Meet Robert Dierking

December 19, 2019
By Reut Golinsky
Photo © Verit, Reut Golinsky

Special thanks to fans who submitted part of the questions for this talk.

Robert Dierking was a very successful competitive skater in Team USA during his younger years. After retiring, he continued as a show skater and manager of touring shows. Now, alongside his wife Anna Dierking (Bernauer) and Stéphane Lambiel, he is a part of the coaching team of the Skating School of Switzerland. Also in his CV is the title of the show director of "Ice Legends".
We met during Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf and discussed his career, coaching philosophy and more.

Tell me a little bit more about your skating career, how you started skating. It was in the States, right?

Yes, I was in the US. I was six, I was living with my grandmother and she wanted to get me into sporting activities. I started with soccer and one day I decided that wasn't my thing, but my grandmother didn't want me to be without some sort of activity or sport. When I was nine, I brought home a brochure of the "Learn to skate" program, I didn't even express any interest, I put it on the dining room table and the next thing I knew I was signed up to skate. One thing led to another and that just took off. "Learn to skate" is a basic skills program and I started there and made my way through the program and into private lessons.

I began skating when I was nine years old and three years later, in 2000, I won my first national title at juvenile level. And then the year after I moved up to intermediate, won again, and then at novice won the national title the following year. I had my opportunity to compete for the US at Junior Grand Prix, I also skated at Triglav Trophy. After that, when I was fourteen I broke my leg, and that was it. I skated a little bit but not at the level and the intensity and seriousness [as before].

The journey of my life took a different path and I think a lot of that was also because I realized that we didn't have a good recovery plan that made it seem attainable to reach the level that I was at before the injury. I've gone to real life.
In 2010 I decided I wanted to go on tour. I wanted to get out, I wanted to see the world. I loved skating, it had been part of my whole life, I wanted to utilize that to see the world. And so I contacted my former coaches. It started with the "Holiday on Ice", which is a European-based company. I had a principal role with two solo numbers and a couple of group numbers with the other principal skaters.

That's where I met Anna (Anna Bernauer, the first female figure skater to represent Luxembourg at Europeans and Worlds, now a full-time coach at the Skating School of Switzerland - ed). From there we went to the Caribbean cruise ships. And from there we decided to go to school and this is what brings us closer to this, our chapter with Stéphane. We went to Glion Institute of Higher Education which is based in Montreux, just above Montreux and Lausanne. Anna had grown up training sometimes here in Oberstdorf, with Stéphane, they were already friends and knew each other very well. So the first time I met Stéphane was when we were at school. We became very good friends, whenever we met, we would always have brainstorming discussions about everything, silly things sometimes like what the perfect rink would be.

What did you choose to study?

It's was management studies transferable into many industries. We decided that the sport, events and entertainment track just spoke to us and our passion. We had experience [in this field] and it was just so interesting. Our university was fantastic, it had really inspirational lecturers and professors, and it was just exactly what we were looking for at that time in our life. We were really wanting to make the transition from being performers and moving more into backstage.

But you still continued to perform, right? I know you skated in "Art on Ice" for a few years...

Yes, we did the shows in 2012 and 2013 together, and I also did in 2014 and 2015. After 2015 we decided we would not skate in "Art on Ice" anymore, focus a little bit more on our work but then we still skated in "Villars on Ice". And that was great because it was the only time Anna and I had a solo as a pair, neither of us are pair skaters and that was a lot of fun training and learning about each other and in a completely different way.

How and when the idea of the Skating School was born?

After we graduated in 2012, we were on tour performing and tour managing, it was with a company called "The Russian Ice Stars", a small theatrical company, theatre ice show in the UK. And we toured fantastic places, we toured Kuwait, Jordan, and India... While we were tour managing Stéphane and Chris (Christopher Trevisan, CEO of Special Figures, Stéphane Lambiel and Deniss Vasiljevs' manager - ed) decided they wanted to organize a camp in the summer of 2014. We had two years to prepare and I think that was the best thing ever because we had enough time to really dig into what the opportunities were, what we wanted, how we wanted things to be. It was really a great opportunity and about - I can't say exactly - about a year into planning they called us: "We want to continue with this planning of the camp but also to start the school." And we said: "Oh, that's great, fantastic, what does that mean?" We were wanting to know what role they wanted us to play. At the end of the day we realized it would be a life-changing decision, we would need to move to Switzerland.

So you had in mind managing and then it was suddenly also about coaching?

Our main focus at that point in life wasn't necessarily coaching, it was management. But we were pretty much fresh out of the university and we were really motivated by the fact that we'll be part of opening the school.

Starting something new...

Exactly!

All those talks about ideal rinks...

Exactly! Things were just finally coming to fruition. We didn't really take much time to think about it, we said: "This is fantastic!" I think it was less than an hour later I called Chris back and said: "Yes. How do we get the process started?" And that was the end of that, we got ourselves prepared, we moved to Champéry...
Anna was in Switzerland before me because I had some visa complications. So I was working from the States, really trying to do the best, to send whatever feedback and useful material. I joined about a month after Anna and we started coaching right away. It was such a great period! I'm probably exaggerating but it felt like 90-hour weeks and we were just so immersed and consumed with the passion of opening a school. Everybody was five hundred percent in the project, there was so much energy and it was a beautiful period.

You started with mostly local kids. Then Deniss Vasiļjevs came, a year later you already had five international students. How does your day look now? How many groups do you have? How do you divide your attention?

It's a small school, we're based in the mountains. I think the population of our whole village is 1400 people, it's very small. We're not very close to any major cities, and Switzerland, like every country in the world, is very competitive. It's very competitive between clubs, people really try to retain their students. So we have a small basic skills program where we have primarily the youngsters of our village and neighboring places. Our "Learn to skate" program is two-three times a week. Anna is the engine behind that, she's really in charge and taking care of that. We have a transitional group, going from that into private lessons. We have, I would say, more like a novice level group. And then we have our senior group, which is split into two groups. The great advantage that we have is how flexible we are among this. Around half of the ice time is ours and with the flexibility we can really shift people around into different groups just making use of the ice the best we can. What's fantastic is our students are so open to it, it's always been like that and they understand that's how the school works. So if we have to bring someone from the transitional group on to the ice, there's never going to be a complaint from higher level skaters.

How many lessons do your senior skaters have?

They have two to three sessions a day.

And this is still not a private lesson, this is a group on the ice and all of the coaches work together? Or how does it work?

Every skater has their group and we have a group training plan so they know when to come according to their group. And then they of course have their personal training plan which is formed and periodized around their competitions. So when they go to the ice they have a good idea of what they're going to be training, they can mentally prepare themselves.

A good example would be Deniss, Koshiro (Shimada), and Matilda (Algotsson) and then when we have guests - we've had some fantastic guest skaters coming - they'll all be on the ice, let's call it "senior ice". They will come and we will divide the coaching and their lessons according to each individual skater's plan. So on that session one skater may have a free ice and two to three skaters may have lessons. Sessions range from 50 to 75 minutes, it depends. We're a small team, we often work in privates and sometimes we work in semi-private, with our higher level skaters usually never more than three, most frequently either in private or a lesson of two.

There is a good synergy between the students, they get along, they're good training partners, and they're supportive of each other. And I think it's so important to keep drama at a minimum, focus on your training and have fun doing it.

Yes, they always cheer on each other in social media. I also heard about the bake-offs they do.

Anna and I, we're less involved in their off-ice lives...

Yeah, but I thought you eat the result!

Jackie makes the most amazing cinnamon crumble cake so I tell her once a week to bring me my cake (laughs). And sometimes Matilda would bring cinnamon rolls. Deniss, of course, when he brings a dish of tiramisu, it's like Christmas! (laughs)

By the way, who do you have training in your school now? As sometimes we need to guess this based on skaters' Instagrams. For example, what's happening with Diana Nikitina? Is she back?

She had a procedure on her hip so she's managing that. Her focus is getting healthy and then deciding what it is she wants with her life.

We know about Koshiro, Deniss, and Matilda. What is going on with Luke Digby?

Luke was injured and is recovering, he tore his meniscus twice but he's doing well. He is at home and he will be returning on the 7th of October and we're excited to have him back. We just need to get him on the ice and understand how best to get him in shape in a good time frame so that he doesn't get injured. And that's pretty much it of the international level skaters.

And who is Jackie?

Jackie Schmidt, she is studying in university in Geneva and is coming and training. She's competing what she can, she is returning to the States to compete at the regional championships. And she had her first Swiss competition a couple of weeks ago.

You also had Céline Sonzogni.

Céline retired, she stopped skating. She still works sometimes as Anna's assistant with our basic skills program.

Tell me a bit about your coaching team, what is the specialty of each coach, what is yours specifically. Or can every coach do everything?

The roles are very clear. Stéphane is definitely the head coach, he makes the specific plans for the students and we're there to roll it out, Anna and I. Anna has an off-ice Eccentrics class, which is fantastic, it's a mix of Pilates, tai chi, dance. So Anna does that and none of us touches that. My thing would be the harness, but that's not all. We're all working together on creating the objectives for our skaters - short, medium and long term - and dividing the work out accordingly. We meet regularly and really make sure that we're on the same page, whether it's about methodological and pedagogical approach to our coaching, the technique that we're using, just everything. Because there is a lot that we do and we work a lot on the same things, we try hard to make sure that we're all on the same page and that different or contradicting information isn't reaching the student.

And also sometimes Peter Grütter or Salome Brunner are joining. Or is that mostly for the camps, or when Stéphane is not there?

You've brought up one of my favorite things about our school, it's the people who we get to meet and work with. Stéphane has brought fantastic people. Salome and Peter have been [involved] since the beginning of the school, Lesli Wiesner (a ballet teacher) joins us every year for the summer camp. We've had Ghislain (Briand), Mie (Hamada). Sarah Dolan (dancer and choreographer), she's incredible and she worked on some of our skaters' programs. Kenta Kojiri (dancer and choreographer) also brought really amazing energies.

Does this look like that dream rink you were talking about?

I think we're making it into the dream rink. (smiles) The energies that we get to work with, especially in the off-season, bring so much for the skaters and for the coaching team. We're all inspired, there is so much exchange happening between people that are not with us all year. It refreshes, motivates everybody. It's one of my favourite things about our work.

Fans know you mostly from the junior competitions you were coming to with your students. What are your methods to prepare them towards the competition, to calm them down, to make them focused?

I think we're a product of our experiences largely and what I loved [when I was competing] was the professionalism of my coaches. Whether or not they were nervous, they never showed it, they were there to do their work. They always showed up in a suit to competitions and they were calm and collected. And I think that's what I try to do. When things get a bit hectic at competitions skaters are looking for some sort of stability and I want to be able to provide that.

And how did it go last season?

It was such a fantastic season last year. I did five junior Grand Prix events. And it was so enriching. And with Koshiro [qualifying for the GP Final] that was definitely a highlight. I wouldn't say it was unexpected because he's so capable but it was a fast progression from the previous season. And I think he did a good job handling it, and that was very exciting.

Do you have different approach for younger students? Maybe you require more from those who are older? Or maybe you are less involved because they already know what they need to do?

I think the role of a coach is in the long term to help make the skater independent and autonomous. I mean Stéphane is a great example, he's self-conscious, he knows what he does and I believe that is because of the teamwork that was around him. When we work with the young ones it's as detailed as it can be with children who have a short attention span. You're building a foundation that you're hoping in the future to use for higher or more difficult elements and skating skills.
We haven't got so many students and the school is still young and that's not even a whole generation but we have seen great progress and we're excited to see it continue growing as the school grows.

What is the percentage between the managing and the coaching work you do?

I would say at the conception of the school it was probably - just throwing numbers out - 60% of managing, 40% coaching. Our ice is limited and when you're not on the ice, you can always work, especially when we were starting a school. Now it's reduced and I'd say management is 20 to 30% and coaching is the rest. Our organizational structure has evolved and now it's an oiled machine and it is functioning.

So in those 70-80% of coaching work what is the most challenging part? The most interesting? The most rewarding?

I would say the most interesting is knowing the students, working with the individuality of each skater. Rewarding is when I see that our team has gotten a skater to a point where they are able to bring the flow every session leading into the competition. By "flow" I mean that they know what they can do, they know what they have to do and how to do it, and they do it. We're guiding and they're on a good path and they're able to bring that and deliver that during the competition. Also it's such a good feeling when a skater and I agree that a training or competition went well. It's such a great moment of connection.

And if it doesn't, like it was yesterday with Matilda, what do you do?

You definitely need to give the skater some time to digest it but he or she also needs to realize that they are capable. And Matilda is. So it's just understanding how to tack onto her competitive mode.

I guess with every competition you're learning something new too.

Absolutely. Teenagers or young adults, they're in a very volatile period of their life where they're learning about themselves, there's a lot of change. And we need to be responsive and conscious of this.

Let's move off ice. Among the questions submitted by fans there was this very important one about your Siamese cats. How are they doing?

Yes, I sort of disappeared from social media - that's what happens to some people when you have a baby - but our cats are fantastic. Perhaps you saw the photos that we would take them out on the leash? Since we got our cats we've moved twice. Now we moved to the fantastic apartment in a great spot in Champ├ęry and the cats can now go outside on their own. We open the door, they go out, and when we call them they come in. They're so happy and we're so happy for them.

Are they friends with your two-year-old daughter?

Emgee, who is a boy, was our first cat. And then a year afterwards we got Mia, we brought Emgee with us and he picked her out of litter. When Layla-Kaye was born Emgee was jealous for about a month, because he's just wanting all the attention. But then he became her protector, he sort of "adopted" Layla. If she cries he'll cry with her, he'll come to us and say: "Don't you hear that she is crying? Do something!" He cuddles her in bed, she'll play with him and he just lets her do what she wants. And of course she's respectful and she's gentle, he is like her little teddy cat. And Mia is fantastic with Layla as well, but she's independent. She's the perfect cat, she's never made Anna or me upset.

It's a bit too early, but do you plan to put Layla on skates?

She has been on the ice a number of times, eight to ten times, she has a pair of skates that are about two sizes too big, she manages well, but she doesn't express it being her passion, so we're not pushing it. She definitely communicates loving to ride ponies, since she's one year old she's been riding them. She loves swimming and she loves riding on her bicycle. And she loves dancing and singing.
Among the questions you sent me there was also one about the "Ice Legends", no?

Yes, Stéphane is also asked about it every time he has a fan meeting.

And what does he respond?

Something like: "I remember, it's in my mind", something along the lines of "keep waiting." Sometimes I try to tell the fans: "What's the point of asking this question again and again?" But they say: "No, but we want him to know that we remember and still hope". And, yeah, we do... So what do you say, is there some hope?

We all know that Stéphane is an incredibly passionate person. And the period of the "Ice Legends" was one of the most passionate periods I have ever seen St├ęph be. So I would find it hard to believe that he would not want to have that experience back.

Oh, I'm sure he wants but I mean he is still human and he still needs to sleep. I don't see where, when he can do this, with the school and with his own shows...

Where there's a will, there's a way. I really want it to be another "Ice Legends", I'm hopeful. It's so funny, once or twice a year I ask Stéphane and Chris: "So, are you maybe discussing 'Ice Legends' when we're not there?" (smiles)

Do you think we should remind him every time we have a fan meeting? I'm not sure it can help. He's not the kind of person who can be pushed to do things.

I was once told: the worst that can happen is that they say "no".

But it was a hell of a work for you too...

But it was amazing! It was so much work but so beautiful to see the different parts coming together over time and then seeing the product at the end. It was such a great experience. I was the director of the show. And I was so grateful for that opportunity because I would never get that position for the show of that caliber without having had that experience before. So to get it was fantastic. It was a highlight of my life.


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