The big change of Tomas Verner┬á
December 2, 2010
By Daphne Heij
Photos © Natasha Ponarina
From the 17th until the 19th of November, the Rostelecom Cup of Russia took place in Moscow and I thought it'd be good to sit down with Tomas Verner and have a little chat. There have been a lot of changes in his life in the last couple of months and that raised a lot of questions for me. Luckily, Tomas found some time to answer all of them and talk about his new life in Canada, the upcoming season and more.
How did you celebrate your first gold medal in the grand prix?
I didn't really celebrate at all. I spent some time with my girlfriend Nathalie Péchalat since she is living here in Moscow. Nothing wild because I'm tired after the jetleg coming from China, staying a little bit in Toronto and then coming here. Competing is a lot of stress for me because competitions are quite new for me again since I haven’t competed since the Olympics. It's weird and strange to be on the ice again. Last year you can't really count all of the competitions. There was only one and it was the Bompard trophy and then there was nothing else. (Tomas got the H1N1 virus at skate America and struggled with his health the rest of the season, not performing at his best at all) Thanks to the practices I have now in Toronto, when the music starts it's much easier to skate my programs. Going into the program is very hard for me because I don't quite have the confidence yet to be there or even have the hope to be the best. It's all quite new and after the competition you are tired not just physically, but also mentally. I try to work on my condition though. so by every competition it should be better.
I called my parents and they were extremely happy. It wasn't really because I won, but actually they were happy that they saw me smiling again on the ice. They hadn’t seen that for a long time and they were just celebrating that. It wasn't about the winning, the points, the qualifying for GPF or anything, just to see me happy again makes them happy too.
What did you expect going into this competition?
I didn't really expect to be in the battle for the gold. I didn't focus on anybody else, which actually helped me in the end. I changed quite a bit in my mentality going into this season. It has something to do with my new practice; it's so different now. It also has to do with people I met during the summer. I have been to some Buddhism seminars, for example. It's not like I would go crazy about some religion, because I don't like religion. “They cause much more problems than they would ever solve.” This quote is not something of my head actually, it's the Dalai Lama who said this and I think it's so true. I like to listen to people and find my opinion and make the best out of everything. I don't care if it comes from the Muslims, the Christians or the Buddhists. I actually had a chance to read a Buddhism book, which was interesting to me. It wasn't about the religion itself actually, but it was about something else and it was just beautiful. It really made me think and a couple of things I read I keep really close to my heart now and I try to live like that. I don't want to talk about exactly which ones, because I believe that if I say which ones they won't be strong enough anymore for me. I changed a little bit.
Tell us something about your big change...
Last year I lost everything. Before I made the big change going to Canada, I didn't even notice it was such a big step. I wanted something new. The people I asked about it really admire me for my courage; that I really did it. I replied to them that I had no other choice because I didn't want to give up skating. Skating is what makes me happy and I don't care if I end up in 3rd or 2nd or 1st place. I want to go out there and at the end of the program I want to be able to say “Yeah! I made it!” It doesn't matter what place, just that I made it.
People noticed the change too. Already in China when I came to the competition and people were asking my coach questions.“Hey ,so what did you do to Tomas? What will you do, runthroughs in practice?” Before, I would do two elements in the free skate and that was it, two elements out of 14. My coach replied “No no no, wait for practice,” Then I did my runthrough during practice. It wasn't easy stepping out of the plane but I did it anyway. The people’s reaction was, “Wow!” . After the competition. they came to congratulate him on the good job and they said, “We didn't see Tomas dying in the second half for years. What did you do to him?”
What is it that you do in the practices?
I don't really want to talk about exactly what I do in the practices because it's kind of a secret. It's just very different and as I said I need more time to adjust my body to do it. So far it's still exhausting for me and I don't have much power left after I finish my three sessions per day.
Can you tell us how a day looks like for you in Canada?
I train from 11am to 12pm, then I have a 10 minute break and then I go on the ice again and do another session. Next, I have an hour break and then I practice again. By 3pm, I am done with skating. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday I go to the gym.
In Oberstdorf I used to train at 11am, at 3pm and then 7pm would be the last one. So at 7 I would be in perfect shape and I'd feel great. Now when I start at 11, I do my program. Every day I do my short and long. No doubt, no question, just go for it. It doesn't matter if I land all my jumps, I just go and do my best.
It costs a lot of money to train in Canada, though. You pay for everything...everything! There isn't a budget you can pay and have everything included. It's not bad actually. I understand; for good work people have to be rewarded and I don't expect anyone to work with me for free.
What about your life off the ice?
Besides training, so far I don’t have much else to do and so I am looking for a school. I actually want to collect enough points to get into Toronto University. It would be just great to have good skating and to be able to get a Masters degree in English. It would be just awesome. I don't think I will be able to support myself with skating in the future and with an English degree, I could work anywhere in the world. It opens a door and it looks good on your résumé.
I couldn't make it in this year because it would have been too short notice and I couldn't change everything at once. It would be cool though in the future and I hope I get the chance.
Now tell me about your coach, who is he and what kind of person and coach is he.
It's the same question that I got back home. “Who is Bob Emerson?” Everybody was asking me about Brian Orser and asking about all the other places I have been. I replied that I am not looking for a name. I am looking for a guy who is knowledgable and knows what he is doing. Someone who has a clear picture of the season and of the work, how it has to change all through the year. Someone who thinks and knows about the timing of going into competitions in good shape. I never thought about having Bob as my head coach. I’ve known him for a long time because he is the director of the rink I used to skate at when I worked with Lori Nichol on my choreography. Then this summer I was working with Brian Orser but he had to go away for a couple of days. I then went to this rink again where I used to work with Lori. I had nothing to do because I had no coach, so Bob and I talked a little bit and then he suggested I take a lesson. He helped me with my triple Axel in one sentence. It took him five seconds to fix it and other coaches couldn't do that for me. It's not a permanent fix because it's still a bit up and down and I still struggle a little bit, but it is a lot more secure now. After this practice, we sat down and talked for a while about the way he coaches and it was impressive. In my head I was thinking that I agree with every single word he was saying. When the end of summer came, I had to decide and I called Bob and I said, “Well what do you say if I come. Would you take me as your number one skater?” I didn't want to be number two; I am not going for that. I talked about this with Brian Orser. I told him right away that I am looking for a new coach and he said right away, “Tomas, I am full. I already have five major skaters and you would be number six. You don't deserve to be number six. Though, if you want to come and skate at the Cricket Club with me, or if you want to see Adam Rippon and have a little challenge, you are welcome any time.” We stayed friends; we were just very honest with each other. I was looking for something and he couldn't give it to me, so we just shook hands and I said, “Fine. I will look somewhere else.”
With Bob I have everything. He is knowledgable about the North American way of practice and he knows a lot about Russian technique, which I have been taught. He is also very calm. He never gets excited, he never gets nervous, and it seems like he's really confident. He believes in what we have done in practice and that it is enough. This makes me confident too. The coach believes in his job and that I should really be able to do it. I don't want a nervous coach. Bob never changes in his attitude. He's the same in the practice, the same in the competition, and I don't have to take care of him during the competition. I see him before practice, we do practice, he tells me when to meet for the competition and after the competition we shake hands. In the evening at nine, we schedule a meeting for 30 minutes and in these 30 minutes we schedule everything for the rest of this year; the grand prix final, nationals, etc., and that's it. No long talks, no talking about nothing, just that.
He believes in you and he's really confident about you and he trusts you...
Yeah and even though we are going to the Grand Prix Final, and he knows that we need practice, he did leave me in Moscow for a couple of days to be with Nathalie. He asked me if I will have a chance to skate and I said “Yeah, I have a chance,” so he tells me what to do in practice and that's it. There is no need to control. This just gives me the power to skate. He knows what he wants and I know what I want and he is so calm, it's unbelievable.
So tell me about the family you are living with now in Toronto. As I understood from other interviews, you have been there before?
Yes, the first couple of times I stayed in Toronto I stayed in a hotel because this family wouldn't take just any person into their home. Thanks to Lori, I stayed there with Carolina Kostner once. Then the next time we asked if we could come again and they said that for sure we could; we'd be very welcome. The time after I didn't even have to ask and they called me first. They are really like my family now. They really care for me. It's unbelievable. They take me as their own son. They prepare breakfast for me, they make me a lunch package and they cook a different dinner every day. I really don't have to worry about nutrition. I have everything there. They even took me for Thanksgiving dinner with their family. It's a big thing because usually Thanksgiving is only for family members. However. they introduced me to all family members and I really felt like part of the family. It's really incredible. The brother also took me to NHL games, they took me out for many things and showed me around Toronto. Thanks to them, I'm not as homesick as I am supposed to be. I do miss my parents and stuff, but I left my house at the age of 14, so I am kind of used to it by now. However, before it was a little easier to travel home because I could just drive. Now I have to fly several hours. It's great to live with somebody though; I don't come home and have to stare at the wall and be alone. I also have a lot of friends there from the time I was there for choreography.
Are there any other top skaters skating at your rink?
Actually none my age. There is Andrei Rogozin. He's a Russian guy skating for Canada. He won two Junior Grand Prix's this year. However, within an hour of my house there are four rinks. I can go to the Cricket Club, I can go to the Granite club, or I can go to Barrie which is “the country of quads. “It's written on the ice rink there. I did a competition in Barrie before going to Beijing. I can go almost anywhere to see other skaters such as Adam or Nobu (Nobunari Oda).
Last year, when we spoke in April, you said you were going to the hospital to do some tests regarding your health. Did something come out of these tests and how is your health now?
Ever since I got the H1N1, my blood was tested and the result was always weird. We didn't find anything completely wrong, but I just wasn't feeling very well even in April, which was very long after this season. I said to myself that I really want to get rid of it and I will do everything I can to get ready for the next season. Thanks to my dad, who works at the laboratory in the hospital, we found out what was missing. He ran all the tests. Now physically I'm fine.
What is the feedback you received on your programs from the audience and from the judges?
Well it's very strange because some people say that they love my short program and they would just talk about my short program. Then on the other side there are people who just talk about my free skate and not about the short. I haven’t yet found two people who will comment on both programs. I always find people who will like the short and I always find people who will enjoy the long. I know I can't please everyone at once.
I thought it would be very refreshing for the audience to hear very classical music for the short. ("singing in the rain") Everybody knows it, but none of the skaters in the past 10 years have used it for a competitive program. There have been skaters who have used it for an exhibition, but that's a show. I wanted to cut the music so it wouldn't be boring, though without singing, because I didn't want to break the rules, obviously [lyrics are not permitted]. It was hard, but I have a guy living in Montreal who cuts music. His name is Hugo Chouinard and he has done an incredible job with skating music. His website is http://studiounisons.com . He cuts the music for almost everyone. If you ask most of the top skaters who did their music, you will see it's the same person. It was either Hugo or Lenore Key, from Toronto, that I have worked with in the last couple of years. Hugo makes the masterpieces with the best quality. I think my short program music is very light and very easy going. It makes you feel better and it makes skating feel easier and I am more relieved while skating at the competition. The choreography in the beginning of the short program made the judges laugh even when they are not supposed to. They have to keep a serious face, but some of them can't.
About the long program, I can say that I think Michael Jackson’s music is music everyone loves. Even the people who don't like him often do love his music so I thought about it and I decided, why not? It was good enough for a show so why not for the competitive program.
It's only a pity that 3 other guys came to the same idea.
Yeah, I can only hope that Konstantin Menshov won't make it to the European championships or we will have 4 guys skating to Micheal Jackson there. Though Amodio doesn't have a program full of Micheal Jackson, he took just a little piece. It's just European skaters—Kristoffer Berntsson, Konstantin Menshow, Florent Amodio and me.
I actually thought about doing a competitive program to Michael Jackson for a long time. I asked my girlfriend Nathalie (who is also a world class ice dancer) about her opinion and she said that I'd do it. After he passed away I just wasn't sure but she said I'd go ahead and do it. I'm not that good or big headed to really make it like a tribute to his life, but I do want to bring him among us again a little and remember him. I'm not that much of a crazy fan that I cried when I heard the news, but when he passed away, I couldn't believe it. I thought it was some kind of mistake or some kind of rumour to make him even more famous or something. I just couldn't believe it. I watched the movie “This is It” 3 times right when it came out.
Then Tomas takes out his tissues to blow his nose, loudly. I ask him if I should write this down too, on which he comments that he has no idea how to spell that sound. Me neither, so I won't write it.
What are the things in your programs that you are going to work on now?
As soon as my conditioning gets a little better, I want to work to get more difficult transitions. I also want to work on my spins to get higher levels. In the short program, the goal is to get the levels to be two level fours and one level three on the spins because three level fours would be impossible for me. In the long, the goal is to get my spins all level fours. I cannot change my steps because they are just great with the music. I will leave them a level three and try to squeeze out as much GOE as I can. Another thing is that I'd like to get the quad into the routine and get it solid and consistent before Europeans and Worlds. The Grand Prix is nice but Europeans is what counts for me this year.
Europeans...and what about Worlds?
Well I don't want to put a lot of pressure on myself but the Europeans is more important for me this year. I want to have a good skate and a good result going into Worlds. I have to be ready and put all the jumps in both programs.
At this point in the interview we both hear the music of Volare playing. Tomas comments wondering if the skaters are trying to portray his life on the ice or something, since a few moments before we also heard Michael Jackson. He then remembered how skating to Michael Jackson all began.
It started in Oberstdorf when we had this little show and we had only three days to prepare for it. I had no costume or anything so I was just wondering what I could do, what could I do. Someone told me that I'd do a Michael Jackson program. Then on my computer I found this five minute Michael Jackson medley and it was just perfect. I only had to cut it into three minutes. Then people came to me and said, “Oh wow what great music cuts! Great transititions!” and they asked me if I cut the music like that myself. However, I thought they were talking about the choreography so I replied that I did it. I didn't do anything though, I cut it to three minutes and made the music fade out so it'd slowly fall silent.
Now I am skating my free skate to Michael Jackson. When I stepped on the ice in China, I thought, “Ok, let's give them the show.”
I think you gave them quite the show; they went completely nuts...
Yeah, they were going crazy. They will go even crazier during the Grand Prix Final, I think. If I'm in good shape, I will try to perform it even “bigger”. It's a great feeling. When I was smaller, I always dreamed of finishing the program jumping for joy and pumping my fist like, “YEAH!” Now I don't have the need because I already do it in my program! I can bow and say “I hope you enjoyed it,” get off the ice and go home. It's really a great feeling and it has been so long since I really enjoyed the skating. Recently everything was going downhill, but not anymore.
There have been many rule changes in figure skating this year...
Yeah, I don't like some of them...
So tell me about them.
I love the change about the last step sequence in the free skate. You can do whatever you want. You still need to do steps to showcase your edges and show that you have the ability to do rockers, counters, twizzles etc. and then the judges have a chance to give you GOE credit. I like this very much. I don't agree with the rule of the 70% reward of jumps that are not fully rotated . You don't rotate the jumps, you don't get credit. It's done, that's it. If you want to make a change, then make a change in the value of the jumps. They already tried this though and it has already improved a lot, but this 70% rule I don't like at all. If you cannot do clean jumps, then don't even try them. Then there is the change that you have to do only one footwork sequence in the short. I love this change.
I actually am sad to see the second step sequence go... For me the program really starts at the footwork and now it's over so soon! Though I understand it gives a lot more room to breathe...
I know you don't like it and I understand that because part of what is exciting about the men's skating is the footwork. However, they also changed the rules of the spins in the short program, so now we really don't have that much time left anymore. I had a couple of extra seconds in the beginning, but afterwards it is just...Go! It's element after element after element after element and you finish and it's done. I love the rule because it gives me more room to breathe, it gives me more time to express myself to the music. It's easier now to do the short program with the new rules even though the spins are so much harder. We are not allowed to repeat any features. You do one bullet position [feature on a spin] and it’s done; you cannot repeat it anymore. We do a lot of different spins and it takes a lot of time. I was skating with Jeremy (Abbott) in Detroit and after he finished his program, he really had to catch his breath. I commented to Jeremy, “Can you imagine putting another footwork sequence in there?” and he looked at me and he said, “Where!?!? There is no room!” I don't know either how we would ever be able to put another footwork sequence in there. My camel spin alone takes a hell of a lot of time. I really improved my camel spin though! During the summer, I wasn't even able to do eight revolutions and now I can do 12 in practice. It's still my least favorite spin, however.
What's your plan in Moscow now? Since you mentioned you will stay here for another two days?
I don't really want to go sightseeing here, I just want to spend some time with my girlfriend. Maybe I will go to some places Nathalie really likes, but I'm not here to see Moscow. It's also cold outside and I don't want to catch a cold or get sick. Last season, the H1N1 just killed me and I don't want to get sick anymore. I was so scared when I came back from China. I felt like it was all coming back.
Luckily it did not and I certainly hope Nathalie and Tomas had a lot of fun together. I want to thank Tomas for making time to do this interview. It was certainly very interesting and I want to wish Tomas good luck for the upcoming season. It's good to see you smiling again Tomas, keep it going!