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30 January 2009 @ 01:58 pm
Usova interview  



Maya Usova: “Those who remained are real heroes”

SATURDAY CHATS with Elena Vaitsehovskaya

Every time I run into Maya Usova at competitions after this outstanding skater has left the sport, I think that I hardly know of a harder fate. Spending 20 years in the sport, winning the European and World championships before the Lillehammer Games of 1994, and then losing the big one. And where? In ice dancing! It’s the sport, where in those times the line to the podium lasted years and Maya with her partner and husband Alexander Zhulin dutifully stayed there ‘till the end.

It was two years prior to those Games that Usova had a personal tragedy. Her family practically fell apart, and all that remained of the once warm on trusting relationship was a piece of paper. However, they had nowhere to go. They had to keep pretending that everything was in order.

Then, she was alone for a long time. She was sick, fighting depressions… The only bright spot was her short period of professional skating with Evgeny Platov. After skating together for a few months, the dancers even managed to with the professional world championships. Yet the sport soon ended, and Usova remained the US. At the time, I thought it was for good. Then, suddenly, she called, “I am in Moscow. I got married. I work at the rink.”

A year later, we met up at the Odintsevo rink.



Maya, I’ll be honest. If someone asked me to list the coaches who work in America but could potentially come back to Russia, your name would be the last. If I wrote it down at all. Yet you came back. Why?

If you recall, when Moscow hosted World championships in 2005, the Russian figure skating federation quite unexpectedly invited all of its former champions to attend. I wasn’t planning on going. My life was by then very quiet and routine. I had mom, house, dog, and rink. On the ice, and worked with the very little kids, and enjoyed it greatly. It’s such a rewarding work! I’ve said many times that without figure skating, I’d become a day care teacher.

In any case, I really didn’t want to go anywhere. For one think, my shoulder hurt a lot, causing nausea and dizziness. Yet mom insisted that I went to Moscow. According to her reasoning, I had to go at the very least to remind the fans of my existence.

I argued that figure skating is well in my past, but she forced me to accept the invitation nonetheless.

Then on the second day of the Moscow competition, I saw the Russian team doctor Victor Anikanov. I told him of my pains and asked him to arrange a consultation with a specialist, because I just couldn’t handle the pain any longer. Right there at the stadium, Anikanov introduced me to Anatoly Orletsky, my current husband.

Orletsky has worked with the various teams for years. It’s hard to believe you never met before?

I was never injured, even bit. Correspondingly, I had no reason to seek doctors. I guess this was fate. When Orletsky started examining me, he lifted my hand three times, and I fainted from the pain. That was the beginning. Later on, I tried to grill my husband as to what made him notice me. Tolya said I had incredibly sad eyes.

What about your shoulder?

It required surgery, but this is the kind of procedure that’s not yet done in Russia. Therefore, I just go through therapeutic procedures. As it turned out, the problem is not in the joint, but in a hematoma that has formed under the collarbone. I only have one theory about this injury. When I started skating professionally with Zhenya Platov, we obviously practiced in America. Rinks there are very cold. One time, we were working on a spin, where Zhenya spun me holding me by the leg. From the cold, his fingers suddenly let go. I, obviously, flew to the side, fell quite hard, but did not even understand how exactly I fell. There was no pain, I just couldn’t breathe momentarily. I guess that’s when this injury occurred.


After you and Alexander Zhulin finished skating as amateurs, I often thought that your career was very cruel, so to speak. You worked toward that Olympic gold medal for so long, you sacrificed so much to it – and then you lost. How do you look at it?

I certainly don’t consider it senseless. I’ve been thinking lately about how everything the person goes through is predetermined from above. Sasha and I are still remembered, loved, and I am often reassured that in many people’s thinking our sports rating is far higher than some of those have become Olympic champions. The only mistake, and it is purely my mistake, was remaining with my partner after our family fell apart. It could have all been different then…

What do you mean?

My career. I should not have held on to my relationship with Zhulin. I should have partnered with Platov there and then. At one time, our coach Natalya Dubova threw Oksana Gritschuk out of her group precisely for personal reasons. Dubova really loved me, and wanted to thus clear my and Zhulin’s path to medals, so to speak. I just didn’t find the strength to tell my coach that it wasn’t about Gritschuk, but about the relationship that has become unbearable for me. However, after what Dubova did, I just couldn’t stab her in the back by quitting the team. Had I done it, though, it is entirely possible that Platov and I could have had our results in the amateur sport, not in the professional which we ultimately did.

Do you mean that personal relationships between partners make both weaker?

That’s how it was in my case, one hundred percent. Work was complicated by thousands of problems of all sorts, which greatly clouded my judgment.

In later years, I’ve had the impression that you’ve been so badly hit by your family life experience, that you’ll never dare create a family again. Turns out all you were waiting for was to come to Moscow and fall in love at first sight?

Seems that way, yes. When I got back to America from the Moscow championship and told mom all about it, she was just delighted that she convinced me to go.

Surely, though, it wasn’t easy to take the leap and move to Moscow?

In reality, I still cannot say that I moved. We have a house in each place. I can’t leave my mom all alone. I also can’t move her to Russia. In part, it’s because there is also a dog, which I brought to America 13 and a half years ago as a tiny puppy. At this age, the animal may simply not withstand the flight. So mom and I decided not to risk it. Our dog is almost like a child to us.

When you started working at the Odintsevo rink, was that for fun or for the need to earn your living?

I’ve always earned my living. I am used to always relying on myself, as well as to be responsible to those who are dependent on me. Therefore, I still can’t get used to the idea that I could just not work at all.

I’ve heard that those who lived through the toughest economic times in Russia after the collapse of USSR are still not too keep on those who are only now coming back.

You know, I only now understand what it was like for those who didn’t leave. They’re real heroes. It was them who, despite all difficulties, have raised today’s Russian skaters. Honestly, I’ll never understand the coaches who only come to Russia to pick out and take away the most talented athletes. This takes them away from those who’ve put years into developing the skater and getting them onto the elite level. I consider this a betrayal. Perhaps I’m wrong, but that’s how I feel.

You’ve touched on a very difficult and painful issue, very much intertwined with personal relationships among other things. I guess from a human point of view, leaving a coach is, indeed, a betrayal. However, there is also a sport component. How can one hold on to a student when that student feels there is nothing more he can learn from this coach? Can you really condemn the athlete for this?

I don’t know. I, though, do think so.

It’s fascinating, really. I’ve spent many years working with Tatiana Tarasova. She often took on others’ skaters.

I’ve never condemned Tarasova. I saw that she only took on those who absolutely goal-oriented. And that she made them achieve those goals, whatever the costs. And she did quite fast, too.


After you finished up skating, you did not remain in the big sport with Tarasova. Was that your wish, or did the circumstances conspire that way?

It was my decision. You see, figure skating has some very unique female coaches – Tamara Moskvina, Tarasova, Elena Tchaikovskaya, and others. I truly admire them, but cannot even imagine what kind of inner strength one needs to achieve such results. It’s very hard. Perhaps, I just realized in time that I don’t have that strength of character. Working with Tarasova was hard on me, though I often work with Platov now.

Throughout the whole time we skated together, we never had any conflicts. Having a reliable partner is so great! Last year, when I came to America after an eight-month break, I called Zhenya to see if he could offer me a chance to work with some really little kids at his rink. My old ones were all with other trainers now. He immediately said, “Come over, we’ll figure something out”. We’ve worked together when I am in America ever since.

So you spend a lot of time across the Atlantic?

I usually come to America in the summer. It’s very convenient – the house in close to the rink, so I can make some money. I am, after all, used to self reliance. I am just not yet ready to sit at home and do nothing.

But you can make money in Russia, too. Take the TV ice projects, for instance.

Television and I didn’t mesh. Back when I skated with Ivar Kalnynysh in the first ice project of the “Russia” channel, I was once invited to speak on Vladimir Molchanov’s show. Among other things, I asked me how fair the ice shows were. I didn’t hold back, and said everything I thought about it.

And what was that?

I asked Molchanov – is it fair when some partners’ ages add up to 50 years, whereas others’ add up to 100? How can you compare, when I am 45 and my partner is 58, whereas some of those we compete against are barely out of their teens? We had a clear contract that said that the star partner couldn’t be older than 45. In one program, I thought of putting my partner on one knee while I’d skate around and play with this situation. However, after just the second practice Ivar told me that this was too painful on his knee.

I understand everything. You can’t escape your age. We, however, are athletes. For us, it is humiliating and unacceptable to look ridiculous on the ice.

There was also something else that hurt a lot. I always thought that partners, whoever they are, are a team. My husband and I even went to Riga when Kalnynysh was shooting there and had no other way to practice. However, I was the last to find out when he decided to quit the project. I was getting ready for a shooting when I got the call that our pair was no more.

One again, things do happen. Take, for instance, Sergei Selinin’s injury. He came to the shooting, asked to hold off the beginning a bit, brought a huge bouquet from the make-up room, went down on one knee before Oksana Kazakova in front of everybody, and just said, “Forgive me”. That, in my opinion, is what a real man does.

After what I said, the project’s leaders asked me politely to refrain from commenting again, and promised that I could select the parted myself next time. However, they just never invited me again.


You now work at the rink where Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin grew up. I am sure you follow the Europeans closely. In your opinion, should Maxim have risked it last year by beginning to train just 9 days after his knee surgery just to win the European title? How did you husband, who conducted that surgery, feel about watching the performance and understanding that his surgical work would likely go to waste because the rehabilitation period wasn’t observed?

It’s a hard question. On the one hand, you’ve got to admire Shabalin. I can’t even fathom how he found the strength to not only get on his skates, but to win such an important competition. It’s unprecedented. My husband, obviously, said such heroics won’t lead to anything good, and that he should have waited.

I’ve observed Domnina and Shabalin for a while. I look at them as someone who has spent many years in ice dancing, and can see a lot more that the average viewers. I like to observe how well Alexei Gorshkov, Oksana and Maxim’s coach before they moved to America, put together their programs to hide their faults. Covering up the athletes’ weaknesses is a gigantic feat, especially if you can even hide them from the professionals.

I don’t know if it’s the injury or the coach change, but those weaknesses are now so obvious it’s painful. Perhaps it will go away once the leg is healed. That, however, is a long process. What happened there was that the joint that was operated on was weakened; causing more strain on the other join, and it’s the latter that is the problem now. Most likely, he does need to wait to let the leg recover fully. Yet time moves on, and future is unclear. Turns out Domnina and Shabalin were right in their decision to will last year’s championship at any cost. It’s possible I would have done the same thing.

What are your thoughts on ice dancing today? Do you follow it?

Ever since I decided to become a certified technical specialist – yes. I don’t know why, but I suddenly thought of getting back into elite figure skating. I still can’t explain it. I guess it’s because of what I saw, that most technical specialists are Canadians and Americans. Until recently, there was only one of ours, Sergei Ponomarenko. I thought this was wrong, I guess. You can always see that even technical specialists have their biases. The fact that such a judge receives practically no compensation only exacerbates the problem. I think that if those people had a solid salary, they would at a minim fear losing it.

Do you like that work?

Honestly, I’m not sure yet. If I didn’t have a husband that makes me feel safe and protected in every way, I wouldn’t be doing it. I wouldn’t live in Russia, either. What’s more, over the last two years I’ve acquired quite a few enemies because of my work. Some Russian coaches just expect that I must automatically give their athletes high levels. But I can’t do that when the stuff isn’t there. Sometimes, though, they just don’t understand.

On the other hand, until I became a technical specialist, I very much disliked the new rules. Now that I see dancing from the other side, I am beginning to change my mind. I like that everything is clearly delineated, and that each element has a specific value. I like that this has removed the threat of exclusion from the Olympic program. This is now a true sport. Of course, this has come at the expense of artistry. Only the top five or six teams can afford to invest seriously in it. The rest compete on technique alone. Correspondingly, there is less variety. In all, though, the skating level has risen a lot. That’s undeniable.

Are you happy?

Yes. I am very grateful that fate put to together with someone I love without measure. It is true happiness for a woman to feel that there is next to you a back you can always hide behind. It’s too bad that it all happened so late, though. I am still hopeful, though, that I perhaps have a little bit of time left to become a mom.




Ptichkaptichkafs on January 30th, 2009 09:16 pm (UTC)
Once thing struck me as I was reading this interview - the incredible amount of Russian pairs/ ice dance female skaters who have had personal difficulties, depressions, loneliness, and who end up relying on their moms as a sole source of comfort. This contrasts with Russian male skaters, who have generally done much better personally. So I'm thinking - is this specific to Russia? Is it that the strain of constant practices deprives those women of skills that are essential later on in life? Any thoughts?
frankiness on January 31st, 2009 04:49 am (UTC)
I think there's two ways of looking at this:

One is that you could see it as the women being 'away' from maternal affection makes them crave it more--like, if they had to train in other cities/countries, the fact that their mothers are away from them makes the skaters -notice- that this source of comfort has gone, and thus makes them appreciate it more. So when they get back into constant contact with their mothers, they become very dependent to a point where they become less capable of providing those essential skills of the later life.

Another could be that the Russian men miss their mothers/parents equally, just as much as the Russian women, but it's not as 'manly' to be male and miss their mothers so they put on a far better front than the women. I read a biography on Evgeni Plushenko (http://www.kingonice.com/history2.htm -- I don't know how true everything is, but it appears valid) and the overall impression I got was that he did miss his family and his mother, but had to 'suck it up'.

It's good to hear from Maya Usova, and I'm happy for her that she managed to find happiness (and so unexpectedly too). Thanks for translating!
(Anonymous) on August 12th, 2010 01:09 am (UTC)
Usova LIER!!!
Maya 27.02.2010 | 03:52

17 лет спустя созналась бывшая фигуристка Майа Усова Российскому корреспонденту газеты Спорт-Экспрес Войцеховской что легендарная чемпионка Оксана Грищук не была причиной распада ее семьи. Что она подхватила эту хитро- вымышленную историю от своего тренера для уничтожения Оксана Грищук как сильнейшего спортивного соперника перед Олимпиадой 1994 года. Которая для Усовой была решающей и последней в ее спортивной карьере.А после проигрыша Олимпиады она использовала эту же версию как орудие мести против победительницы Олимпиады Оксане Грищук. А заодно и прямой возможностью быть рядом с именем Оксаны Грищук хотя бы в прессе