Entering into his ninth season as a senior competitor, Latvia’s Deniss Vasiljevs is one of the most experienced athletes in the current field of figure skating. Over the years, he has developed to become one of the most artistic and musical skaters of our time with his ability interpret a huge variety of styles. His achievements include winning the bronze medal at the 2022 European Championships, the silver medal at the Grand Prix in Sheffield 2022 and the gold medal at the CS Nebelhorn Trophy 2020.
When sitting down with the skater from Latvia this summer at his training base for seven years, Champéry, Switzerland, we learned more about his personal approach to both of his brand-new programs for the 2023-24 season. The skater, who turned 24 today, also shared his objectives and goals for the upcoming season as well as his process on consistency.
Crafting the new short program
The five-time national champion began his new season immediately after the 2023 World Championships where he finished 13th. He flew to the U.S. to begin working with choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne on his new short program in what was their first collaboration together.
“It was quite spontaneous, but it turned out to be a very transformative experience, where I had evolved my perspective on many things,” Vasiljevs recalled. “I deeply appreciated this time. It was joyful to work with Shea-Lynn and her family.”
The music is the very well-known song “Hallelujah,” but performed to the rather unknown version by Swedish musician Thomas Feiner.
“Shae-Lynn’s husband discovered it,” the skater recalled, “and from the first moment, I thought, ‘my god, this is beautiful!’ I feel like both Shae-Lynn and her husband pay great attention to what they do, and it really feels crafted and unique. They chose this piece based on personal observations.”
The song indeed has a great personal meaning to the skater.
“For me, this song is about love and passion and how hard and unfair it sometimes can be,” said Vasiljevs. “At the time we created the program, I could identify with it very well. When I skate to it, the pain and the beauty of the situation somehow blend together, because I can associate with it based on my own personal experience outside the song itself.”
“I also discovered the artist that wrote the song,” he added, regarding Leonard Cohen. “‘Hallelujah’ is truly a beautiful piece. So many have skated to it. But I seek to make it my own. I want to connect that craftsmanship, that Shae-Lynn did, with my personal work, that is supposed to grow on this program. I want to not just perform it, but also feel it, because the music is so soul-scratching.”
Vasiljevs recalls the conceptual process of his new short as a very intensive period of creative work, describing it as “deep work.”
“We worked on it for three hours straight and we drilled it to submission,” said the skater. “She constructed the program from the beginning to the end, which is not the way I am used to doing it. Because of that, it has an interesting fluidity, and the dynamics are harmonious. Absorbing how Shae-Lynn moves and how she skates, really felt like she created a masterpiece. I wish to bring more of those lessons I learned with her into my usual skating. She is a dancer and the way she moves also gave me a new focus when I skate. It’s about this inner awareness that the movements are connected.”
“I feel like I am still far from what the final result should be, but it’s a new level for me,” Vasiljevs admitted. “It was a really beautiful experience. I came maybe at my lowest, being very tired after a long season, but I left very happy and satisfied. She inspired me to make a great effort and I believe it paid off. Now I need to bring it up in a competitive way.”
Vasiljevs debuted the program during the show Fantasy on Ice in Japan in June 2023.
“At first, it was hard to skate it because it brought back the personal memories and the emotions,” he offered. “But then I got more towards the passionate part and remembered the positive things and so it became very energizing. The performance gets lighter and lighter, and we are now working on how to include the difficult jumps!”
The skater and his choreographer are in regular touch to refine the program.
2023-24 Free Skate
The new free skate was choreographed by Deniss’ long-time mentor and coach, Stéphane Lambiel, and will be to “Blues Deluxe” by Joe Bonamassa.
Lambiel revealed that the music was chosen after listening to a lot of pieces together with his student.
“We chose it because of a personal approach and also because his movements to it on the ice felt good and natural,” explained Lambiel. “The theme of the program is a love story. The singer doesn’t know much about love, and struggles with it, but still has an idea of it. And I think it’s very relatable for a young man of Deniss’ age who is trying to find himself in that field. I love seeing him interpret that. There are so many beautiful moments in this program!”
“While the short was made in six days, we are working on the free skate already for months,” Vasiljevs laughed. “It requires a lot of groove and I think it’s a quite difficult program. I love to move freely which suits this program. But if I give too much freedom, it easily starts to look sloppy and out of rhythm. That’s the main difficulty of this program. It’s a style I didn’t skate to much before, but I think it comes at the right moment of my life as an athlete and as a person. It connects very well with my personality and my character development. The program is still not fully framed for me yet, and it still feels very fresh, but I can relate to it.”
Lambiel added that it’s not a piece of music that every skater would be able to use because “blues needs a lot of groove.”
Vasiljevs debuted his free skate in a protected environment without getting filmed or photographed in front of a small audience at the final show case of the summer camp in Champéry.
“It was very important for him to skate the program there so that he understands how to react towards a crowd,” said Lambiel. “The groove of the blues allows to connect with the audience. I want him to understand and develop that in order to advance the execution of the program. I am looking forward to see that connection in competition.”
Goals for 2023-24
Vasiljevs’ most successful competitive season was certainly the 2021-22 season where he earned both of is current personal best scores, as well as the bronze medal at the European Championships. While having a great outing at the Grand Prix in Sheffield 2022, he stayed behind his own expectations at many other events during 2022-23 season. Especially in terms of landing his quads. While showing good success with his quad Salchow during practices of the 2023 World Championships in Saitama, and also landing two great quad Salchow- triple toe combinations in the warm-up before his free skate, he didn’t manage to execute it cleanly in competition.
“Last season was quite educational,” recalled Vasiljevs. “I want to structure my upcoming season mainly towards Europeans, and I really, really want to bring those quads! I know I am repeating myself, but I am figuring out how to do it. My success rate in practices last season really improved and I hope that finally accumulates for something.”
The European Championships will be held in Kaunas, Lithuania, only a three-hour drive from the skater’s birthplace, Daugavpils, Latvia.
“I am very happy that my parents will be able to come!” said Vasiljevs. “I am looking forward to having Europeans so close to my roots. I was skating in that ice rink when I was a little kid and when I didn’t dream of ever becoming a professional athlete. It will be a joy to revisit that place. Additionally, I would also like to relive the Lithuanian culture a bit, for example typical dishes like Cepelinai. Overall, I am really looking forward to that event and hope to be able to enjoy it!”
Vasiljevs was picked up for two Grand Prix assignments: Skate America and NHK Trophy. This will be the first time the skater will compete at Skate America where he will face the difficulty of a narrower ice rink than what he is usually used to.
“I want to get more comfortable and overcome my hesitations when I skate in a smaller rink,” he expressed.
In general, the skater doesn’t like “focusing on particular goals or milestones.”
“The most important part for me is that I want to not only do what I’ve been told, but I want to be living the moment,” Vasiljevs pointed out. “I want to experience the joy of performance. To push myself to my mindful limit. This goal is very hard, and very difficult to fabricate. The only way I ever experienced that feeling was through authenticity, a lot of effort in work and preparation and truly, very good self- and mental management when it comes to performance. I want to achieve that for the audience, but at the same time for myself, because I deeply love what I do. It can’t always go perfect, but it should always have some dynamics. That’s what makes figure skating so interesting to follow, to cheer, and what creates certain suspension. If it would be easy, it would be boring. Greater tension, greater elicitation.”
Lambiel emphasized that he wants his students to perform both of his new programs with his fullest power and passion.
“That’s my goal for him next season!” said the coach. “Both programs are amazing and very challenging and very esthetic and mature. I would love him to show figure skating in a dimension where maturity is at another level!”
The 2023-24 season will be Vasiljevs’ ninth senior season. He performed at seven consecutive European and World Championships and didn’t miss a single one of his twelve scheduled senior Grand Prix assignments. An admirable consistency for any high-level athlete.
Health and advice
Over the years Vasiljevs has educated himself in many fields that are required for a long-lasting professional sports career.
“I also started to put much more attention on my health,” he pointed out. “Regarding injury prevention, I learned that maintenance is very important, and you need to be mindful when you work. You have to be rested and recovered. You can’t endlessly push forward. That will lead to mistakes, or you simply overwork yourself. This can be very dangerous and can affect your well-being long term. That’s why it’s important to maintain your body. To do warmups, to do stretching, to recover passively: take a bath or seek the help of a professional like a physiotherapist. Your general fitness has to be very good.”
“Additionally, I would advise to never stop enjoying small moments away from all the hard work you put in during practices,” said Vasiljevs . “We all have something we comfort ourselves with. I believe these things need to be there and need to be used in a productive sense.”
Another factor that contributes to the physical and mental health of a high-level athlete is nutrition.
“I definitely got much better with quality of nutrition and taking care of myself over the years!” Vasiljevs pointed out. “I would advise to adapt your nutrition towards your blocks of practices. To go away from the classical pattern of breakfast, lunch and dinner, but rather towards fueling and recovery.”
“Usually you practice, then you do some cool-down maintenance and then you eat,” he explained. “I eat something with high protein after each practice. That is the best way, but it requires preparation. In my case, I plan what I am going to eat for the entire week. I prepare my food in the morning and set up my whole day of food.”
“I would also advise to keep at least one meal very constant and healthy,” added the skater. “In my case, I have porridge for breakfast every day. I love it, it’s very simple and it also keeps me disciplined.”
Vasiljevs emphasized that discipline is needed regarding nutrition as an athlete, but that it’s also important to have a “cheat day” once in a while.
“During my weekly day off, I just really enjoy the food that I love!” he said, smiling.
Structure and habits
Over the years, Vasiljevs has tried to structure his days with a lot of rituals and habits. Some worked, others he didn’t find useful.
“The ritual that was most beneficial to me is journaling and keep tracking small victories, not only in skating,” he said. “That really boosts up the confidence. And this is so important regarding my mental health. It helps you focusing on the positives.”
It was also extremely useful for the skater to establish a morning routine.
“A milestone for me was definitely getting over my caffeine addiction problem,” admitted Vasiljevs. “I was mentally believing I could not do things without coffee. I did a detox because of that and proved myself that I can perfectly function without coffee. This was one of my greatest victories of the last year. Now I am much more mindful in consumption of caffeine, and I can tell it also significantly improved my sleep.”
Another factor that deeply affected the skater was mindfulness and meditation.
“But mediation is a huge field,” Vasiljevs pointed out. “There are so many ways to experience it. Even skating can somehow be called a meditation. Being much more mindful throughout the day, following the breathing, following the body tension, because I am a person that tries to force a lot. Understanding all those things is not so easy.”
Vasiljevs also feels organizing his day helped him to keep track of what he did.
“But it surely isn’t easy,” he admitted. “I also realized that I was doing too much at some point and that partly also influenced my performance on the ice. When I push myself to the kind of limit I explained earlier, when I enter the state of attrition, it doesn’t work for me. I really need to be mindful how I utilize my time!”
While accumulating new habits and rituals to his days, it was also time to let go of older habits.
“I barely play video games anymore, something I really enjoyed when I was younger,” shared the skater. “I had to abandon it, I started to replace things. I had a big issue of watching too much YouTube videos. I discovered that, when you manage to have a deep focus on something for four or five hours of really focusing on a project, then you are the most productive. And it doesn’t work if you distract yourself with something on the side.”
Sharing experiences and looking ahead
About a year ago, Vasiljevs came up with the idea to write a book about his personal journey, to share his experiences with young athletes.
“I would love to share some episodes that did happen to me, that taught me, that gave me a good inspiration,” said the skater. “But I don’t want to put it in a way, like this is correct, and this is incorrect. Everybody works and feels differently. My motivation is to show people, if they pay attention, they will discover a lot. It’s more about mindfulness. To give a different perspective. I will try to explain things that I tried and didn’t work for me but would still encourage people to try as it perhaps would work in their way.”
Vasiljevs helps coach lessons with young skaters, on and off the ice, at the Skating School of Switzerland.
“It’s really helpful for me to explain how to do certain things, to put it in words,” he said. “And it’s really an amazing feeling if you have a student that is eager to learn and really wants to improve. It’s such an immense joy for me. We both push and I become very creative. On the other hand, when I have a student that is overworked or not passionate, it’s really hard. I think the motivation has to come from within. I appreciate when the kids come in to really want to work compared to the kid that lacks the inner motivation.”
Away from skating, Vasiljevs went through an optical change during this off season and “shocked” his fans by cutting his signature ponytail to a short bob-cut.
“I just felt like the long hair needed too much maintenance and it was actually difficult to skate with it!” Vasiljevs laughed. “On a personal level, I decided it was a good moment to have a good fresh start and something new for myself!”
Like the previous year Vasiljevs plans to open his season at the Challenger Event 2023 Ondrej Nepela Trophy in Bratislava before competing at his Grand Prix events. His overall career goal has been set: the Olympic winter games in Milan 2026. This would be his third consecutive games and should mark the end of his competitive career.
In the meantime, when not competing or training, he is focusing on his master’s degree, working on his own fantasy novel and performing in shows. Vasiljevs surely has a lot of options and a bright future ahead after his competitive career.