Episode #3: Oleg Vasiliev

MAY 2007
An interview with Oleg Vasiliev, 1984 Olympic Champion in Pairs, 1988 Olympic Silver Medalist, and coach of 2006 Olympic Champions Totmianina & Marinin. 42 minutes, 24 seconds.

Thanks to Fiona Mcquarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On why he became a pair skater after being a successful singles skater: At that time in Soviet Union it was very tough generation of skaters, especially singles skaters.  I was the best in junior competition and won a couple of times at junior nationals. When I turned to senior level and competed at nationals in senior, I got tenth place. I skated good and I skated the same good as I did in junior competition, but it was nine skaters in front of me who were much better than me. So next year I got ninth place. So…in singles if I move up one place each year, it will take some time. So at that time Tamara Moskvina, who was a famous pair skating coach already, she invited me to skate in pairs. And as a proud singles skater I said “No. I am a good singles skater, why should I skate with someone else if I can do this on my own?” But she invited me back, and after the third attempt, I said, okay, let’s try it.

Pair skating was interesting, it was much more interesting than I expected. There were so many new elements and moves that it was necessary to learn to be good in pair skating. So it took a lot of my time and I really fell in love with the pair skating.

On the strengths of his partnership with Elena Valova:  Probably the beauty of concentrating mentally for competition. Not so much elements, because more or less pairs skaters did the same elements, the same jumps, the same throw jumps, lifts and twists, it was more or less the same. But not many skaters were able to concentrate in the right moment and produce the best they could in competition. So I learn with my partner how to do this. I remember right now one of our first competitions in 1980, it was Russian nationals, and we skated right after [Irina] Rodnina and {Alexander] Zaitsev.  So Rodnina and Zaitsev skated perfectly fine, and they had already been two-time Olympic champions and ten-time world champions, so many achievements. So we skated right after them. We came onto middle of ice, and I realized that I am shaking like, [laughs] I don’t know, like grass on the wind. And we did all elements, but all of them were extremely bad quality. It wasn’t like bad skating because we didn’t do big mistakes, but it was bad quality. And that was probably the point when I realized it’s not so much what you do, but it’s important how you do it. And that was again this ability of concentrating for competition, for your program. It was probably the biggest achievement in all of my skating years.

On why he and Valova stayed in competition for the 1988 Olympics after winning at the 1984 Olympics:  The time was different. There was not so much professional skating, and our country was different, it was a closed country. It was not so possible to go to the United States or Europe to work or skate somewhere. For us, there was two ways out: you could skate, for as long as you physically or mentally can skate, or you could just turn professional and be a coach, and give your education to someone else. So at that moment we thought there was enough energy in the two of us, and we didn’t show our best yet probably. It had been a very short period of time, in 1983, 1984, everything happened in those years. So we decided to stay.

On why he decided to move to Chicago: It’s interesting because you probably need to start a little back. I started working as a coach when Elena, my partner and ex-wife, got married and got pregnant. So she took a break from skating, and instead of trying something I did not know how to do, I decided to coach. So I begin to coach in France, for a little bit, and then in Latvia, one of the former Soviet republics. And I coach a pair – maybe it was a good pair for Latvia but not a very good pair, not top pairs in the world. And at that time it was necessary for me to learn something, to learn how to work with skaters. It was my beginning of work as a coach. And over there I met an American coach based in Chicago, Maria Jezak, and she started inviting me to work in her ice rink for a year. And she called me regularly and she sent me mails – not like emails at that time [laughs], it was like regular mail. And it was for a full year, 12 months, that she sent me postcards, mail, and called me like every other day.

And when I started skating with Elena after she came back, after her pregnancy, we started skating professionally in some shows, and at some point Elena’s husband decided it’s too difficult for family to have Mum skating somewhere and the rest of the family at home. So it was a family decision for them. I was actually a little bit upset, let’s say this, because it was easy at the time for us to make money – the best time for figure skating in the United States because it was after the story with Nancy and Tonya, when they battled a little bit and the interest in figure skating was enormous. You could skate three or four hours a day seven days a week and make good money. So Elena’s family made a family decision, and I was – I was  a little upset, and on that same evening I got another phone call from Maria, and I said “okay, expect me in a couple of days in Chicago”.  So I got my visa and my tickets, and in two days I was in Chicago.

On teaching adult skaters: It’s very different. It’s actually completely different, it’s not comparable. With adults, what’s interesting about this, people really love what they do. When they step on the ice, they have smile on their face, they are happy to learn small things and they really appreciate it. And they are looking forward to the next time they will be on the ice and skating again and again. With the competitive skaters, I have to push them so hard that sometimes they hate tomorrow because they know what they will come back to, and they have to work very hard next day. And it’s not only going to be one day, it’s going to be one month or one year or year after year if they want to achieve this Olympic dream. They have to work extremely hard on a daily basis and they have to get over feelings like I’m tired, I don’t want. So this is full-time job for skaters who are trying to go to Olympics, and this is pleasure for adults. That’s the biggest difference, and that’s really, really different.

On the differences between the 6.0 judging system and the newer systems: System is system, but we, coaches, skaters, we still do the skating. We coaches help skaters to do something interesting. [The newer systems] are kind of manipulating skaters and coaches to find something new, new elements, new spins, new footworks, new spirals. With the old 6.0 system, I just took a look, not too long time ago, at some competitions which happened a few years ago with the 6.0 system. The footworks was boring, the spirals were simple, and the spirals were short in pairs skating. So it was interesting programs, yes, it was good skating in general, yes, but easy elements were boring. So right now, you can look at programs and see everything, good footwork, spins, spirals, death spirals are interesting. Maybe sometimes we can see some awkward positions and movements, but at least skaters and coaches are trying to do something new. They are trying to push figure skating forward and make it more interesting, more skatable, you know, better looking for the spectators.

It’s difficult to understand system because it’s not like it used to be. It used to be simple. Good – 5.8, 5.9. Bad, I don’t know, 5.1. And that’s understandable. Spectators were involved in this kind of judging because everyone knew 5.3, it’s not good, 5.8, it’s pretty good. Right now, what is this 200, is it good or not? It will take time to understand this, and maybe it will be the same understandable and the same clear like it is right now for the very small numbers of officials who are involved with it. I hope it will be understandable for everyone because right now we have a problem with the empty seats at competitions, it’s not good. And part of this I would say is this new judging system.

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 #3: Oleg Vasiliev

  1. Jessi says:

    Thanks so much for the interview and transcription!

    I find this quote “No. I am a good singles skater, why should I skate with someone else if I can do this on my own?” very interesting.

    We say this is one of the problems with American pairs, it is only a place for failed singles skaters to go (which I don’t think is true), and yet, a top Soviet pair said the same thing!

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