Robin Szolkowy: "Every single thing I tried last year worked out"
February 11, 2016
By Reut Golinsky
Photo © Ksenia Nurtdinova, Reut Golinsky
Two-time Olympic bronze medalist Robin Szolkowy has retired from competitive skating after winning his fifth World title in Japan in March 2014. Nowadays he is as busy as ever, trying to combine coaching, his work with German federation and being a new dad. Will we see him skating again? What does his job description in Nina Mozer's team include? We discussed these and other topics when we met during the Grand Prix event in Bordeaux.
Robin, it's nice to see that you continue your collaboration with Nina Mozer's teams. In what capacity do you work with Russian pairs this season?
I work with Evgenia and Vladimir (Tarasova/Morozov), like last year. And I have a second team that I'm in charge of - Alexander Enbert and his new partner, Natalia Zabijako. They were both skating with other partners till March and started to skate together, I think, in April. The first time we met was in Sochi, last May. I was there for an ISU seminar and they were having a summer camp, and we had some time to work together. Their first competition was somewhere in Russia. In Saransk? (2015 Mordovian Ornament where they've won silver -ed).
You will know Russia's geography pretty well soon! How is your Russian by the way?
I'm still learning.
Vy govorite po-russki? (Do you speak Russian?)
Nemnogo. (A bit) I had my lesson just yesterday via Skype. My Russian coach is actually my former French teacher from school. And now, twenty years later, I figured out that she actually teaches French and Russian too. Her son is a good friend of mine, and so we talked and he said: "My mom can teach you Russian." We started around April and so far it's hard.
When I work with my teams, they want to learn something about figure skating from me and not to teach me Russian, so I prefer to speak English. I almost don't have any practice, just a little bit. And this makes it really hard.
Now, when you became a father, how often can you come to Russia?
The arrangement is the same as it was last year. The schedule is not really fixed. Nina is talking to me; we decide how is the team's spirit and what exactly do they need. What is more important - the basic work in Moscow, working on the programs, on the details, on the elements; or maybe they need more support during the competition. For example, when I'm standing here [at the boards] they feel stronger: "Robin is here with us, he is taking care of us." All these little things that make a difference. Right now I know I'm here, and the next step is not clear. After this competition I go to Moscow for the next Grand Prix event where Alexander and Natalia are skating. And after that we will decide what we will do next.
After their first Grand Prix in Canada, Evgenia Tarasova gave an interview in which she was especially grateful that you were there with them; she said it really helped them. I wondered what exactly you did.
(laughs) This is not easy to answer. I'm not really a person who talks a lot, but I'm watching a lot. And I think that I can feel the atmosphere between two skaters, can feel what they need. Sometimes you need somebody just screaming at you: "Shut up!"
I can't imagine you screaming, to tell the truth...
I can, but it's difficult for me, I need to work hard for this. (smiles)
So sometimes you need someone to scream at you and say: "Just go and do it! Do it again and again!" And sometimes you need someone to take care of you, to ask you questions: "How do you feel? How are you? How did you sleep?" To get some more information [from their answers]. When someone is not sleeping well there is a chance they will be a mess on the ice. And if someone is feeling great, the practice will go much better.
For this kind of conversation you do need to know Russian better, I guess.
Yeah. This is a problem. They are Russian, and even if their English has improved a lot last year, it's not enough. And my English is not enough either. So I really need to learn more Russian words to maybe use a mix of English and Russian. Sometimes they feel that they really want to talk to me, they start and then get lost in translation. And maybe with only one Russian word I could get it. But, like I told you already, I'm working on it. So far it feels good. And I don't have a feeling that I'm just standing there and they think: "OK, one more coach, we don't care..." It is a team effort, and that's what I'm telling them. One week before Skate Canada, during the training camp in New Jersey, we had a conversation. I asked them: "So what do you want me to do? Do you want me to tell jokes? Do you want me to carry your water bottles? I'm here to help you. You have to go out there and feel good, so you have to tell me how to help you, how to support you."
Are you involved in any way in the decisions about the programs, about their choreography?
This year I was not involved. The situation with my contract was not really clear after the Worlds, therefore I've prepared my own schedule for the summer. I was working in Germany all summer - in Oberstdorf for the "iceDOME" camp and with German federation on development of new junior teams. And then, of course, my son was born. So from April until the end of September I was fully booked. Actually I was also in Italy for two weeks, and the Russian team was there too, only half an hour's drive away, but I was too busy in the camp, being on the ice from 08:00 till 20:00.
So what do you think about their programs? Especially about their bold choice of an Irish dance for the short.
I think it is good for them to try different kinds of music, to get a feel for the body and for the movement, to check how they look on the ice [with it], to get a better feeling for the next seasons. Right now they are not fighting for the top three in the world; at the Europeans - yes, but not at the Worlds. Not that they are not good enough, but they are young, they have time... So step by step... I think that their programs are really, really good, a little step of improvement from last year, but not too much for them [to change]. So I liked them. And my mom likes them too. (laughs) But seriously, when my mom is saying something... We don't talk [about this] a lot, but when she says: "Robin, I like the programs" I say: "Wow".
Tell me a little more about your work with the German federation; you mentioned that it was only for juniors?
For novice and junior levels; with novice being only on German level, not international. Right now we have Aljona and Bruno in seniors, and we have Mari Vartmann and Ruben Blommaert, a new team. And we have a new senior team from Berlin, Minerva Fabienne Hase and Nolan Seegert. They are very young, last season was their first one on senior level; and they skated at the Europeans too last year. That's not a lot. And on junior level we have maybe four or five pairs; that's not enough. So I have to create a better base, like Russians, Americans, Canadians are doing. They have so many skaters, so it's so easy for them to change partners. When we have a team we have to keep it, because there are no chances to make changes. For example, if you have a very good boy and... not a bad girl, but maybe less talented, you cannot say: "Let's change partners". So my job is basically to go and talk to as many people as I can, to tell them: "There's a chance for you." Maybe you're a fifteen years old boy with athletic build, and you have problems with your triples - you're jumping, for example, a toe loop and a Salchow and a double Axel, but no loop, no flip. And maybe you've tried a quad a few times and you feel it's not your thing. While now even in juniors you need to have quads to have a chance, just a chance, [to medal]. So then my job is to tell these kids: "Look, it's not like you have to go to pair skating, but maybe you just try? And if it feels good, let's keep in touch, maybe I can find a girl for you. And if not, you can continue in single skating. Or maybe you can try again in one-two years." Right now there is nobody doing something like this and this is my job.
So you need to visit a lot of ice rinks and see a lot of children?
It's a mix. I'm more taking care of "spreading the information". So when the German federation was holding coaching seminars with the top and middle level coaches, I was there and I was talking to them about this new project. Coaches have to know, kids have to know, parents have to know, everybody has to know that there is such an opportunity. Because there are a lot of rinks where they never had a pair or an ice dance couple, and kids don't know that [such opportunity] exists.
Will you coach those new pairs as well?
No. When I invite them to a seminar, of course, I coach them [there], but I don't plan to be their main coach. If they have a problem, they can call me and, of course, I will see what I can do.
And do you have enough pairs' coaches in Germany?
Yes. Actually, we have a lot; at least we have a lot of former pair skaters who work as coaches. A lot of them were working for years in singles now. In the end it's clear - if you really want to continue with pair skating and your coach at home is saying: "This is it, I can't help you anymore," you'll have to move. I was born in the northern part of Germany, then I moved to a bigger city and there I've started with single skating. And when I decided to switch to pairs I had to move again. And it's normal, you cannot expect that "OK, I'm here in my small village, we have an ice rink and everybody will come - a coach, a partner." It won't happen.
Right now I'm already planning for the next year, starting in February, March maybe with some workshops, camps. Preparing everything with the German coaches, German federation, to get everybody together.
My last question will be about your own skating. Last time I saw you on the ice was in Verona, at "OperaPop", a year and a half ago. Did you have more shows after that, do you have any plans to skate in the future? Will we see you skating again?
The thing is that right after Verona last year I started to work with the Russian team, so it was Moscow, Germany; my wife is from Switzerland, so sometimes we go there... And now with the baby... The day has only 24 hours, right now I don't have enough time! I tried so many things last year and every single thing worked out, so I had to choose. For my future, right now the best chances are here, working with the Russian team, this is where I feel at home.
You don't miss performing? Your fans miss you for sure.
Not now. Maybe it's not bad to not skate for one or two years, just to get away from it a little bit. The thing is I actually have one or two very good ideas for show programs. But to prepare them will take some time. Still, I do think sometimes: "Actually I want to try this, at least once, in a show."
And Myriam will wait for you? (Myriam Leuenberger, the partner Robin teamed up with in July 2014 - ed)
Right now she is in Berlin, studying. And anyway we don't have time to practice together. But when she finishes her studies and she has her schedule settled, and when I know how everything is going with my baby and with my work in Russia and Germany, maybe then we can try those ideas, check if they work out or not. And then, if I see that they work, during the summer, starting from April, we can do the shows.
It depends on the invitations as well...
Yes, but I think that in the next five years, with my name, I still have good chances (smiles)
Robin's students Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov did great in Bratislava last week, winning their second European bronze medal in a row. Among their other achievements this season: silver at Skate Canada and finishing as 2015-16 ISU Challenger Series runner-ups.
Robin's other pair, Alexander Enbert and Natalia Zabijako, placed 5th at their first Grand Prix event together in Moscow, became 3rd at the 2015-16 ISU Challenger Series ranking and finished fifth at Russian Nationals. Unfortunately a few weeks later Natalia was seriously injured and their plans for the rest of the season are not clear at the moment.