When seeing the exuberant joy that Estonia’s Niina Petrokina displays on the ice, as well as the landings of her effortless triple jumps, one would never have guessed that she came back from a near-fatal illness. The 18-year-old finished ninth at the 2023 ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan, improving her previous placement by seven places, as well as scoring the best result for Estonia at Worlds. In doing so, she also secured two women’s spots for next year. However, three years ago, Petrokina never dreamed she would have achieved these results. In fact, she didn’t even know if she would ever compete again. She just hoped to live.
Flashback to the 2020 ISU World Junior Figure Skating Championships in Tallinn, Estonia: Petrokina was considered an up-and-coming young skater, but she performed poorly on home ice and finished a distant 33rd. She had been unwell for a while before that.
“It was very difficult for me to train,” the skater recalled. “I skated poorly at Junior Worlds because I was not prepared and then we went to the doctor.”
The diagnosis was a shock: Petrokina suffered from aplastic anemia, a rare blood disease that could have killed her. Aplastic anemia is a condition that occurs when the body stops producing enough new blood cells. The condition leads to fatigue and patients are more prone to infections and uncontrolled bleeding. Aplastic anemia can develop at any age. It can occur suddenly, or it can come on slowly and worsen over time. It can be mild or severe.
“I was diagnosed with the most severe stage, requiring constant blood transfusions to maintain the minimum required level of blood cells for life,” Petrokina recalled. “My hemoglobin was so low that it was difficult for me to just walk and climb stairs. I was getting hematomas. I could forget about training.”
She urgently needed a bone marrow transplant, but no suitable donor was found. As the athlete’s condition worsened, the doctors decided to go for an immunosuppression therapy.
“I had a 50/50 chance,” Petrokina said. “On the whole, I was in the hospital for five months without any physical activity. At most, I just walked along the hospital corridor in the evenings, because I had no strength to do more.”
The doctors told her at the beginning that she needed to stop skating for two or three years.
“To stop for two or three years in figure skating means that you can end your career,” the Estonian Champion pointed out. “I was hysterical and fell into a little depression, but then I pulled myself together and told myself that everything would be fine.”
The therapy worked and the skater started slowly to recover. She was even allowed back on the ice.
“My first practices were short,” she recalled. “I kept my heart rate monitored with a heart rate monitor to prevent excessive strain on my heart, because my hemoglobin was much lower than the norm and there was not enough oxygen in the blood. I had blood tests every week. At the hospital I had a central venous catheter, with two tubes sticking out of my body. I was not allowed to fall.”
“At that time, there was no question of a skating career at all. It was a fight for life,” said Svetlana Varnavskaja, who has coached Petrokina since childhood.
However, skating served as sort of a medicine for Petrokina and she was determined to come back to the ice. She is very grateful to her doctor who agreed to let her return to training.
“We discussed all the risks, what we could do, what to avoid, and how to monitor my physical condition during training,” said Petrokina. “It certainly helped me to recover faster. I was cold, all my muscles were aching, and I was afraid to go for jumps. But with each training, it was better not only physically, but mentally as well. I was gaining confidence that I would be able to return to the sport soon.”
A year after the diagnosis the teenager started to compete again in 2021.
“Originally, I was only planning to skate the short program, but then we decided to do the free program as well,” shared the skater. “The free skating without a break was not working. I skipped some elements, had a rest, and just waved my arms, but I skated to the end.”
Petrokina had to continue to take medication and go to the hospital regularly for checkups, but the doses and the visits to the hospital could be reduced step by step. Eventually her blood count returned to the minimum norm.
“It was a victory,” she said. “This illness changed my outlook on life.”
Petrokina celebrated a successful comeback in the 2021-22 season and continued her ascent in 2022-23, even though not all competitions went as she had hoped. Nevertheless, the top-ten finish at Worlds made up for all disappointments earlier in the year.
“Worlds was the best result for me,” she said of the season. “I am also pleased that I was able to defend my national title. Nevertheless, this season turned out to be very hard. Even though I believe I did more competitions in the 2021-22 season when I did the Junior Grand Prix and many smaller events. This past season started not very well for me because I was a little excited after the good results from the season before. I wanted to start even better, and it turned out the opposite. But this is also an experience that I will take into account for next season. I won’t chase after my goals right away, but I will start step by step.”
Varnavskaja summed up her assessment of the season: “I am happy with our understanding of each other and the athlete’s approach. I am not satisfied with the fact that we did not show the maximum of Nina’s abilities.”
Following Worlds this past March, the Estonian Champion graduated from high school. After her last exams, she enjoyed a ten-day vacation in Spain at the end of May. Now, the focus of skater and coach is on the upcoming season.
“When we plan the training process, we are looking at the key events of the year when the athlete needs to peak, and then we are working from backwards,” Varnavskaja explained. “The goal is to make the program more difficult, to improve the quality of the performance, and to put it out at the most important competitions of the season.”
Making the program more difficult means to include the triple Axel. Petrokina has landed the jump in practice but has not attempted yet in competition.
“In order to include a jump in major competitions, you need consistency in practice; not nine out of ten, but ten out of ten, for it to work out in competition,” said the skater.
Petrokina pointed out that there just was not enough time during the season to work on the triple Axel as she had to prepare for competitions and didn’t want to risk injury. She was also busy with school. Now it’s on her agenda for summer training.
“First I have to take care of all my injuries, minor ailments that everyone has, so that nothing will disturb me,” she explained. “Then I’ll start to work on the Axel again from zero, so to speak. I haven’t done it in quite a while, and it will be interesting to see how it will go.”
Her coach agreed: “We need time to train the triple Axel and to do it in the program. This is difficult to do during the season and now we’ll get to that.”
Petrokina and her team decided to keep her Free Skate to “Dusty Road” and “Prelude – Age of Heroes” by Havasi, which was choreographed by Mark Pillay.
“First of all, it is difficult to change programs,” the skater acknowledged. “The free skate is very well-constructed. So far, I can’t say that it was easy for me to skate it, especially at the beginning, as it was mentally tough. Now I am getting there, and I can only improve from there.”
Petrokina revisited the story of the program in which she is an empress who reigns.
“In the beginning all is good,” she explained of the plot. “However, in the second part, a war is starting, and I need to step in as the hero and fight. At the end of the program I win, and I remain on my throne.”
The storyline ironically mirrors her own personal struggles and challenges.
“For sure I’m changing the dress,” Petrokina added, laughing. “I have this velvet dress, and in rinks like in Japan and Canada, it was very hot! I was dying, even in practices. Definitely I need a much lighter dress!”
The 2022 Budapest Trophy bronze medalist will get a new Short Program, but the music is still pending.
“The short program was successful, but it is for one year,” confirmed Petrokina. “It will not make the same impression as people already saw it. For myself, I have decided a long time ago which music I want and how I want it, but I need to decide together with my team. There are some aspects that my coach doesn’t like so much. I hope I can dispel her doubts.”
The athlete does not want yet to name the music she’d like to skate to, but she revealed that she plans to work with Mark Pillay again. She only said that some people might feel it is somewhat similar to “Give Us a Little Love” from the past season.
“However, I don’t really think so,” said the skater. “I just feel that everyone liked the last short program. It was something unusual and I read many comments that people want something similar or again something unusual. I know that it is difficult to find something better after a successful program.”
“The music selection process is always ongoing. We’d like to try new styles, but it has to be comfortable for the skater,” Varnavskaja commented. “We have different music options and we’re deciding now.”
While the music is still to be decided, the summer training plan has been set. Petrokina already attended a two-week traditional training camp in Finland last month. In August, she and other Estonian skaters will join Javier Fernandez’ camp in Madrid as she did a year ago.
“I really liked it there and this year it’s going to be maybe even better as Nathan Chen will come,” said Petrokina. “This is very exciting and interesting!”
The test skates of the Estonian skaters will be held this year in mid-August, just after her 19th birthday.
Petrokina feels she has developed a lot in the past year and has gained more experience by competing at major events.
“So it’s not such a shock for me anymore,” she shared with a laugh. “I am going there calmly and compete calmly. I’ve worked a bit with a mental coach and probably will continue that as it distracts from unnecessary thought and just gives me the ability to focus on one thing at a time. I have not changed much from the outside, I changed more in the inside. I think I am much more confident, in spite of the bad competitions. Especially since the World Championships and the short program there gave me confidence that I can compete with the medalists at big events. Now I can possibly contend for the podium.”
Varnavskaja feels that the past season marked the transition from juniors to seniors for her top student.
“Niina has matured and her skating has become more conscious,” the coach pointed out. “She is energetic, hard-working and soberly assessing her capabilities. At the same time, Niina has a natural charm that draws people to her.”
The coach added that she felt “the beauty outside and inside” are her student’s strengths.
“I’ve been working with Niina since she was a child and different things happened,” said Varnavskaja, “but in our collaboration, mutual understanding and humor always exist.”
Varnavskaja recalled that “little Niina” stood out as she was very small.
“She didn’t really want to skate, she rather wanted to play with boys,” recalled the coach. “But I saw that the girl has all the qualities of a figure skater and a fighting spirit. Therefore, I patiently instilled the love for figure skating in her.”
In the fall, Petrokina will start to study for her coaching diploma to have a higher education. However, she might not necessarily become a coach and might decide to study something else following her skating career.
“I’m interested in design and also in psychology, sports psychology,” she revealed. “All my friends are telling me that I like to support and help others in difficult times, and they said I’m doing well with that, like a psychologist. However, this is difficult and takes a lot of time. I don’t know yet how my life will turn out after skating. Maybe I’ll first perform in shows. So for now, my plans are the university, training and definitely getting my driver’s license.”
The skater is bilingual in Russian and Estonian, and also wants to improve her English.
“I want to be able to speak fluently and not doubt what I am saying,” she said. “When I’m giving an interview, I can phrase a thought nicely in my mind and I know what I want to say, but I can’t express myself in English like in Russian or Estonian. I feel it is getting better, but it is not good enough for me. I am a perfectionist and want it to be ideal. When I go for something, I have to go to the end and do it the best possible way.”
Petrokina was very happy to have been assigned to two Grand Prix slots this year: Skate America and Cup of China. Currently, she is scheduled to compete first at the Challenger event Lombardia Trophy. She will then travel to China to compete at the 2023 Shanghai Trophy. This will be the first time that the skater has been to both China and the US.
Coach Varnavskaya is confident that great things are ahead for her student, adding that “she has the potential to become a leader.”