Episode #22: Jozef Sabovcik

An interview with Jozef Sabovcik, 1984 Olympic bronze medalist, 6-time Czech champion, and 2-time European champion, author and painter. 49 minutes, 19 seconds.

Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On his most embarrassing skating moment: My parents did not know that I skated, because both my parents are ballet dancers, I come from Bratislava but they were ballet dancers in Vienna, which is in Austria but it’s only like 40 miles away from my home town, across the border. So they would spend the whole week in Vienna dancing, and I would live with my grandmother, and they would come home on the weekends, and I spent time with them then. So during one of the weeks when they were gone, my grandmother took me skating, and I loved it, and so in the meantime she had signed me up for the learn-to-skate. So when they came back for the weekend I wanted to show them what I was doing, and I had just gotten my two front teeth. And I was racing around like mad trying to show off for my parents, and they were like, oh my God, slow down. I was only like seven, or not even seven. And they had blocked off with a rope one of the sections by the small goal line for little kids, so little children, when they would skate, they wouldn’t get killed by the adult skaters who skate so fast. But I, because I felt like I could skate better than anybody already, I was racing around to show off for my parents and I didn’t see the rope, or I didn’t pay attention. And the rope caught me right under my neck. I basically did my first backflip, but the problem with it was — imagine like in gymnastics they do those backflips that travel forward, they’re called gainers? That’s kind of what I did, except I was hung up by my neck. So my legs went under the rope, and I completely did a full-on backflip and then fell down and almost knocked my two front teeth out. So I get up and I’m bleeding all over the place, and my mom said, never again will you step on the ice. Which obviously she didn’t hold me to [laughs].

On his skating idols as a young skater: I grew up basically skating next to [Ondrej Nepela], not alongside him, because he was with the seniors and I was a junior, but he was very very nice from what I remember of him. He would let me skate on his patch, and obviously he was one of my idols because he’s the last, actually the only Olympic gold medalist from my country. I saw Robin [Cousins] skate, I think it was 1976 Worlds in Helsinki, and his open axel was amazing, I always wanted to do that. And Terry Kubicka, at the 1976 Olympics, he did the backflip, and since I saw that, that’s all I wanted to do. I didn’t care if they deemed it illegal at all, whatever, I just wanted to do one. It was just one of those things. But I never really wanted to skate like any one of them. I never wanted to be Robin Cousins, I never wanted to be Terry Kubicka. I wanted to be my own skater. But they inspired me.

On coming to Canada to train with Brian Orser in 1985: Brian and I were really, and we still are, close friends. It was just like, come and train with me. One thing I had, I was good at figures, and Brian lacked a little bit, and we just thought that we could help each other. He could help me train, how to get into shape, how to run my program, things like that, and at the same time I could maybe, like, we would have patch next to each other, and he could learn something from me. It was one of those unusual friendships. You have to remember that we were second and third at the Olympics the year before, and how many skaters today would you see doing anything like that?

On why the quad jump is not more common more than 20 years after it was first done: If you look at the science of it all, it’s been proven here and there, whatever, people have timed how long skaters are in the air. And no one, except for Donald Jackson and myself, have even come close to a second. In theory, the fastest revolution you can make is 22/100 of a second. This is what I have been told. To truly be doing a quadruple jump you need to be in the air almost 88/100 of a second to do the four revolutions. And not many people can do. The first one takes a little bit longer, the last one takes a little bit longer, the second and the third are really fast, so it evens out to about 22/100 of a second. So it is pushing the limits.

On figures: I hated figures. Absolutely despised them as a child. It was terrifying. I was bored to tears, I could not trace, I was freezing. I got good at them later. When I was 15 I went to my first European championships and my first world championships, and I was like 17th and 19th in figures respectively. So I eventually did get good at them, but I needed to figure out, I will either get good at this or I’m not going to achieve anything. So I must have had some little talent for the figures, but I basically had to tame my nature to be still. I wanted to fly around, I wanted to flip around and rotate, I wanted to do that, and this was boring to me. But when I was about 15 to 16 years old I suddenly had a kind of breakthrough and I started understanding my body a bit better, how to stand on the edge. I had a coach for a year who taught Ondrej Nepela, and she taught me figures, and I just from that one year made a huge improvement. But then by nature I’m a perfectionist, so once I started understanding how everything works, then I wanted it to line up and I wanted everything to be traced absolutely perfect. And it just went on from there.

On how judging worked when he was a competitor:  [At the 1984 Olympics] my own judge gave me sixth [in the short program] and got in trouble for not holding me up. This was not figure skating, this was the Olympics, and this was like representing the entire country. It was a different thing. So he actually had to answer to the Olympic committee. And his answer was that he thought the other judges would deduct for my fall, but the fall actually had nothing to do with the technical mark, because I completed the double axel, stepped forward, did a three turn, and then on a crossover I tripped.

I remember, it’s strange, I could not tell you a lot of things about how I won my first European championships, but I did. But I do remember being at the [1984] Olympics, I do remember going out for the warmup in the long program, and Brian [Orser] and Scott [Hamilton] and I shook hands and wished each other good luck, because that’s what you did. But I think we somehow knew that it was going to be what it was going to be, and you are going to try to do your best so you can walk away happy with what you did. And that’s more than anything that anybody could ask for.

On landing the first un-ratified quad in competition, and Kurt Browning later being credited with the first quad:  I know what I did, and Kurt and I, people thought we were at each other’s throats about this, but Kurt’s a really good friend of mine. I respect him as a skater and I think he respects me as a skater. I did what I did, and mine wasn’t by any means perfect, but neither was his. The ISU makes their decisions and that’s how it is. They usually don’t go back on anything they rule. Scott Hamilton told me, he was there, they made a video that showed the landing from a certain angle, and when he heard the ruling, he offered them the tape from, I think it was, ABC, and [the ISU] simply refused it because they had made their ruling.

On his professional career: Now I probably do 30 to 40 shows [a year]. At my age, I’m still unbelievably lucky that people still want to see me, I think.

On his long hair: My good agent back in the day, Michael Rosenberg, he told me when he signed me, you basically have to cut your hair. And I said, there is no way. I’m not cutting my hair. This is who I am, this is who I want to be, and I’m either going to have some jobs with me looking like this, or not. And then when everything started happening, he always said, I’m glad you fought me on that one. Because it did make me stand out.

There are days when I’m doing something, and I’m working around the house, and [the hair] is constantly in my face, and I’m thinking, I just gotta get rid of this thing, what am I going to do. But then when it comes to it I just can’t do it. People say, you’ll have a whole new career if you cut it, and I say, doing what? [laughs] I couldn’t have long hair back then, my federation basically said no. So it was kind of, I listened to American and British rock music, and everybody had long hair. So the first opportunity I had, that’s what I did.

On training in the system he was part of, compared to how skaters in the same country train today: I think it’s gotten a lot worse. We had everything. We came from a socialist country. If you look at it, why did the Russians excel in every sport they ever entered? Because they had every resource that you could ever imagine. They also had an unbelievable amount of talent, and of people signing up to be figure skaters, so you just weed out all the people that don’t have the talent, and then you end up with a whole bunch of incredibly talented people. So there’s the whole system and the structure that they had. And we [in Czechoslovakia] to a certain extent adopted some of that. I was going to school but I was on an individual studying plan, so that means that when I went to train, I didn’t necessarily have to go to school when I was training, and then I did my exams whenever my season was done. I could go to a massage every day, I could do anything and everything you could imagine to have. Because largely that was how a socialist or communist country could present itself to the world, because you couldn’t trade on a world market with anything. So athletes were the export that these countries had, and the conditions were great. The only thing we had to fight with was hockey players because they were priority number one. But now the finances are not there, the government is not funding sports any more, and the parents are stuck with paying everything, so that’s why you see the decline in the former Soviet Union. And now the Chinese are on top because they have that same regime.

On skating in the opening ceremonies in the 2002 Olympics: It was different. It was freezing, that’s what I remember of that [laughs]. But it was an amazing experience. It was like I was saying, when I was 20 [at the 1984 Olympics] I was too young to appreciate the magnitude of what I was going through. So I made sure that in 2002 I kind of understood what was happening. So it was quite an honor and quite a feeling. When I was done with all the skating in the first 10 minutes, and standing in the middle of all these kids with lanterns, the Children of Light, and Blade, my older [son], was actually right next to me, and all 80,000 people lit up their flashlights, it was quite an emotional feeling. I was kind of thinking of Sarajevo, and I thought, well, I’ll definitely remember this one [laughs].

On maintaining his jumps: I used to do the quad every year on my birthday, but for the last three years I haven’t done it. I don’t think that I’ve lost my ability, but I’ve lost a little bit of my work ethic. If I don’t have to go skate, it’s so easy for me to say, I’ll just take a day off today. I can still do the triple toe, the double axel, and I can still do backflips and things. I’ve had a little issue with boots in the last year, and now I’m back on track. For the first time in my life, I switched boots. I went to Riedell, and [they] built me a pair of boots that are just perfect for me.

To be honest with you, I miss the jumping. That’s why I still do it. I can’t see myself not doing it, but at the same time, I go, how long can I keep doing this. And then you wake up in the morning and start taking Aleve all the time, and you start to wonder [laughs]. But I miss it too much. I really do. That feeling of just jumping and rotating and flying, it’s cool.

About the Author
Yup, I’m a skating fan. But I’m a skater too. I compete nearly every year in the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships, and am always thrilled to see my other skating buddies there. In my real life I work in marketing for brands that make positive changes in the world, and a mom of two rambunctious boys.

1 comment on “Episode #22: Jozef Sabovcik

  1. Shelley Privott says:

    I absolutely love Jozef Sabovcik’s skating…hopefully one of these days he will come back to Oklahoma City (he was here in 1997 and I missed it)..would love to see him skate and maybe meeting him in person…

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