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12 October 2010 @ 03:30 pm
Nina Mozer: Half-baked work is not for me  

Vaitsekhovskaya talks to Nina Mozer about her work with the Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov

I worked hard on carefully choosing the words for my first question – it doesn’t often happen that skaters who are seen as potential champions start working with a coach specializing in juniors. Suddenly, she let out a genial laugh, “Go ahead and ask it already! I’ve heard it many times already – ‘Who is this Nina Mozer?’”

The Decision

While there’s been talk about it even before the Vancouver Olympics, it was in early April that we officially learned that three time European medalists Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov would no longer skate together, and that Maxim would continue his career with a Ukrainian skater Tatiana Volosozhar. Most observers believed the skaters would train in Germany with the 1997 World champion Ingo Steuer. He did, after all, train Volosozhar and Stanislav Morozov during their last two seasons. The rumors said Ingo did not mind making Morozov an assistant coach of the new team, and even started searching for potential partners for Tatiana.


However, those plans were shattered when Steuer’s other students, the two time World champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy decided to stay in the eligible sport.

“I talked to Savchenko at the Vancouver Olympics immediately after the pair finals,” Morozov told me in Moscow. “She was very upset at finishing third and sighed – we’ll just have to skate for another four years. That’s when I realized it wouldn’t make sense for Tanya and Maxim to train with Steuer. Clearly, he would continue exerting most of his energy on Savchenko and Szolkowy.

Around that that, I got a call from my best friend Vlad Zhovnirsky who used to train with Nina Mozer and suggested I talked to her. Besides, Nina Mikhailovna well knew my father, who also used to be a figure skating coach.

In short, we called her and agreed that Tanya, Max and I would come to Moscow to try working together.”

What finally convinced you this was the right decision?

“Mozer created perfect working conditions for us. I understand very well that it borders on science fiction for a foreigner to come to Moscow and immediately get work, salary and housing.”

Champion Family

“Weren’t you scared to take on Volosozhar and Trankov, knowing that they’re already seen as potential Olympic champions?”

I posed this question to Nina Mozer at her rink.

“The scary part is making the decision”, she replied. “And in families such as mine, we’ve been taught to make decisions since we were toddlers.”

Well, I did, of course, do my basic research. Your dad is a 27-time tennis national champion, your mom is a two-time national figure skating champion, and your uncle is a soccer player who’s played with Moscow “Spartak” and the “golden” Olympic team of 1956. If I’m not mistaken, you were born in Kiev.

Correct. I used to be a skater, coached by my mom and by Petr Orlov. He used to train real stars such as Stanislav Zhuk, Igor Moskvin, Lyudmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov… Then, Orlov left Leningrad for Kiev, bringing with him ten Moscow and Petersburg “figure skating families”. This included my mom, who prior to that skated with the famous Tatiana Tolmacheva at SUP – a rink built when the director’s assistant at the center was my own grandfather.

All who moved were housed together. Petr Petrovich, too, was our neighbor and I spent a lot of time with him growing up. Zhuk would often see Orlov to consult with him on coaching issues. I listened to them, sponging in every word. Some things seemed insane to me. Only later, when I started coaching myself, I realized who lucky I was with my teachers.

I remember coming to see Orlov when he was already sick to tell him of my training sessions. If I was in a bad mood, Petr Petrovich was immediately lift it by saying something like, “Stop that brooding immediately. Those kids of yours are really great.” If, however, I’d be euphoric following a good practice, he’d immediately bring me down to earth, “Who told you it was good? It’s awful!”

Later, Orlov explained to me, that a real coach cannot be beholden to emotional fluctuations. He must be completely balanced. Otherwise, his students will become neurotic, because any strong emotion invariably leads to a sudden mood drop.

Spirit of Contradiction

When did you start coaching?

At 15. I had a choice – finish my career due to an injury, or put a cast on my leg for half a year. Given that I always had a problem with my weight, I knew I wouldn’t be able to come back to skating after half a year. My parents, too, were categorically against me continuing to skate.

In my family, we always think in absolutes. Not only were my parents elite skaters, our house was always full of all kinds of champions including all of Kiev’s soccer team Dinamo. Growing up in this atmosphere, I knew well what working towards a result really meant. I knew how hard one had to work. I saw how sport takes everything out of a person. I still follow those same principals in my work. My work in never half-baked.

When it was time for me to choose a college, my father said he’d support any choice except for “physical culture”. He played tennis with many important people, and he obviously had enough connections to get his daughter in.

Obviously, your sense of contradiction forced you to apply to “physical”?

Of course.

Your mom likewise did not want you to be a coach?

Not quite. It was useless to try to pressure me – I grew up at the rink, and learned independence from the very beginning. I knew, for example, that if something happened to me, it was pointless to scream “mom”. I would at least have some chance of being heard if I called her by her first-and-patronymic.

So, my mom had her own reaction – when she realized she couldn’t talk to me, she gave me a 10 year old boy who’s never skated. By our standards, it’s too late to teach such child anything. Four years later, this boy was on the junior team. He was very persistent. So was I.

At 25, I first went to an international competition as a coach of the national junior team of USSR. Someone even told me – we don’t admit anyone under 40!

Have all of your coaching achievements been with juniors so far?

Yes. In 1987. Luda Kalinuk and Oleg Podvalny won the Cup of USSR in pair skating. This was when I was finishing up college. In 1991, as I was birthing my son, my athletes Lena Vlasenko and Sergei Ostrij competed at the World Juniors in Canada and came fifth. The first serious medals were brought by Galya Maniachenko and Zhenya Gigurski who were third at the Colorado Springs Worlds in 1994; after that I moved to Moscow. Two years later, Vika Maxiuta and Vlad Zhovnirski became champions.

After that, everyone just expected my students to always bring home medals from Junior Worlds. One exception came in 2001, when a girl in my team suddenly grew 12 cm over the month of September. All work leading up to it just collapsed. Federation president Valentine Piseev then used me as a scapegoat, we had a conflict, and I went to work in America for two years.

You didn’t see any future in working in Russia?

Junior skating has too many “overdue” coaches. It’s very hard to break into the elite. There are, of course, exceptions, but that’s only if your athlete trusts you enough to stand by you against the rest of the world. Irina Slutskaya sood by Zhanna Gromova in that way, though everyone in our circle knows the names of those who repeatedly tried to steal her away.

In principle, I understand the leadership that prefers to have strong athletes work with experienced coaches who’ve already shown results. However, this leads to many people remaining at junior level because they’ve never had a chance to prove themselves. My group, for example, has seen six generations of juniors through Worlds. However, when you lose your kids for the second, third and fourth time – you just seize to understand where you’ve gone wrong.

Pros and Cons

Did you immediately agree to take on Volosozhar and Trankov?

Of course not. I weighed all the pros and cons first.

What was in the latter column?

Everything I just told you about. It’s hard to take on a project without inner confidence. I had no qualms about the sports part; besides, Stas Morozov also works with them very well. But see how it turned out – following worlds, which officially ends the season, Tanya with Morozov and Maxim with Masha Mukhortova both continued to skate in various shows to fulfill their contractual obligations. In May, we only had 10 days for Volosozhar and Trankov to try skating together and coming to a final decision. By the way, this was when we put together a short program.

We didn’t start the serious work until July 5, we went to Novogorsk to put together the free program 2 weeks later, and on August 2nd we went to Petersburg to train there due to Moscow fires. We’ve had endless test skates since them. I guess federation leadership believes they need to control us constantly. We, though, just need to train in peace and quiet.

There is, indeed, a lot of work to do. Skating with Morozov, Tanya never thought about lifts and throws – over their eight years together, it all became automatic. Trankov, meanwhile, is more emotional, and his technique is different. This makes Volosozhar tense – she doesn’t yet know what she can expect of her partner. It’ll take time for them to get used to one another.

Tanya is one of those athletes who take a long time to learn an element, but once she learns them, it’s forever. Morozov, by the way, knows this and told me right away that I shouldn’t worry about elements before time. By now, Trankov is used to this as well. At first, he just couldn’t understand why his partner just stops mid-program.

Also, Tanya has never been in such a time crunch. She and Morozov have long been Ukraine’s leading team, and could just skip Nationals to prepare for the important competitions. We, however, always need to show something to someone, despite still having three months left before the Nationals. It’s not possible to be in top form over such a stretch of time. Nor is it necessary.

I’m not complaining, though. It’s all very fun and challenging.

Have you considered you could simply not get along with one of the athletes?

Of course. For example, I’ve heard numerous rumors about Trankov’s difficult character. Also, as opposed to Tanya and Stas, I’ve never dealt with him personally. Maxim was always a mistery to me. I just knew he always had difficult start of the season. That’s how it was when Mukhortova/ Trankov skated with Luda and Nikolai Velikovs, and then with Oleg Vasilievas well.

However, I don’t feel any discomfort with Maxim. He’s fun. He likes making decisions. In our sport, one must be able to do this. One cannot wait for the coach to do this.

I’ve heard the same thing from the famous swimming coach Gennady Turetsky. He explained that he himself can never tell a student with certainty what to do during an Olympic final. He’s never been there himself. His student, if he’s a real contender, has to know how to make decisions independently.

You know, I remember well how I first saw Lesha Yagudin when I brought my Ukrainian students to the Colorado Spring World Juniors in 1994. We arrived just as the boys were wrapping up their free skate. During the last seconds of his skate, Yagudin suddenly did a triple axel.

I was shocked – wow, I though, that’s is one boy. Two years later, when I came to Brisbane Worlds with my Russian team, Yagudin and I chatted on the bus. I recalled how impressed I was with his skating.

Lesha said then that he always leaves a free place at the end of the program. This way, if he fails a jump, he’ll have a place to repeat it. Can you imagine? At 13, he was already thinking about it!

Zhenya Plushenko, I think, just didn’t think well in Vancouver. Had he included just one more double toe loop in the free program, he could have a gold medal instead of silver. But he didn’t.

Coaching “Brotherhood”

Getting back to Volosozhar and Trankov – this isn’t your first chance to take on strong skaters, right?

No. Back when I worked in Russia before moving to Chicago, Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin planner to leave Natalya Pavlova for Tamara Moskvina. Moskvina, however, wasn’t ready for this. She was working in the US with Lena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikhuralidze and just couldn’t take on another team. Supposedly, she intended to talk to me (I’ve heard the rumors) so I would take them on.

I long thought about what to do in those situations. Ultimately, I decided that coaching brotherhood is more important than a chance to work with strong athletes.

It could very well be that those principals are wrong for figure skating. Perhaps, doing it differently might have placed me at a higher level. Other coaches’ students have asked me repeatedly to work with them. However, that’s just how I am; I value personal relationships above career considerations. Though I was the one who discovered Tanya Totmianina among single skaters.

Did you intend for her to do pairs?

Yes. With Andrei Chuviliaev, who was then skating in my group. Tanya already gave me her paperwork for me to get her the tickets to the training camp, when during Nationals I was careless enough to talk about Totmianina skating with me. A week later, I found out she wouldn’t be, because she would be skating with Natalya Pavlova.

A bit later, the same thing happened to Chuviliaev. He just disappeared from all practices. Later, it turned out Andrei with his partner Vika Borzenkova also left for Pavlova. The third were Irina Ushakova/ Sergei Karev, who left me for Pavlova as Universiade bronze medalists and Russia’s fourth pair. After the switch, their team survived for eight months.

By the way, even as Morozov, Volosozhar and Trankov came to me this spring and we started working together, I continually heard behind my back, “Who’d let her take on such a pair?”

When athletes decide to switch coaches, they usually say “We want…” What do Volosozhar and Trankov want?

To win, of course. They’ve already been Olympians. They know they can do more together.