When Latvian skater Deniss Vasiljevs performed at the 2015 ISU World Junior Championships earlier this year in Tallinn, Estonia, he was awarded by lots of applause and cheers by the spectators. While he didn’t win a medal, he finished a respectable seventh out of the 24 competitors who qualified for the free skate.
The 15-year-old enjoyed similar success last year in his debut at the World Junior Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria, where he placed eighth. Aside from his two Junior Grand Prix (JGP) events, he also placed first at the junior level in a whopping five international competitions that season.
The two-time Latvian Junior champion easily connects with the audience and stands out as a real entertainer on the ice—a rare quality for a skater of his age. When talking to Vasiljevs, you realize quickly that he has an appealing and interesting personality off the ice as well. Other young skaters are often shy when they have to perform in front of judges and an audience, however, this is not the case with Vasiljevs.
“In general, when I go out to compete, I try not to think about anything,” he explained. “I just think about what comes to my mind in that moment, like a book or a movie. Then when I start to skate, everything has been finalized and I just think about the elements one after the next.”
The athlete from Daugavpils, Latvia’s second biggest city in the southeast of the country, is satisfied with how his season went.
“I improved in all aspects,” said the teen. “Last year, I was seventh in my first and 10th in my second JGP events. This year I was fourth in both. Last year I was eighth at Junior Worlds, and this year already seventh. Slowly we are getting closer to the podium.”
Vasiljevs’ head coach is Lithuanian Ingrida Snieškienė, who mainly lives near Paris with her family, and so the skater splits his time between Latvia and France. Russia was added to the mix as the 1994 Olympic Champion Alexei Urmanov joined his coaching team earlier this year.
“I am a rolling stone,” Vasiljevs noted with a grin. “I’m skating a bit here, there and there.” The teen proudly added that he began travelling alone from his hometown to Paris at the tender age of nine.
“I am very happy that we are progressing and moving up in small steps,” Snieškienė commented. “A team is very important in the sport and we hope that with Urmanov’s help, we’ll progress with bigger steps next year.”
Vasiljevs, who took up the sport of skating when he was three or four, says it was just coincidence that he got into the sport.
“My parents wanted me to swim as I often fell sick and I had to become stronger,” he explained. “I went just to improve my health, but they didn’t take me in swimming, because I was too small.”
Opposite the pool, however, was an ice rink.
“They were signing up children in the figure skating section and they took me,” the European Youth Olympics silver medalist recalled. “It started to work out and they found potential in me.”
Coaches, in any sport, are generally able to recognize talented children early on.
“He worked like crazy and he wanted it so much,” recollected coach Snieškienė. “He listened and did (what was asked). Obviously, the most difficult time was in the beginning when he started to go to big competitions and he didn’t have any experience. We worked on everything by the second, the practice, and the six minute (warm up)… all this.”
“The first time I went to (Junior) Worlds (in 2014) I cried, because I was afraid not to make the final,” admitted her student.
Obviously, there was no need to worry. Not only did Vasiljevs make the top ten, he impressed ISU officials so much that they awarded him the ISU development stipend a few months later.
Vasiljevs’ first memory of skating is collecting chestnuts on the ice.
“They taught me skating through my love for chestnuts,” recalled Vasiljevs, laughing. “My mom went along the boards and threw chestnuts for me on the ice and I picked them up, crawling on the ice on the knees and on all fours.”
From collecting chestnuts, he progressed quickly to become a promising skater and now no treats are needed to lure him on to the ice.
“I love skating,” affirmed Vasiljevs, who will turn 16 in August. “You get this freedom and this feeling of excessive joy as if you were flying over the ice. It is hard (to achieve), but it is nice.”
Vasiljevs already actively takes part in the process of building the programs. For example, he created two interesting positions in his spins. He looks up to Canada’s Patrick Chan, Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi and Spain’s Javier Fernandez.
“Patrick Chan, because he skates very well and jumps very well,” explained the Latvian. “He is the number one. Daisuke Takahashi is number two, because his skating is just glorious. I always liked his style and way of skating. Javier Fernandez is also skating and jumping very well. He opened the gate for all of us (Europeans) and nobody thought (that he would get that far).”
Off the ice, the Latvian Junior champion is a diligent student, studying in ninth grade in his hometown. Currently, he is busy in school with his exams. He enjoys drawing and is interested in military history and combines his interests by drawing detailed pictures of historic armies.
“I like to draw many small details,” said Vasiljevs. “I don’t like to paint with colors, but I like to draw with pencils and pens, as you can draw ideally each small thing with them.”
Snieškienė describes her student as “a very smart kid and very goal-oriented.”
“I think these two qualities are very important for any person and he has them,” said the coach. “He is also a very kind, good-natured person.” Indeed, he comes across as very amicable and has a genuine, open smile.
Once the exams are done, the skater hopes to see Snieškienė and build a new short program. Next month, he will join Urmanov in Sochi and train with him during the summer.
For the upcoming season, Vasiljevs wants to master the triple Axel that he has worked on, but not yet landed in competition. His team decided not to attempt it this past season.
While the he wants to get a new short, Vasiljevs will keep his “Tron” free skating to the soundtrack by Daft Punk that was choreographed for him by former French ice dancer Benoît Richaud. The plan is to start the season on the JGP and to debut at the European and World Figure Skating Championships.