which ones.