Stéphane Lambiel talks balance, precision and no compromises

December 14, 2021
By Reut Golinsky
Photo © International Skating Union (ISU), Judith Dombrowski, Tanya Drubetskaya, Reut Golinsky

It's been almost two years since our last talk. Like always, there was too much to discuss and too little time for that. And, like always with Stéphane, even though we couldn't cover those five pages of questions I've prepared, sometimes completely deviating from what I initially planned, the conversation was lively, interesting, inspiring, and thought-provoking.

Stéphane, I'm so happy to finally see you! How are you doing?

I'm doing okay. I'm doing as well as I could with the situation that we're living in. The whole world is not doing so well... But I have nothing to complain about. I have a beautiful house, a beautiful job, I take care of the people I love...

You know, when all this started in spring 2020, I thought about you and how awful it must have been for you. No shows, no ice, no touch, no hugs, a lot of virtual stuff and the Internet that you don't like...

True, the world has changed so much. And it's true that all those things you mentioned are the things that I need in my life. Shows, physical contact, being able to travel... Before, I used to be on the road every two weeks! In Champéry, I must say, it didn't feel so different, we're close to nature and that's probably the best environment in this kind of situation. The rhythm [of life] hasn't really changed, it's always been very slow there. It's just that suddenly I had that scenery for a very long time. But it was so beautiful to simply be there, to see nature grow; for example, when now in autumn it changes its colours. You realize, pay more attention to those small details, you're not looking for quick changes, but just appreciating [what you have]. Every day I wake up and see those mountains and I appreciate the light, the sun rising and slowly moving to the next point. All those little things that maybe you don't pay attention to when you're too busy with travelling and everything else. And now you're there and see this slow evolution of nature.

True, you observe nature over the year, notice the cycle of seasons. During that period, I was taking a lot of pictures not far from my home, and now I know every single plant, what blooms when...

Exactly! Exactly! And we created a vegetable garden, planted things and it was amazing to see, like you said, the rhythm of the colours, that was fantastic. And as the garden grew, I had some zucchinis which I was super happy about. Lately I harvested the beetroots and the leeks and cooked a Spanish tortilla, where you put potatoes and some vegetables and then you put in eggs...

You know, for a long time I wanted to ask you for some recipes!

Okay, well, I'm very freestyle in my recipes. (laughs)
It was a good time for all those things. I see that as human beings we adapt in almost any situation...

I mean you were teaching via Zoom!

That's crazy, ah? I know. I didn't do that for a long time, but I understand that when there is the a need, and there is an opportunity to do something, and there are no other solutions, you need to grab those opportunities. Even though I'm probably a person who is a fan in the least. I have this conflict, this dilemma with technology, because there are many things that I really appreciate, but I also know that we, people, are quite weak and we don't always use it properly.

Well, at least it's not a complete denial, like it was during our first talk! I tried hard but couldn't change your mind back then, showing you situations when technology can really help...

Yes and no. I can't say that there are only advantages...

But imagine this corona crisis happening 10 years ago or before the Internet existed. We would have survived of course, but it would have been much harder and sadder.

Of course, I was happy to be able to see people when there was no possibility to travel, to see my grandma, who was in lockdown in Portugal. But at the same time, I think it just makes you too exposed to everything, you get so much information. Of course, you can choose how to use it. But nevertheless, it's always too much information and it gives all of us too many opportunities to judge. And who are we to judge? I'm talking more about the social media part of it, but the Internet in general and the fact that we're attached so much to our phones makes us available to everyone. Constantly. We're fed with so much information and I don't think we need all of it. But, of course, I agree that there is great stuff too.

Shoma mentioned in one of his interviews that when the Worlds 2020 were cancelled you cried?

Yes, I was so sad for him. Because he was so ready. It was a difficult season, but he was coming back and step by step he was getting closer to getting things together. It's like you're putting pieces together, and sometimes you're struggling, but suddenly you feel that these pieces are falling into place, the "sculpture" is there... And then you can't show it! It was such a pity... And I was sad for the skaters.

And so, this "sculpture" you mentioned is being built towards the Olympics now?

Yes, as soon as the Worlds were cancelled the road to the Olympics was pretty clear. Of course, we had a lot of lockdowns, a lot of uncertainty... But Shoma is on a good track. He needs to stay healthy, Deniss - the same. I think health is one of the biggest priorities right now, because the [main] work has been done.

How was it to be in China for the Asian Open, an Olympic test event? It was also the reason you went there, right?

Yes, to see as much as possible, to understand how it is. It was good to see the warm-up arena, we enjoyed the scene, how everything went. We had a test every day and we were kind of free within the bubble.

I saw photos from the arena with people wearing hazmat suits, it looked surreal.

Yes, but it was just the medical staff. The people who were in the bubble with us were just wearing masks. The people from outside the bubble, who were not part of it, who were travelling in and out, wore more protection. Probably. At least this is how I understood it. Because people in the airport who were tending to us were also wearing such suits.

So, it looks good? Feels exciting?

Yes, yes! I know this rink very well, it's the rink where they held the Grand Prix events, it's a 40-50 old arena built in the sixties, I think (Capital Indoor Stadium, built in 1968 - ed). And they renovated it, so it was nice to see all that work that was done.

Talking about Olympic venues, I know you usually don't like to dwell on the past, but we're sitting in Palavela, where everything happened at the Games 2006, and this makes it extra special for me.

Of course, there are special places here. There is this bridge which connects Lingotto with the Olympic Village and I used to do my promenades there before coming to the rink. To see that bridge is always a big thing for me. It's also emotional to come here, I know exactly how the doors open... Everything stayed the same! The shape of the dressing room is very weird, it's not really a square, everyone has a separate corner which I actually loved. I really love being back here. My first time here was at Europeans in 2005, sixteen, almost seventeen years ago. And it feels like it was yesterday!

I took Deniss to see the "Fiat" test track on the roof of Lingotto building, this is a famous historical place where they used to try out their cars. And it's quite nice, it's in the middle of the town and it has so much space, and the building itself is like a hundred years old. It's quite phenomenal that a hundred years ago they already had this track to test new cars. And it was nice to visit the riverside and go to the Parco del Valentino.

Another burning question, what is happening with the shows?

I don't know, I'm waiting...

What about the two programs which we've never seen?

Yes, "Lost" (by Dermot Kennedy) and "This Bitter Earth" by Max Richter. I hope you'll see them.

Do you rehearse them now?


Both songs are very sad...

Yeah, but the world is very sad...

Nooo, this is my phrase. You always say that I am the pessimistic one!

Well, I have my dark side too!

You know, there is a certain perception of you as this sweet, kind - maybe even too kind - coach, always smiling and hugging. But I saw you work, you're very demanding, actually. You usually define yourself as a "precise" coach, what does it mean?

I'm precise and I'm a perfectionist. Call me old-fashioned, but I love very traditional skating. That kind of skating, which is about figures, edges, long lines, with movements coming from deep inside. It might look a bit naive or maybe not athletic enough, but actually it is very complicated, because it requires much more finesse. And to teach that you need to be very precise, very stubborn... Everybody now tries to skip this part, but I love to teach that. It may feel slow, but in my opinion it's essential and necessary. We're so lucky to have Peter (Grütter) who comes every Wednesday afternoon to help us and to teach my little ones. He has so much knowledge and it's important for me that this knowledge will remain.

Of course, I push my students to take risks. We're a very competitive and difficult sport, and we need to take risks and I love taking risks. But it should be a balance between the quality and getting out of your comfort zone. These are my values, this is why I love figure skating, this is what helps me to go to the rink and teach.

When I was younger, I probably was more flexible, now I'm mature enough to go for less compromises because I know what I want, and I know how I want things to be done. You asked me whether I'm a kind coach, I am kind because I'm considerate, but I'm not kind in the sense that you can do whatever you want. I have my vision and to skate according to this vision you need to work, and you need to work very hard. And there are no compromises. Humble work is the key. And to do that efficiently, you need a lot of fundamentals, a lot of repetitions. And you need a fire. It cannot come from an external cause; it needs to be your inner fire. And I'm talking about any level [of skating].

I don't need to be liked. I just want to be true to myself. Maybe when you're younger you want to impress, you want people to say only good things about you. Of course, I'm happy if I get recognition and success. But first, I want to be true to my values, to what I love, to how I think skating should look like. And to be true to that I'm not ready to compromise.

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