Stefania Berton and Ondřej Hotárek: "We always have new goals and we never stop"

March 12, 2013
By Titanilla Bőd
Photos © Eva Maria Jangbro (EMJO), Johanna Welnicki

What can be better than interviewing a talkative skater? Interviewing two talkative skaters! Listening to European bronze medalists Stefania Berton and Ondřej Hotárek, it was easy to forget that the journalist should actually be asking the questions. It was a pleasure to listen to two happy people, and to get to know a little about the path to their long awaited and historical bronze medal.

How do you feel now as European bronze medalists? Was there any celebration?

Stefania: We were celebrating two things: our medal, of course, and Ondra’s birthday. We were surrounded by people who supported us on our path to get here. It was a good celebration. Of course we missed our families, because just my mum was here in Zagreb. We always want to thank our families, because it’s thanks to them that we are here.

Ondřa: There’s going to be more celebration once we get home. I just couldn’t sleep tonight [the night after pairs long program]. My brain just kept on going, so I woke up early and had like three hours of breakfast with all the team: first with Luca [Lanotte], then everybody else came, and then I sat with Paolo [Bacchini], then Tomáš [Verner], then Michal [Březina]…

Stefania: I had breakfast with Michal, too!

Ondřa: It was breakfast from 7.30 to 10. I wasn’t continuously eating, just talking, and then I was hungry at 10.30.

I remember when we talked last year and you said about your placement: “Fifth, fourth and next year third!”

Stefania: And here we are! We didn’t really expect it, but it happened!

Ondřa: Right before this Europeans we tried to get ready and we knew we were in the best shape we had ever achieved in practice. We were healthy, our mindset was good, and so we came here really ready to perform two great programs. You never know what the others will do or what the judges will give you; that’s why we said it could be a surprise. But it wasn’t such a big surprise as it would have been last year, because we weren’t ready back then. This time we were, and that’s why in the end it wasn’t such a big surprise. We were talking about it like it would have been something epic. It’s the first medal for Italy [in pairs], but we’re going to work on it so it definitely won’t be the last one.

Coming to this Europeans were you dreaming about a medal? What were your ambitions?

Stefania: At the time, the withdrawal of Bazarova and Larionov obviously made me think about it a little more, but we didn’t come here to get a medal. We came here to skate. To skate well, to perform, to show everybody how strong we are, how we’ve improved and how much work we’ve done. That’s our job and we’ll keep on doing it. The medal is important, but it’s just the beginning.

Ondřa: Exactly. It was one of our goals. We didn’t really think about when it was going to happen, but it was a goal. We are going to do all we can to improve.

You were here in Zagreb in 2008 in a different situation. You even said at the press conference that this medal was a kind of revenge for you. How do you remember those times and how do you feel about the long way you’ve come since then?

Stefania: I was a singles skater. And that was the first time I had ever watched pairs skating live. I watched Ondra’s competition, and him skating too. I just remember that we both didn’t skate great; we could have done much more and I’m glad that we made it here together.

Ondřa: I never really thought about 2008 since we got here. Everything just makes more sense in this way, with Stefania as my partner, with our skating, programs, our team, our coach… It just makes much more sense competing like this. I couldn’t really compare it. It’s so far away for me, it’s a part of the path, but it’s just so far that you can’t really remember it.

Stefania: It’s just the same location.

Ondřa: It even feels different. I’m probably going to remember this one better than the last one (laughs).

What was hardest for you when converting from a singles to a pair skater?

Stefania: It’s another planet. The hardest element for me was the twist, because I was kind of scared of being thrown and caught, that I couldn’t control it so much and I was in his hands.

Ondřa: Being there, I would be scared too!

Stefania: But then everything came with time, doing it over and over again… And there is a funny story, when we started, we were doing side by side jumps and we were setting the jumps. And one time I was doing four crossovers, but maybe the next time I was doing three crossovers. And he would tell me: “Stefi, you change the preparation!” And I was like: “Yeah?” He explained: “We should do four crossovers…” And I replied: “We were set differently, so I did three! Why didn’t you do it as well?” Then he said: “We should somehow agree, because I cannot read your mind!” Well, I was really surprised!

Ondřa: Every time when we did one perfect setup, the next time she did one crossover more or less… Or she just stepped earlier, in a different direction. But all this happened just because we never really took time to show her and explain the simple exercises to her. We were always aiming high. It was hard for us to show some kids a two handed lift, because on the second day [of our collaboration] when she was up, I held her with one hand. So she never really practiced lifts on two hands.

Stefania: And they are not comfortable for me.

Ondřa: We skipped a few steps when we started together, because we didn’t have much time, and we didn’t want to lose a season, so we had to take the quick route.

Weren’t you afraid of the lifts?

Stefania: I always trusted him. Of course I wouldn’t say I was comfortable from day one… It wasn’t like that. But I got comfortable after two years. I had no choice. I wanted to get there; I wanted to be on a high level from the very beginning. We started to do triple throws after two months. I asked him and our coach if we could try it after two weeks of skating together, and then I splatted on my face because I wasn’t ready. So then I waited a month to try it again, and we did it right away. We didn’t have time to chill out, to take time to learn, no. We were going to do it. That’s it. So I never even thought about it too much.

Ondřa: You need to keep your goal and motivation. When you relax, it’s very hard to get back on. That’s what we try to do: to keep ourselves busy, to have new achievements, work on new things.

Stefania: We always have new goals and we never stop. We try something more.

Ondřa: We also work with different people as well. We have our basic staff, the people we trust and they’ve been with us since the beginning, but we also like to experiment by working with different people, off or on the ice. It keeps us positive, happy.

Stefania: This is challenging. We don’t think too much, we just try until we get what we want. And then we set another goal and start from the beginning.

Ondřa: The more you understand, the more you see how much more you need to do. And the more pressure you feel. There were times when I was thinking, once you get to the last group, you can relax a bit. I thought that the best skaters are just chilling out during their program, no pressure, and then you are there and realize that it’s more pressure than it was before! And it’s bigger with every competition. Then you just have to smile when you get back from the ice and you see Maxim [Trankov], for example, saying: Huh, this was hard today… and I realize: okay, so it’s not just my feeling. It’s great to compete with people who I once watched on TV. I watched Aljona and Robin when they first competed, so it’s pretty incredible to be here and stand with them on the podium. That’s something special.

You said on the press conference that you skate for each other. Was it like this from the very beginning?

Ondřa:There are moments when we do it more, and there are moments when we do it less. There are special moments, and there are hard moments. The harder it is, the more we have to stay connected, the more we have to keep it together.

Stefania: That’s our strength. We don’t always have all the people we need with us all the time, for the technical elements or whatever, because we can’t have everything in the same training center. If the two of us don’t keep our shit together then we are lost.

Ondřa: For us it never worked to say: okay, you do your thing and I’ll do my thing. We have to do it together. I need to know what she wants to do, she needs to know what I want to do, and we have to do it together. That’s what we did in Zagreb, too. There was a lot of pressure. Especially, when you are ready, the pressure is your desire to perform the same way you skated at home.

Stefania: And we still couldn’t do it. We did it just in the short. But we can do much better in the long.

Ondřa: I think maybe in the long we were more skating for each other, because we were there to help each other out. When something was getting worse, in the important moments, when someone else would have lost it, we just stuck together and pulled it out. I mean, we tripped before the throw and usually this means the throw won’t go well. At a practice when you have a mistake setting up a throw like this, you usually don’t do the jump, so this was something special. We each made a few mistakes, but we saved them after a second.

By the way, after all these years, can you read her mind now?

Stefania: Of course! He’s learning!

Ondřa: Yes. I’m ready. Whatever she wants.

So was it you, Stefania who shouted in your mind before that throw jump: “Throw!”

Stefania: No, that was Michal!

Ondřa: He told me after the competition that when he saw me tripping, he just thought so hard: “Throw, throw!” So I threw.

Stefania: And it worked!

Ondřa: We laugh so much, because Michal is a great friend.

Stefania: He’s been growing up with us skating-wise.

Ondřa: We live five minutes from each other in Brno and we meet each year at Christmas for a little Christmas party with our friends. He is really good at pairs technique. He has a good eye for technical details. And he’s been watching us for such a long time, and helped a lot.

Stefania: He always comes to our practice when he can.

Ondřa: He was like our second coach.

Stefania: He was with us all the time. When we were warming up, for example. We really appreciate his presence. It calms us down a lot.

Ondřa: It’s great to have a friend nearby, it all feels much easier.

Stefania: You remember it’s not the end of your life, it’s just one competition. I know it’s an important one, it’s once in a year, of course. But you still have to remember that there are a lot of other things much harder than just skating.

Ondra: Our friends will stay even if we don’t get a medal. That’s the important thing. We can’t get a medal every time…

Stefania: …but we can have the friendship.

There were some pictures of you and Michal together in the kiss and cry at some other competition.

Ondřa: Yes, but we don’t want to make the ISU mad. Before our competition here in Zagreb Michal asked “Do you think it’s going to be a problem if I just go with you to the barrier?” And I said: “I think yes.” So we said we could be together until taking the ice, and then we’d see each other right after. Because once we are on the ice we know what we have to do. We are very happy for Michal’s short program, it was very good, I hope he will keep it up tomorrow and give us some emotions as well. [He did so because he won the bronze medal as well!]

After you were third in the short program, how did you spend your time until the long program and how did you cope with the pressure?

Stefania: I was nervous.

Ondřa: I did basically the same thing as before the short program. I slept a little less, because I was nervous.

Stefania: I slept a little more, because I was nervous.

Ondřa: Then we talked a little more.

Stefania: Because we were more nervous.

Ondřa: Yeah, so we tried to reassure each other.

Stefania: Just to set up our attitude for the competition.

Ondřa: To keep our minds busy in the right way. When you see us talking a lot, it means that we are just trying to be on the same page.

Stefania: And it worked. Next time it will work even better, because we will have less pressure on us at Worlds.

Ondřa: We just have to go there and skate well!

It sounds easy!

Ondřa: Yeah, it’s really easy to be a coach in figure skating! You say: “Just go there and skate well! And try to not open the jumps…”

Stefania: “And don’t screw up!”

Ondřa: “No falling, please!” We heard it all our lives. “Don’t open the jumps, or don’t pop…”

Stefania: Or they just say: “Skate clean!”

So what do you need to hear before going on the ice?

Stefania: Just each other and ourselves.

Ondřa: We don’t even need to hear, we just need to feel. There is not really a word which can help us or change something from the outside. It’s the feeling.

Stefania: That’s what our coach says, just feel each other.

Ondřa: With just a simple handhold you can understand much more than when you are talking.

Stefania: And you can also understand a lot when looking into each other’s eyes. That’s why we always do that. It’s a way to connect, to start something together.

Ondřa: It’s the way how we understand the tension, how relaxed, tense or powerful the partner feels. We work with touch, so that’s how we feel.

Was it hard to regain concentration after Stefania’s fall in the long program, or you just continued normally?

Stefania: No, it wasn’t normal, obviously what you always have to focus on is the moment you are in. So what you have to do is to keep on being in the present. If I think about something I did, it’s thinking about the past, and this is not what we need.

Ondřa: What you think right afterwards is the next step, which is the transition, and then the next thing.

Stefania: At the end of the program I didn’t even remember the Salchow. Of course afterwards I think about what elements I did, but while skating, I’m just thinking about what I’m doing in the next moment.

Ondřa: The second half of the program was so automatic that my brain didn’t really even have to work. Or it worked so much at the throw that I forgot the rest! (laughs)

Stefania: When we crossed our blades, I just thought: “Be calm, he’ll throw you maybe… When he throws, you close. And then land.”

Ondřa: I gave so much power into that I think I almost blacked out.

Stefania: And there was even another throw! That’s the cool thing!

What were your feelings and thoughts when you saw your marks and realized you couldn’t miss winning a medal?

Stefania: Yessss! It was cool, because the score was high, both technical and components. It was our super season’s best.

Ondřa: That score reflects what we deserved to earn. And I think we earned it throughout the season, not just with a simple program. We performed it well at the last four competitions, and I think what came here was just the conclusion of the whole season.

Stefania: So now we have to do the same at Worlds.

What will your preparation be like? Will you rest now?

Stefania: A little bit. He’s going to go home, I’ll go to see my boyfriend, and then we’ll do an exhibition and start all the work again.

Ondřa: We’re going to be in Detroit before Worlds. We’ll take a look at our technique, try to sharpen it, get cleaner features. Maybe we’ll add one more feature into the twist, which would be very nice, because it’s a valuable element.

What was the reaction of your friends and family after your bronze medal? How many text messages did you get?

Stefania: I don’t even know.

Ondřa: I had a couple of hundred messages on Facebook, and about 60 on my phone. And my dad said when I called him at midnight that he didn’t put down the phone for a single minute since our program, somebody was always calling. There were two hours of phone calls from people he haven’t even heard about for ten years. And I made my father cry.

Did you cry as well?

Ondřa: No, I didn’t. When the others cry I don’t cry.

Stefania: Hey! Your eyes were wet on the podium! He didn’t have tears falling, me neither, but it’s still crying, even if you don’t have tears.

Ondřa: Okay, if you call that crying, then I did.

Stefania: It’s not a bad thing. It’s okay…

Yes, it’s absolutely okay. :) And we are sure there were also lots of fans who had tears in their eyes watching this beautiful couple reaching their dream. We wish Stefania and Ondra all the best for the World Championships, this week in London, Ontario! They will skate their short program tomorrow, March 13.

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