Denis Ten. In memoriam.
July 19, 2021
By Reut Golinsky
Photos © Reut Golinsky
"I love life exactly for this - the fascinating journey, the opportunity to try things out without the fear to take risks. While I'm still young I want to fulfil all of my creative potential, before my ideas generator is running low and my energy and will power are exhausted. I love stepping into the unknown." I remember reading this Instagram post in which Denis was talking about his participation in the "Screenlife Contest" and qualification for the semi-final in Moscow. I remember being amazed - but not surprised - by how multidimensional his talent was, by how broad and diverse his interests were.
He wrote those words on July 6th, 2018. Two weeks later, on July 19th, he was murdered...
His death made worldwide news. Even in Israel, where there isn't much interest in figure skating. Following articles and watching videos from the funeral ceremony was an unthinkable experience. Seeing the Baluan Sholak Sports Palace host the final respects ceremony for Denis - that very same arena I've visited in 2014 for his show! - made it feel surreal... I still have a vivid memory of him standing in the middle of that rink, with a huge basket of roses, so happy, so loved and appreciated by everyone.
Despite our age difference, which formally allowed me to say to him "ты" (used to address equals or youngsters) in Russian, I always used the "Вы" (respectful address). It was sincere, coming from my deep respect and admiration, as he was so much wiser and mature than his age.
He was one of my most favourite people in the skating world, one of the most thought-provoking and inspiring interviewees. During his skating career we did three very long interviews, interesting and deep, and he is the one who should be credited for that. I recall that each time it was a struggle to find a title, because in one talk we covered so many topics.
He caught my eye - and the eyes of many skating professionals and fans - during the Worlds 2009 in Los Angeles. He showed two brilliant performances and finished at an impressive 8th place while being the youngest participant in men. I followed his career since and enjoyed watching him grow, as a skater and as a person. It took some more time for us to arrange our first get-to-know talk, but finally during the off-season of summer 2011, somewhere between Los Angeles, Moscow, Seoul, Toronto and his hometown Almaty, we caught up via Skype. To say I was impressed would be an understatement. He was smart, eloquent, his Russian was refined, rich, and vivid. He was insightful: "A sporting career is very short. It seems like I'm only 18 years old and everything lies ahead, but then one day I will wake up and find that I'm retired." And he was humble: "I can't place myself on the same level with leaders; I need to acquire skills that leading skaters already mastered. There is lots of work ahead, I see it every day and that's why I train and train. Of course, I hope that one day I will be able to rise to such a high level, that someone will compare me to one of the greats of this sport."
We met in person in Oberstdorf a few weeks after our first interview was published. And this was when I saw him skating live for the first time. He was one of those skaters you absolutely must watch live. They are very impressive on TV, but their skating skills, their artistry and strong energy astound when you're there at the arena witnessing them perform. "I feel I have an energy I can share. Something I was able to do in London (at Worlds 2013)," he said in one of our interviews later. "I feel a very strong connection with the audience and I want to share that energy while I have a chance."
At the Nebelhorn Trophy 2012, one year later, we had a lot of new topics to discuss. Among them, his innovative approach when the short and long programs were parts of one story and hence shared the same soundtrack ("The Artist"); or his "fake coach"(c) and choreographer Stéphane Lambiel, who joined us for the first part of our talk. Seven years later, at this very rink we will be sitting with another student of Stéphane's, Koshiro Shimada, who will be explaining to me why he chose to skate to "The Artist", too. "First of all, I need to say that he is amazing," Koshiro said. "I'm still not on the level high enough for his 'Artist', but I'm trying to reach him, his performance, his skating skills, everything in his skating. When I watched these programs of his, I was so impressed, especially by the step sequences and choreo sequences. And I knew that I really wanted to skate to this music."
Denis was a role model for a younger generation of skaters. He was and continues inspiring them. "I always loved this piece of music and I felt I wanted to skate this one for him," Camden Pulkinen answered when I asked him about his short program to "Caruso". And then he continued: "We met a few times in Los Angeles where he was training at Toyota Center. And also, when he was over in Palm Springs, I would see him there sometimes. Denis was so special and that's the word I would use to describe him... Even though I barely knew him - and probably only said 30 words to him in my life - I looked up to him. He was always so nice, every single time I met him. He would always wave to me, and I was excited: 'He knows who I am! I'm just a little 14-year-old boy and he knows who I am!' He probably didn't know it, that simple wave or that simple smile and 'hi, how are you?' maybe they were nothing to him, but they made my world."
Our last interview together, published towards Worlds 2015, almost didn't have my questions in it, it was mainly Denis' monologue, reflections on the Olympic Games, on figure skating, on... the meaning of life? My introduction to that piece started with the words "sometimes you forget that he is only 21" and it was so true. In his unfairly short life he managed to do, share, feel, think, live through much more than many of us do in our entire lives.
Denis and I ran across each other multiple times, at competitions and shows. One of our most memorable meetings for me was in summer 2014 in Los Angeles. I was there on a - not figure skating related - business trip and happened to work right near his rink. We got in touch, and I came to see his practice session. We had a long talk on the record and then continued it off the record with him and his mom. I really had to leave, so we agreed to meet again in a few days. We started in a little cafe on Manhattan Beach and then continued in my hotel's garden. We discussed so many things, I can't recall all of them now. I remember bringing down my laptop with all the photos I took a few months prior to that, during his show "Denis Ten and Friends". Both him and his mom were genuinely interested to know my opinion about it, we discussed what could be changed or improved.
This show was by no means his vanity project, nor was it a vehicle to make money. First and foremost, it was an opportunity to popularize his sport in his country, for his people. "The point of the show," he explained to me, "was not drawing attention to me but making a gift to the Kazakhstan people who never had a chance to see such figure skating legends. For those who never saw figure skating before, and for those who have been following it for years and finally could come and see it live. I was approached by many people who said how happy they were to see Daisuke Takahashi, Stéphane Lambiel, Alexei Yagudin or Evan Lysacek. It was nice having our hard work appreciated."
For his famous friends it was an opportunity to finally discover his homeland. "I asked a lot of questions about Kazakhstan," Joannie Rochette told me during the rehearsals of the show in 2014, "because it's not a country where we compete, it's not a country where as figure skaters we would have been to, so I enjoyed learning more about it. And so, he invited me to come. I'm really happy to be here, it's a huge honour, a great show. I didn't really know what to expect before coming here, but so far I'm greatly impressed." "Denis has been making sure we were taken care of, we've been having great entertainment and great dinners - he really is putting in the maximum effort to show us the beauty of his country," Mirai Nagasu added.
And not only the cast, but skating fans also came to Kazakhstan from all over the world to see the show and to learn more about Denis' country.
"Maybe it can't be compared yet to World's biggest shows but there's something special in the 'Denis & Friends' project - my soul," Denis wrote back then. Indeed, it was incredible to see how much he was involved in every single aspect of his show's production, from the skating itself to the booklets design and promotion via social media. For his show in 2018 he even wrote a song, "She Won't Be Mine", filmed a clip and performed a program to it.
Last time we were in touch was because of his show, in summer 2018, when I suddenly won a prize in his quiz. I didn't intend to, but his Instagram stories were so fun to follow that I took part in it.
Last time we saw each other was at Rostelecom 2017. He was struggling with yet another injury - unfortunately he sustained many during his career - and he wasn't at his best. I remember seeing him in the mixed zone after his practice talking to a journalist, he stood with a big ice bag attached to his ankle. I didn't want to bother him, make him stand even longer, so I just greeted him and wished him speedy recovery. I was so sure there will be another time, better and more comfortable, under "happier" circumstances.
That whole season was disastrous for him. Bronze medallist in Sochi, he finished only 27th at the PyeongChang Games and in the end withdrew from Worlds 2018. "I wanted everything at once," he wrote after the Games. "I was ready to give everything for this: all my strength, attention, and health. Not all the sacrifices paid off. Unfortunately. But despite this I'm glad to be a part of yet another priceless Olympic experience."
I remember checking Grand Prix assignments for the season 2018/19 and feeling relieved to see his name, because after the very hard season he had I was concerned he might retire. But he didn't, always a fighter. I remember thinking to myself that we should talk this coming season, because it's been some time since our last interview...
When I was going over my articles and interviews now, I could almost hear his voice. I have all our talks recorded, I can listen to his voice any time I'd want, but... I can't. Even now, three years later, I can't watch any of his videos. He is too lively in them, too real and genuine to comprehend that he is no more. When someone is not constantly present in your life, when you live far from each other and don't see each other often, it's easier to pretend that it was just a long break, the new season will start and you'll for sure meet again somewhere, someday. Then you see an old photo, hear a song, music he skated to, and the realization of this absurd, wrong loss strikes you.
But life goes on, another figure skating season without Denis will start soon. It warms my heart to see his name in the upcoming events list: the Denis Ten Memorial Challenge, an annual senior and junior-level competition series in Almaty, which was first held in 2019, is scheduled to be a part of the 2021-22 ISU Challenger Series. The Denis Ten Foundation, created on the initiative of his parents and supporters, started various projects which continue his legacy: a photo exhibition "D10 World", masterclasses for Kazakhstan figure skaters, a memorial show with the best figure skaters from around the globe.
"I love life. Love my parents. Love people. Love loving. I want to be sharing this," he wrote in his Instagram post on his last birthday. He shared so generously; his art, his thoughts, his soul. And even now, three years after his demise, Denis continues to inspire and make us all a little bit better.
"Look around, the world will always go on. Dark periods will be succeeded by bright ones, and with time some dark periods will look brighter. You're fine. And if you aren't now, you will be. May everything be as you wish."
December 31, 2017