2024 Euros tidbits

March 18, 2024
By Reut Golinsky
Photo © Reut Golinsky

Official practices in Montreal are in full swing. So, before the last ISU championships of the season kick off on Wednesday, we want to have another throwback and recall some interesting facts and stories from the European Championships 2024 held in January in Lithuania.

Ačiū, Lietuva

Europeans in Kaunas were among the best competitions we've covered. And we want to start with the incredible reception local skaters received from their home crowd. "It was over the roof, super amazing, very, very fun, very nice," Deividas Kizala recalled. "With few opportunities to skate at home, I tried to enjoy every minute," his partner Paulina Ramanauskaitė added. "I enjoyed it so much, every practice, every moment. Our fans are the best; I love them. It was nice to enjoy fans' claps, see familiar faces, feel their support; it helped to go through the program. Even at the Olympics, I wasn't as nervous as here. I took it more seriously; I wanted to do my best, not disappoint."

"It was out of this world. The crowd was amazing, filled us with energy, love, and support. We couldn't have asked for a better crowd or place," Allison Reed said. "Fantastic to hear everyone chanting 'Lithuania,' and during every element, hearing them give us a big cheer; it was so much fun!" Saulius Ambrulevičius added.

With Allison and Saulius having a shot at the podium, one could expect the atmosphere during the free dance to be electric. Yet it exceeded expectations. Seeing 12,000 in the arena, full up to the roof, standing, chanting, and waving Lithuanian flags was an exhilarating view rarely seen at ISU competitions nowadays. The overwhelming success of the free dance event was due to good organisation, effective promotion, affordable tickets, perfect timing - on the country's national holiday, Day of the Defenders of Freedom - and, of course, credit to Allison and Saulius for being ready, standing to enormous pressure, and doing their best when it counted the most. "It's special - we fought for our freedom, and today we fought for our country again, and we did it. We've been through a lot, and it's been a long road, and we are finally here," Saulius said.

"I don't know what I did, but I'm really happy"

Another beautiful story of the championships was, of course, Aleksandr Selevko's silver. In the interview Absolute Skating conducted with the Selevko brothers during the NHK Trophy, they shared their dream: "We have the goal of winning two medals at the same European championships. It's challenging, as men deliver very strong performances, but we will work hard." And just a few months later, Aleksandr reached it!

Performing in one of the earlier groups, Aleksandr blew our minds with his Egyptian-style short program fully packed with a quad toe, triple Axel, and triple Lutz-triple toe combo. With this skate, he set a new personal best and, for the first time, broke the 90 points barrier. "I can't say I've done anything special today in terms of tuning in; I just did the usual, but it seems I was much better prepared, and I'm very happy with my skate and my score," he said in the mixed zone. Little did he know then that his name would keep staying at the top of the results' table till the very last warm-up group, and he would finish third! The outcome of this segment was surprising but so well-deserved. Yet the feelings that evening were bittersweet as his brother Mihhail finished thirtieth and didn't proceed to the free skate.

This was something they also acknowledged during the talk in Osaka, when asked how it is when your brother is also your rival: "We definitely push each other to reach higher, to do better. It helps to keep going and provides a lot of motivation. The downside is that at competitions, if one of us skates well, he is happy, but if the other one skates poorly, he also feels bad, so there are mixed feelings."

Coming from the back to finish top three in the short program is not easy, but staying in that position and not letting it mess with your head during the free skating is much harder. But Aleksandr came out, nailed a quad toe and six triples, including an Axel, got a level four for two spins and the footwork, and while ranking third in the free skating with a personal best of 166.94 points, he overall moved up to silver. An incredible result for him and his country! "I don't know how I feel, I don't know what I did, but I'm really happy. It's a big thing for me," he commented while still being overwhelmed.

Belgium makes a history in women

If we continue the story of smaller federations that, like the Lithuanian and Estonian ones, did extremely well and medaled in Kaunas, of course, we should talk about Team Belgium and their historical achievement in the women's event. Loena Hendrickx's medal was the first-ever title in single skating for Belgium; expectations were high for her, and she did not disappoint. And, if the historical gold medal wasn't enough, Nina Pinzarrone put in a spectacular performance that landed her the bronze while it was only her second appearance at the Europeans!

Both agreed that having a strong teammate helps. "I think we both try to bring each other to the highest level," Loena commented. "I'm really happy to do such a big competition alongside Loena and for Belgium - for a long time we had one skater at the top in the world and now two, and maybe in the future we have more. I'm proud to be part of it and to represent Belgium," Nina added.

Yet when asked about the success of Belgian figure skating, Loena made an important point: "I think we both don't really know [what led to such success]. We don't have a home ice rink, and we have to travel the country to skate. I have to go to the Netherlands to train. Belgium can be very lucky to have us, and hopefully in the future, they will invest in more facilities and more ice rinks."

"It's amazing for Belgium to get those results even though it's just a tiny country and we don't have a lot of facilities. We have to fight, to be determined, and to work even though it's not easy in Belgium," Nina noted. And when she was asked about her preparations towards the Worlds, the list of tasks she mentioned - among what you usually hear from skaters like finding what went less well and working on it - also included "to drive around Belgium to find ice."

So is the future as bright for Belgian figure skating as it seems when we only look at results? Or maybe they need to invest in their talents more?

Full Worlds Team for Sweden!

Medals are great, but it's important to notice and champion every achievement because one small step for some is one giant leap for others. For example, did you know that with Josefin Taljegård and Andreas Nordebäck in singles, Greta and John Crafoord in pairs, and Milla Ruud Reitan and Nikolaj Majorov in ice dance, there will be, for the first time, Swedish skaters competing at Worlds in every discipline?! And Mila and Nikolaj are Sweden's first dance team to qualify for Worlds since 1982. Way to go, Team Sweden!

Josefin Taljegård couldn't participate at Worlds 2023. She missed the technical minimum by 0.18! This season she secured it much earlier, at the Volvo Open Cup in November. "It was a big moment for me," she recalled. "It was at a competition where I didn't really think I would get it because I was sick right before, and so I thought: I'm not going to get it anyway, so let's just go out there and do my thing. And apparently, I did something good! Then I got it again at the next competition, so it was not just a one-time thing!"

Even though they skated in one of the earlier groups, Milla Ruud Reitan and Nikolaj Majorov received quite a lot of attention from journalists. "Although I think it's the worst program we've done yet, I'm excited to be here. It's my first Europeans and it's fun," Milla said. "It's awesome to be back on Euros' ice again. I would never have thought a year ago when we started that in a year I would be on the plane on my way to the Europeans. It feels awesome!" Nikolaj agreed. When asked about skating to the 80s theme, Nikolaj had a brilliant suggestion: "For me personally, I have never done something like this, and it's been a few of the most difficult months that I've been doing ice dance. Because it's not only about adjusting to the theme, it's also about listening to the tempo and skating with your whole body to the music. But I like the 80s theme. I think they should do this [defining a specific musical theme] in singles also. For example, for the short program. That way you can see who can not only jump but also interpret the music. I would have enjoyed it personally [when I skated in singles]."

Gems of the earlier warm-up groups

Figure skating is not only about the levels and points, and in any warm-up group, you can find performances that will resonate with you. During the World Championships, make sure not to overlook Jari Kessler's short program to "Angela" by "The Lumineers," choreographed by Drew Meekins. It's a pensive ballad, and Jari flawlessly captures its essence.

"It's my last year's short program," he explained. "And I worked on it more this summer. It's something introspective. I'm a rather shy person and I want to give that introverted feeling to the audience. It's a bit mysterious, and it's just something special to me. I had this music on my playlist for four or five years and I always listened to it but never thought to make a program. And last season we decided on the music for the short and last minute I changed it to this, because why not, I liked it. I kept it [for the second season] because I think it's my style and it's hard to find the music that you can really skate to the whole season and maybe even two seasons. It's always different, I listen to the nuances of the music and always get new information from it."

Regrettably, in Kaunas, he made numerous technical mistakes, one of which, during the step sequence, was particularly unexpected and costly. "The loop was not good," he recalled, "but at least I didn't fall. I pushed through, and then after the Axel, I thought, 'OK, jumps done, I'm going to qualify.' But now it's going to be difficult [to qualify] because I lost a lot of points with a mistake in the step sequence. I was really into it and vibing..." Hopefully, in Montreal, both the technical and artistic aspects will align.

Another program you shouldn't miss is Carolane Soucisse and Shane Firus's free dance. They changed the country they represent and even continents (transitioning from the Four Continents to the Europeans), but they kept their Charles Aznavour free dance. Or, to be more precise, they went back and revamped their free dance from the 2021/22 season.

Their free dance was one of the most beautiful that season. It had a peculiar story behind its creation because it was inspired... by an IKEA commercial! The commercial depicted a couple of former figure skaters once again enjoying 'skating' and reliving their passion while sliding around their living room on their socks to the tunes of Aznavour's "Hier encore." Gentle and melancholic, light and floating, this melody is perfect for skating, IKEA's specialists were right about that. While "La Bohème" in the second half adds more rhythm, energy, and colour to the dance. It is one of those programs where you don't notice the elements or how time passes; it ends "too soon" and leaves you wanting more.

Luckily, there was an opportunity to thank the team and their coach, Carol Lane, for this dance in person. During that brief talk in the mixed zone, they admitted that they loved this program too, hence the decision to go back to it.

"Enjoy it, endure it, live it"

Although the World Championships are typically the most important event of the season for any skater, the 2024 Europeans held special significance for Deniss Vasiljevs. As a native of Daugavpils, the chance to compete in Kaunas, just a short 3-hour drive from his home, was particularly meaningful to him.

"It feels very dear to be so close to home," Deniss told the media while getting visibly emotional. "Today I saw my first coach, Ingrida Snieskiene. I was overflowing with emotions, recalling those memories of pure childhood, thinking about that child who had no idea what he was doing. And looking at it now, fifteen years later, to see how everything developed and grew."

Of course, repeating Tallinn's success and earning another European medal could have been especially symbolic. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. "I'm putting my best, my heart, and it is very frustrating when you keep working, but it's still not fully done the way I would wish for. I came here so prepared, so I still need to understand why it didn't work," Deniss shared.

"I still struggle in finding the key to make him do what he's capable of," his coach Stephane Lambiel admitted one week later. "I see that he's capable, that he has trained for it, that he is physically ready, but something needs to click emotionally so that he'll let go and show in the moment of truth what he's able to do."

Ditching the quad is not the solution. Deniss has made it clear that he is determined not to do so, as he possesses both the ambition - and the skill; we have seen him land beautiful quads in practices and during warm-ups - to execute it. Yet, his best performance this season was at the Bavarian Open, where he opted for less complex technical elements in his short program. Judging by the layout he practised earlier today, it seems that in Montreal they might take a similar approach.

His free skating remains an even bigger mystery. Recently, the music listed in his profile was changed from "Blues Deluxe" to "The Rightful King" and "He Lives in You" from "The Lion King." In the 2017/18 season, he performed an exhibition program to "The Lion King", imbuing it with deep and philosophical meaning when asked about it. Will the chosen music remain the same? Will the underlying message behind it? If he successfully lands the first quad, will he attempt a second? And if he makes a mistake on the first quad? Will he at least make sure to include a combination if he goes for the second one? Many questions remain unanswered for now.

But with or without a quad (or two) the key is something he himself formulated really well: "not to be afraid of technique, not to be afraid of performance, but enjoy it, endure it, live it." And his coach agrees: "I think he should not think about what to do more to make it work, he should think about what to do less. When he is using more of instinct and less of brain, everything goes pretty smoothly."

The King of Europe has returned, this time as a coach

Back in Euros 2019 in Minsk, it was difficult to envision the Europeans without Javier Fernandez, the seven-time consecutive European champion. Five years later, it was delightful to have the opportunity to discover what he has been up to lately.

Javi, it's fantastic to see you back at the Europeans. You're here with Luc Economides and his coach, Florent Amodio. Could you share more about your collaboration?

My current role doesn't involve being a head coach, but rather assisting the skaters and their coaches by sharing my expertise with them. Luc is one of the skaters with whom I work closely throughout the season. Occasionally, I travel to France. During the summer, Florent and I collaborate on numerous summer camps, which also allows me to work extensively with Luc. Since this is Luc's first time participating in the Europeans, Florent believed it would be meaningful for Luc to have both of us present, and that's why I'm currently in Kaunas.
It's good to be back at the Europeans, actually! The atmosphere is great, it's a big and important competition for the kids. I'm glad to be back and glad to see Luc doing well.

Who are the other skaters you're working with?

I work with Andrea Astrain Maynez, the Mexican skater. Additionally, I collaborate with some bigger names during the summer camps, such as Arlet Levandi or Niina Petrõkina, who have been attending for a few years. As I mentioned, I'm not the main coach; I primarily offer assistance.

What about your own skating?

I still skate a little bit. (smiles) I'm doing some shows in Japan and Europe.

What about your show, "Revolution on Ice"?

It was a great success, but with COVID and so many other things that happened, financially, it was a very expensive show. So, after COVID, we decided that we need to rethink and redo it differently. We're considering a different format, perhaps something smaller but repeatable, aiming for twenty to twenty-five shows.

All around Spain? Or all around Europe?

This is something we need to mull over as well. We must plan and assess because, at the end of the day, it's work and it demands a significant investment.

Do you now follow the competitions as a spectator? Are there any skaters who particularly impress you?

In the new generation, one skater whom I really admire is Yuma Kagiyama. I mean, I'm a big fan of Shoma's, but Yuma seemingly came out of nowhere, and my initial reaction was, "Oh my god, this boy is going to be very good!" He was a big surprise for me. I'm also very happy for Loena Hendrickx; she is doing exceptionally well and exudes elegance. I've competed against her brother, and I'm delighted to see both of them at competitions and to witness their remarkable progress. It's emotionally special for me to see them improve.

The upcoming pinnacle event of the figure skating season is just around the corner, with the feeling that the 2023/24 season began not too long ago. We look forward to witnessing intense competition and mesmerising performances, and we are sure that beautiful memories will be made and inspiring stories will be told. We hope that everyone will thoroughly enjoy Montreal 2024.

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