Sara Hurtado: "Beginning is always the hardest"

December 11, 2016
By Reut Golinsky
Photo © Laura Rodr√≠guez Albarrán, Sara Hurtado

"If they would've said a year ago: 'Yes, Sara, you will find a partner', I wouldn't have believed it," was the first sentence Sara said when we started this interview. Indeed, in October 2015, when Sara Hurtado unexpectedly announced on Facebook about parting ways with Adrià Díaz, it was hard to believe we'll ever see her again on the competitive ice. But fortune favours the brave and here we are, a little more than a year later, discussing new programs, music choices, and her life in Moscow where she now trains with her new partner, Kirill Khaliavin.

In one of the recent interviews your coach, Alexander Zhulin, mentioned that from the moment you and Kirill held hands and made a few strokes on the ice he understood that this was it, that he already saw the couple.

It was all super awkward, I have to be honest, because I've never did any trials in my life. I always skated with Adri so it was the only feeling I knew. Going all the way to Moscow I was thinking: "What am I doing?" But just by holding hands it felt right. And I thought it was going to be something like that. That it was going to be something that we will know instantly, because it's more than technique, more than skating. When man and woman are so close to each other, when you hold hands and you go one round on the ice, you know if you're going to trust this person or not. And with Kirill, even in the awkwardness of the situation, I found that feeling that I was missing.

Was it a feeling that you expected? When you were trying out with partners it had to be like this at once? It couldn't be, for example: let's take a month and see?

Yes, absolutely. Going through all this, coming back from Montreal to Madrid, starting to build a new life, then having this chance to do the tryout, I said: "It has to be something good enough for me to go back [to skating], to move out again, leaving my family and friends and everything in Madrid." So I had to be 100% sure, it couldn't be: "Well, we'll see..."

Then it's good that it worked out, because it's not always like this, you know; sometimes one needs more than a day to get the person in front of him, to understand him.

Absolutely, that's why I thought it was going to be so hard. But Kirill and I, we had a lot of conversations before that, to see where we were standing, to check our goals, our understanding of figure skating, of what we want. And he explained that he felt the same as I did, that he was not done with figure skating, but at the same time he felt that what he had done was good enough. For him also this was an opportunity to say: "If I start something new it's because I want to improve what I've done, not just to keep going to do something."
We came from different situations and different places, but we wanted the same in this new chapter. That's what brought us together: we have the same goals and we want them the same way. Since then it was all the case of getting to know each other. So we've had a lot of conversations, we tried to learn each other's work styles. We stayed in Moscow, so it was easier for Kirill, he didn't have to change much. But in a way for me it was better that everything was new, and every day I was learning something and it was fun. He was very attentive and kept asking how would I do this or that, how would I train something, so that we'll find a way which works for both of us.

What does your daily schedule look like?

We start around 9:30 with ballet or lifts off ice, then ? warm up and we go on the ice. We have the ice from 11:00 till 16:00, so we do either two sessions with a break in between, or we do a longer session. For example, at the beginning we needed much more time on the ice, because we were adjusting to skating together and on top of that also making choreography. The overall hours are similar to everywhere else, and we have all the facilities in one place, in "Olimpiyskiy" rink, so it's really comfortable.

Are all the couples together on the ice? How many couples are there?

All the senior couples, yes. We're four couples now - Tiffany and John (Zahorski/Guerreiro), Katia and Dima (Bobrova/Soloviev), a young team who just moved to seniors - Masha and Andrei (Stavitskaia/Bagin), and us.

Who else is working in Zhulin's team?

Peter Durnev, he is checking all the levels and the technical stuff. The ballet coach, Sergei Petukhov. And we have a lifts' coach too, Dmitry Ionov. You can check him on YouTube, he dances acrobatic rock 'n' roll, it's very impressive!

Where do you live in Moscow? How did you find a place?

I was very lucky, because Tiffany Zahorski moved to a new flat, not far from the arena. It was actually a place where the Turkish couple, Alisa Agafonova and Alper Ucar, used to live; they had to leave, so Tiffany moved in and there was a spare room. So suddenly I had a place to stay and a roommate! Also Tiffany can speak Russian, so she was super helpful at the beginning, taking me everywhere, even to supermarket. Now I can understand a bit and I can say "I don't speak Russian", things like that, but at the beginning I didn't know how I was going to survive. Even the alphabet is different! But it is a nice language, I've grown fond of it, I like it.

Do you plan to learn it?

Yes, I started already. Now I'm in art school, so I don't have that much time, but at the beginning for a couple of months I had a teacher coming to our home to teach me basics. So I learned the alphabet, how to introduce myself, how to ask for things, some colours, things in the house, very basic stuff.

You mentioned an art school. What is it and when do you have time to study?

I found here a British School of Art and Design, and I'm learning art and design. When I came back from Montreal I decided I want to do something apart from training. Also because I think it helps me to train better, when I have something to switch to, just to be back home and do something, not thinking about that twizzle or this key point all night long. So I started looking for a university to continue my journalism degree, but universities, most of them, only have their Master's degree in English. And if they have something it's only for a semester, I couldn't follow their schedule. Since I've always been really curious about fashion and design, I decided to look for something in this area. And I found this school which is great, they also have a good degree in fashion, but because I haven't done any art before I decided to do the basics course first, it takes only two days a week, so the schedule works perfectly and I'm not overloaded. In the future I will see if I can do something with it.

So costumes for this season are already designed by you?

In a way I always tried to propose my ideas. But I didn't actually make the design myself. Tomorrow we have a try-on, I hope they come out well.

What was the reaction of your family when you took this decision to leave to Moscow?

I'm so lucky, they are always so supportive. They just want me to be happy. Before going for the tryout I was asking my mom: "Do we want to go through this again?" And she said: "Sara, you have nothing to lose. Just go there, see how you feel. If you're happy on the ice, go for it!" They will support me no matter what, and knowing this gives me so much energy! Of course, for them it would have been nice if I could stay at home. On the other hand now, in Moscow, I'm closer [than in Montreal]: the time difference is smaller. It isn't that bad! (laughs) Of course, they see it as a learning experience for me.

Do they plan to visit you in Moscow? Or have they already?

Not yet, because they have to work. Also, now, me starting again costs them a lot of money, so the expenses of travelling... We will have to save up. Hopefully next summer or autumn they will come.

About expenses, I understand that you have troubles with financial support at the moment?

Starting over we don't have any right to apply for any kind of scholarship, because we have no results. The beginning is always the hardest. You have this project you think is good enough, but you need some help to start it. I have a "Podium" scholarship that the Spanish Olympic Committee gives, sponsored by "Telefónica". So that's really helping us plus the crowdfunding project, which is still going on. Anyone can contribute, anonymously or with your name, and you will get a little present in return, depends on the amount. There are photos, T-shirts, even a Skype call or a full day with me. At first I didn't know what to propose, but the people have been so nice and so generous. And it really helped; thanks to that money I covered some expenses for the last months. Without them maybe I could not go through. At the beginning we needed Kirill's release too, it was all unclear, we were doing everything with our eyes closed, just hoping for the best. But we never knew if the release comes and when. So we were just concentrating on what was in our hands, because certain things were out of our control.

Are you already working on citizenship for Kirill? What are the chances for it to be in time for the Olympics? And what is in general the procedure in Spain?

In Spain we have something which is called "a letter of naturalization". It's basically a request from our federation and National Olympic Committee to the government which shows how the country can benefit from this athlete. Honestly I don't know how long it takes. All the process has already started, because, of course, the earlier the better. But we will see during this season and next year. Also the situation right now in Spain with the government was really unstable (Spain suffered a 10-month political deadlock which was resumed only at the end of October - ed.), only last month we got a Prime Minister and now he has to close the official budget, the new laws, a lot of things...

We'll keep our fingers crossed that the situation with Kirill's citizenship is solved fast.
Let's go back to skating and talk a bit about your programs. You already announced your music choices, so before our talk I had time to listen to them. Especially the music you took for your free dance, "Two men in Love" by The Irrepressibles, is very... intriguing. It's not standard, that's for sure.

That's what we were looking for, for something which would not be standard. Because if you go for something like tango or waltz, you already have a mental image of what it is [and how it should be], and you don't have a freedom to explore. And being a new team we wanted to choose something and see what we can come up with, we thought: "Let's create something beautiful that we like and feel good about." I think that also helped us to know each other better. Without even realizing we were building our personality as a team. I hope the result will be good.

Is there any story behind it?

This program is about taking new chances, just like Kirill and I did. I think we all go through that at some point in our lives, thinking: "Do I want to do this?" Going to some new places, having the fear of unknown, when you don't know if this is going to work or not, asking yourself why are you putting yourself through this. And then trusting that it's going to be for the best. Going for this and saying: "I will do this!"
I think it happens in relationships, in partnerships, when you apply for a new job, when you move countries; it happens in so many situations. And people are afraid to take chances and leave their comfort zone because they fear to fail or they are not sure enough in their decision.

For your short dance you chose two pieces performed by Térez Montcalm. I didn't know this singer before, apparently she is Canadian. Was it something you "brought" with you from Montreal?

No, it was random. I have my "Spotify" open 24/7 and suddenly this version came up and I really liked it. Of course, I showed it to Kirill and we showed it to Sasha (Zhulin). But you always have to try the music on the ice, try to skate to it. So we tried the blues with this piece, with other rhythms and understood that this was what we wanted.

In general how do you like the pattern and the rhythms chosen for this season (Blues + Swing and/or Hip Hop)? What I saw this season so far I really liked, I think it was an interesting choice.

Yes, I really loved a lot of short dances this season! They gave skaters the freedom to mix it with something very modern and there are really cool choreographies. I really enjoyed watching all short dances in Moscow [at Rostelecom Cup]. We start breaking the convention of the ice dance. I think it's great; it's taking our sport to a different place. And you can also show to the judges that you can skate in a different way, you have a broader range of styles.

Your studies of journalism you mentioned earlier, do you plan to continue them?

I learned one year and three quarters, because I was taking some separate courses. So I didn't finish my second year yet. Of course, right now I can't continue. But hopefully in the future I will finish it; I enjoyed it.

I saw via your Instagram that you also worked in it a bit? In some totally not related to skating sports, like basketball I think?

Yes. That was something that started doing: they are taking athletes from one sport to a completely different sport and ask them to spend one day in it. So they asked me: "Hey, Sara. We have this week, the pre-Olympics with basketball female team, close to Madrid. We would like you to go, be with them and cover it for us, to get the experience of an athlete in their world." Of course, I couldn't say "no", and I was really excited to meet them. Also because it was a team of athletes, it's a team sport and I was really interested in that - in what their day looks like, how are they training, how are they preparing, in knowing them and asking them questions. It was a national team, so they all train separately and then come together to play for the country. It was so nice to exchange anecdotes; some of them are training in Russia, so we exchanged our experiences about Russia too. The match that I saw was a preparation for the Olympics. The following week they had the qualification. And, of course, I was following it online, cheering for them. It made me feel even closer. And it was super exciting to see them winning silver in Rio! (You can read Sara's report about that day here).

So when you continue with your journalism studies you would want to cover sports?

Of course. It's a great world to be in.

And if we're talking about your off ice activities, I also want to ask you about your talk at TED Youth. Tell me more about it.

The theme of our day was "Breaking with conventions", we were a group of young people, all of us younger than 23, and we all had some story that was totally out of ordinary. A competitive figure skater, then there was a really young guy that was doing 3D printing, making organs and saving lives, and some other unbelievable stories. They proposed this project to me, I agreed and started thinking: "OK, which message do I want to pass?"
Speaking in public is harder than what I imagined. And having a limit of time too - you have only 17 minutes and so many things [to tell]! I was so nervous! It was so personal and so emotional, wow.
And it was a great experience also to self-analyze everything that I've done till that point. It helped me so much, even to heal, to understand the break up with Adri, what I was feeling about it. I ended up talking to Adri, saying: "Hey, Adri, I had this TED talk. And you know I was going through the moment of our separation and I could feel something in my throat, I needed to talk to you..." It was the right time to talk to each other and to feel good about it. There are no hard feelings, we're still good friends. It was what it was, it was great. I don't think we're going ever to experience something similar, because it was so special and so awesome. It is going to be with us forever.
So, creating this talk and going through all that, through all the things in my life was great. And if with my story I could inspire even one person to follow his passion, to gather with other people, to team up and go for it then I am happy and it was worth it.

Sara and Kirill won today their first competition, 2016 Santa Claus Cup. You can check their performances here: SD, FD.
They also achieved a minimum technical elements score for European championships, so their next goal would be to do well at their National championships next week.


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