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15 April 2004 @ 11:42 pm
Kudryavtsev Interview  
Victor Kudryavtsev: In his school, he followed the American way

The Russian National champions of 2004 became a true triumph of Victor Kudryavtsev. His students -- Elena Sokolova, Julia Soldatova, and Kristina Oblasova took up the whole podium. That, given that two of this trio have left the coach, certain they'll never be back.

Victor Nikolaevich, did you suppose they'd be back?
Kudryavtsev stayed silent, listening to his own thoughts, aloofly rolling a glass of water between his fingers, and finally, after pause, having measured me with attentively piercing eyes, curtly replied, "No".

From the many years when I've observed this coach's work in figure skating, two ideas materialized almost as an axiom: Kudryavtsev is one of the best, most nuanced technicians of his sport in the world (if not the very best), and... He is the unluckiest of all his colleagues. His students left him as regularly as the graduates leave the college, barely attaining substantive athletic education. It is almost as at some point of growing up, some vital mechanism in the athlete-coach link broke beyond repair.

"Could they just lack human understanding?” I once quietly inquired. This was after Ilya Kulik, crowned the European champion, left the Kudryavtsev team. Apparently, the wound was too fresh. "I am not going to become their nanny", grumbled the coach, and quickly switched the subject.

In consequent conversations I tried avoiding the subject of relationships, as it was becoming ever more painful. Maria Butyrskaya followed Kulik as she left Kudryavtsev to train with Elena Tchaikovskaya. In 1998, Julia Lautowa and Julia Soldatova left Marina (Kudryavtsev's wife) to train with Tchaikovskaya. The former started competing for Austria, the latter was forced by the coach to take Belorussian citizenship, rationalizing that not competing for Russia guaranteed a place on a national team. Skaters were promised gold mines, and neither Lautowa nor Soldatova suspected that Butyrskaya's success will remain unique, and they will be in for huge disappointments.

From once the largest and most competitive group in the country, only Victoria Volchkova remained with Kudryavtsev at the end of 2000 (Sokolova went to look for the athletic happiness with Alexei Mishin to Petersburg). To all the journalists who seemed most preoccupied with the question of "who next?", the skater stubbornly repeated, "I will never leave my coach. We have a complete understanding".

In 2002 season, Volchkova started training with Oleg Vasiliev.

Though by then the first martlet has come back under Kudryavtsev's wing -- Sokolova.


Why didn't you expect to come back?

Somehow I did not believe that those who left will be able to re-examine the situation; not simply understand that we provided them with better conditions and more attention, but to really accept it. Turns out they accepted it, if they came back.

I constantly analyzed what happened. I tried understanding the reasons why they left. Certainly, we always had very high internal competitiveness. Add to that everyone's selfish motives. It's possible the athletes thought they weren't getting enough attention. Though I always found a way to work with each one individually. Even now, though Sokolova is the group leader, Soldatova for instance gets no less attention. Luckily we at "Moskvich" have enough ice. At the beginning of the season even Zhanna Gromova with her students (Slutskaya, Dobrin, Najdenova) worked at our rink, and we had no problem arranging for Slutskaya to not cross paths with Sokolova.

Whose leaving was the most painful?

Probably Sokolova. I put too much effort into her. Also, she had no real reason to leave. Lena always gave Volchkova the lead, but that was caused by the lack of real professionalism in her training approach, not some exclusive conditions supposedly created for Volchkova.

So, having taken back Sokolova, you created conditions that led Volchkova to think of leaving herself?

That conflict began long before Lena returned. Not so much with Vika, as with her parents. They constantly interfered in the coaching process. I remember when she just started skating with me, her mom immediately said, "You must select for her music that is beautiful, but slow".

Vika is a difficult girl as it is. All five years we worked together, she tried pushing the skating style she is comfortable with. From my perspective, though, it had to be very different.

Seeing that my plans and directions are not followed, I too often thought it could be pointless to continue the work that was doomed. So Vika leaving did not hurt me as much.

Coach changes usually lead to conflicts between old and new coaches. How hard was it for you to keep normal relations with Tatiana Tarasova after Ilya Kulik went to train with her?

I always keep normal relations. Even with Mishin when Sokolova went to him. You see, there can be different reasons why skaters leave. The athlete has a right to make a choice. For example, I can perfectly understand a skater who says he's tired of constant work with the same coach year after year, and wants something new. In that case, a switch can often be justified. And it doesn't mean that the old coach has to immediately sever all ties to the former student. If, that is, he wants to see him continue growing.

On the other hand, coach changes have to first: be financially fair; and second: be somehow explained to others. This avoids a train of gossips and innuendoes.

There is also a concept of coaching ethics. This includes relations with athletes who have switched coaches. It's hard to respect a coach who doesn't stick to the ethics. For instance, if you listen to Tchaikovskaya, you get the impression that all her students left their former coaches because those coaches have no talent, and by definitions cannot get any results. She doesn’t just say it about me either.

I recall being really surprised you not only remained friendly with Tarasova, but even helped her.

Tarasova asked for help herself. Furthermore, each time we met she always asked for my opinion. She asked for advice on the jumps and on Kulik's programs in general. Clearly, I was hurt and upset when Ilya left. But even after that he remained, to me, "my" athlete, into whom I've poured immeasurable resources. So why should I not continue to help him if he needs it?

Did you share the common opinion then that Tarasova won't succeed in single skating, since she knows nothing about jumps?

I realized that taking on Kulik was a huge responsibility. At first, it was indeed quite rough. I am sure there were doubts, as well as fear of experimentation. Even when the athlete jumps well, it often happens that something just doesn't work. It was at such a time that Tarasova turned to me. I consider it a very high coaching quality -- not being afraid to admit there is something you cannot do, to ask for advice. Because that's not what’s important. Ultimately, did Kulik start jumping worse with Tarasova? No, and neither did Yagudin.


Shortly before his death Igor Rusakov mentioned that the Russian Skating Federation insists he give his student Ilia Klimkin to Tchaikovskaya. How did he end up with you?

A long professional friendship united Igor and me. He was a decent single skater, always distinguished by his originality, imagination, and creativity. No wonder he went to GITIS and graduated. At one point my son Anton skated with him. Even then, I saw a serious coach in him. I trusted him. And he - me. Probably, that's why a year ago Rusakov gladly took me up on my offer to move with his skaters to the rink at "Tekstilshiki". We then got our own ice, while Igor kept having problems with it at SUP where he worked. I was also thinking that Rusakov is younger than I, and can eventually lead the whole school.

But you knew he was ill.

I never suspected it was that serious. I was certain he'd get better. To me, Igor's death was a real shock. I thought it was just a temporary worsening, it has happened before.

Don't forget, he got sick a long time ago -- seven, eight years. He then went to France to undergo some serious chemotherapy. He was getting better so fast that no one even suspected that the illness could come back. He was looking good, gaining his strength, confidence, and well of ideas.

Then, last spring he suddenly got worse. Igor again went to France but this time their doctors didn't even do anything. They probably knew it was pointless.

By May or June Igor no longer left home. I only got to see him once. He said he couldn't work, and asked that I take care of Ilya Klimkin. We then both thought it was just temporary.

Only when Klimkin came to my camp in Switzerland did I find out how serious his coach’s condition really was. Igor lost a lot of weight, and was so weak he couldn't even talk on the phone. At the same time, there was no pain. May be, if there was pain, the doctors would start something earlier and more aggressive. But no one suspected a thing. Igor himself did not want anyone to see him like that. He even seized talking to Ilya, though to him that was the closest person on earth after his mother.

It's easy for you to work with Klimkin?

Yes, very.


A few years ago, you substantively predicted Tara Lipinski's victory at Nagano Olympics, when she wasn't even 14 yet. Please explain why at home we keep hearing that the lady skater has to mature?

One of the reasons is that in America the athletes get exposure long before they start winning. Evan Lysacek, this year’s Junior Grand Prix Final and the Junior US champion, used to train with me. And even two years ago he won an expensive car via a sports lottery. It wasn't a coincident, but a planned action by the US figure skating association. The athlete who knows a lot of money has been invested in him acts differently. He feels responsible.

Ladies single skating is a separate issue. It's a cult in the US. It so dominates that the Nationals sometimes gather as many as 70 athletes in each age group! To complete such championships, they have to start at 7 am. For Americans, that's OK. They are used to it. Take Lipinski -- she trained 8 hours a day, and skated both programs daily. Our athletes cannot imagine this. American girls grow up realizing that one can become a 15-year-old Olympic champion. Ours can't even entertain such a thought.

Many still insist that Russia has as many talented kids as the US. Actually, the recent National championship supports this. Where does it all go?

You know what's the difference between American kids skating versus ours? All of our coaches put in so many triple jumps into the program that the child starts failing even what he was doing well before. Americans, on the other hand, only put in the elements they are consistent on. So they enjoy it more. They smile, they explore the music... At my school, I try following this route. We demand from the kids first and foremost exactness of movements. The athlete may not jump a triple, but he must do a double by the book. This teaches them from the beginning to be clean. Not to break. The difficulty can always be added later.


Talking about difficulty. Do you believe that any of the present generation of skaters will do all quadruple jumps?

A skater such as Plushenko could do it. However, it's one thing to execute each quad separately, and a different thing to put them all into one program.

If you had to create a model of a perfect figure skater, whom would you take from the present generation?

Good question. I'd probably take Yagudin's jumps. Plushenko's jumps are also excellent, but he doesn't have Alexei's explosiveness. For spins, I like Sandhu. He has a good variety, different from what others are doing, and a good rotation speed. For footwork and transitions, I've always preferred Kulik's style. Ilya always tried creating a skating unique to him. It should never be like a cookie-cutter. I recently saw a performance of his, and was seriously impressed as a coach. Though looking at the program overall, I prefer Yagudin's style – it’s extremely expressive, yet truly masculine.

I realize it's not too tactful to ask this question of of coach of vice-World champion, but assuming that an American lady skater will win the games at Turin, whom would you predict?

Michelle Kwan.

You think she'll get it for all her years in the sport?

Why? She now skates very well. A phenomenal skater.

How so?

Well, start with all the exposure I've mentioned. Kwan entered the World elite already a star. Though if you look at the details of her skating, it's nothing special. Even the spins, which the women tend to do better than men -- Kwan's don't have the power of Plushenko's.

Michelle has something else. Accuracy, finesse in execution of elements, exactness of musical phrases. Also, she now trains with Rafik Arutunyan, and Russian coaches work better than American ones.

I recently heard something similar from Tarasova.

It's the truth. By the way, after Tarasova was forced to break with Sasha Cohen, I heard from a reliable source that the whole action was planned and developed ahead of time. That it wasn't the matter of Cohen's mom, or Sasha's personality. Rather that a partnership of potentially the best skater with the Russian coach was originally unacceptable to the American federation.

What if Sasha Cohen stayed with Tarasova?

Then I'd bet on her in Turin.