Angelo Dolfini: "The results will come because they are great skaters"

December 18, 2022
By Anna Kellar
Photo © Anna Kellar, International Skating Union (ISU), Anna Bertoloni, Reut Golinsky

As a skater, Angelo Dolfini is a four-time Italian champion, between 1999 and 2003, and participated in the 2002 Olympics. Now Angelo coaches at the Skating School of Switzerland alongside head coach Stéphane Lambiel. There he works with Shoma Uno, Deniss Vasiljevs, and Koshiro Shimada, as well as many of the junior and developmental skaters in the school. He also has been a regular commentator for Eurosport Italy. Angelo accompanied Koshiro to Skate America after the Japanese skater was assigned there at short notice. I caught up with him by Zoom once he was back in Champéry. The conversation took place shortly after Skate Canada, where Shoma won the Men's event and Deniss struggled.

How was your time at Skate America?

It was a great atmosphere, as it was the first Grand Prix of the season, so everyone was excited about it. And the competition was amazing. We had the chance to see Ilia [Malinin] live. He did great things even in practice, and Kao [Miura] also was really good. I think it was a very good competition in the Men's event.

This was your first time taking a student on the Grand Prix. Did it feel different than a Challenger or a smaller competition?

Of course, you feel a little bit more – I don't say pressure, but attention, all the media, the audience, so it was a little bit different. But in the end competition is competition. It was a great experience; I was well aware it was the first time for me in a Grand Prix as a coach.

Did you ever do a Grand Prix as a skater?

Yeah, the only one I did was the Trophée Lalique, that is now the Internatinaux de France. It was in ‛99, and that was also a very nice experience. It was Alexei Yagudin against Michael Weiss. Yagudin won that competition, and the crowd was amazing.

You went to Japan with Koshiro this summer. How was that experience?

That was great too. That was my first time in Japan, and I had the opportunity to see a little bit how these national events are run. In Japan the level is very high. This was a qualifying event for Koshiro for the NHK, and I must say I was very happy with his performance. Sota [Yamamoto] was really good. He landed three quads and one triple Axel. Koshiro landed one quad and two triple Axels, so I don't think he was far away. With one more quad it would have been a tight fight. But of course, I think it was fair enough that Sota got the spot for NHK and then Koshiro was happy to have Lombardia. It was also a very good experience for him to start the season early in competition. I think the experiences will help him to face the next Grand Prix with confidence. He has had previous Grand Prix experience in his career, but it has been a long time since he could compete at this level, due to the pandemic, and last season a little bit of injury. Anyway, in Japan, the level is very high.

It's nice to see that Koshiro has really gained some confidence and some ease with the quads this year. What do you think accounts for that?

We had to adjust the training following his physical issues. But now he has this physical trainer who helps him and treats him whenever he needs. Of course, the trainer is not always here, but he comes to Champéry from time to time, and then he follows Koshiro to competitions, and it's very helpful. Koshiro is finding his balance in practice. He is doing less and focusing more on the quality of his performances and of the execution. What we see now in competition is him becoming more confident.

As a young man, he's also growing up. In Skate America, the short program was really disappointing. No reason to hide that. He was also disappointed, but at the same time, he had the strength to see the positive points there. It was the second time in competition doing a short program with two quads. He nailed it in Japan at regionals and he couldn't here, but he went for both quads, so he was happy. I also think the free skate, and the fifth place overall, boosted his confidence and shows that he belongs there, and he can be a contender even for the podium positioning in a Grand Prix with a clean performance. Of course, he needs to skate basically clean, or something near there, but he has the potential to score 250 points and be there.

Hopefully Sheffield will be a good opportunity for him and for Deniss, it's less of a stacked field. (Koshiro and Deniss did well in Sheffield finishing fourth and second respectively – ed)

Skate America Men's event was tough. Anyway, for them the focus will not be the result, but the performance. So as long as they perform what they can do, we are super happy no matter what the result – and then the results will come because they are great skaters. We are confident in that. I think that Deniss also is really increasing his rate of success with the quads, especially with the Salchow but sometimes the quad toe, and we are very happy. [There is] a little bit of pressure, because maybe now he feels more confident on the quad and when it doesn't work, it's a little bit more disappointing. Let alone that he put the quad in the short and that's very new for him. He needs time.

I'm surprised that he did that, but I guess it's just part of the development, getting it out there.

I think it's the right path for him because he can do it. It's very risky at the moment, but not as risky as it was in the past. That's why we also try to put it in the short program, and because he needs to challenge himself. He has delivered many clean short programs with all the triples, so now it's time to move on. We are aware that it's risky and maybe the result will not come immediately but I'm confident that he can get what he wants during the season.

With practices at Skate Canada going well maybe it was even more frustrating being unable to put it in the performance.

I'm not over-worried, because not only at Skate Canada, but in Champéry, the practices are getting better and better for the quad. We didn't expect this kind of performance, but we can expect that something's not going to go exactly the way we plan in the programs. For the moment it's fine, and I think we can accept it, so long as we see Deniss on this path of getting the quad more regularly.

What do you think the challenge is for Deniss to get a quad? Stéphane thought part of it was that Deniss is broader in the shoulders and it's harder for him to get the rotation.

It is, of course, but even so, we are very proud of Deniss. Last season he had an amazing season, he was so consistent. He had confidence on the triple Axel, it was there almost all the time. This is a great result. If he can deliver a triple Axel, he can deliver a quad Salchow or a quad toe. It's the same rotation. Of course, it's not going to be as easy [for him] as for some others. The body shape counts, but that's his body shape… we need to adapt to his shape and try to help him find his way. It's going to be a little bit different than Shoma, or Koshiro, [since] they have completely different body shapes. For Deniss, his body shape helps him in delivering a good performance in the choreography, because he can fill the rink with his body-lines. It's beautiful to watch. He pays the price on the jumps a little bit, yet the jumps that he can do are consistent and beautifully done. It didn't happen in Canada, but he has high jumps, beautiful to watch. Of course, he does not rotate as fast as Malinin. We know that.

I don't understand how Ilia can do that. He turns so fast and even when he does the jumps in his choreo sequence, he's so high off the ground.

It was amazing. When I saw him practicing and competing, I really thought that we are just waiting for the quint toe. Not everyone will be able to do that, that's for sure. He's exceptional, that's what makes it so impressive. But still, there are many other skaters that can offer other things. For Ilia, I really enjoyed the program, but he's very young, he can develop, and learn so much about the expression. I really wish him all the best, to be healthy for as long as possible, because I can also understand that what he's doing is very challenging for his body. I want us to enjoy his performance for a long time yet and see the artistry, because I think he has the potential in that regard, too.

And what do you think about the competition among the Italian men right now? There are at least four strong men for just the two World spots.

Right?! It's amazing. It has never happened in the past. I'm very happy for them and proud of them. I think it's great for Italian figure skating overall. Each one of them is already one of the best ever, and [having them] all together in the same moment is exciting. All of them are really good and competitive at the international level and that's unprecedented. I feel that Matteo (Rizzo) has more international experience. I still see he has the edge; he landed a quad loop for the first time in Skate Canada, and he has always shown a real competitive spirit. Of course, Daniel (Grassl) has had many good results. I like Gabriele (Frangipani) and his energy on the ice. He just hasn't showed up consistently. That's the problem for him; when he figures out how to be more consistent throughout the competition he can be on track as well because he is very talented.

I'm very happy for Nikolaj Memola because I've known him since he was a kid. I was working in Milan when he was nine or ten years old. He's made such huge progress, it's great to watch. He will have the chance to compete at the junior Grand Prix Final (Nikolaj won it – ed), and that's also a great achievement. I think only Daniel qualified in the past for Italy in the junior Grand Prix finals. Nikolaj is young, so he has a little bit more time and for the others it will be a very, very hard fight. It's great to have many good skaters. Pairs as well. They're doing a great job. Nationals is going to be interesting.

Watching the men right now, you never really know how anyone will do. Except for the very top group, everyone else could be all over the place on the day.

The men's event now is exactly like this. They're trying very hard things, so they can easily go from 12 to zero points. Just one jump, you pop a quad, and you'll lose 10 points.

Let's go back in time a little. How did you come to coach in Champéry?

Stéphane and Christopher (Trevisan, director of the Skating School of Switzerland – ed) were looking for another coach. Robert (Dierking) was still here at the time, but his wife, Anna (Bernauer, also a coach – ed) had recently had a baby.

I had been in Champéry a few years before, around 2018, when I helped them for one or two weeks. I stayed there with Robert, and we worked together with the kids for a couple of weeks in June. So [Stéphane and Christopher] knew I was working in Switzerland, [I had been] six years in Bellinzona. They asked me if I was willing eventually to consider moving to Champéry.

I would also say that they asked me because I knew Stéphane for a long time, and we worked with the same coach (Peter Grütter) when we were skaters. So, in a way we have a very similar technical background. Of course, I had another [primary] coach, but still, we speak basically the same language about figure skating. So that was one point in favor of me.

When they called, I was not sure if I was staying in Bellinzona. So, I thought it was a good opportunity, I said that I was ready to move, and we figured it all out. I was very, very happy to join the team here. I was just a little bit scared because of the language barrier. My French is not so good, but I had to learn. Now I'm trying to coach in French as well, and it's not that bad. Still not very good, but I'm improving.

The upper-level skaters are coached in English, but the Swiss students and the more developmental skaters are mostly French-speaking?

We basically speak two, three language every day. That's very tiring mentally. I mean, I love it because we have students from all over. We have a younger Ukrainian girl (Liubov Zholobova), and with her it's always hard to say if it's better speaking in English or in French. She's attending school here, so she's learning French, but it's still a work in progress. With her we try to speak both – and a little bit with the hands! Then basically English with Deniss and Koshiro, but sometimes we have some Italian skaters coming here, – we have a fairly regular collaboration with a club in Torino – and I speak Italian. Then there are some students that come from Ticino as well, who also speak Italian.

I saw Lara Naki Guttmann was there as well.

Lara was relatively regularly here during the summer; she was here in October and probably will come again. So, we have some connection with Italy as well and that's great, I like that. A couple of times even Raffaele [Francesco Zich] came here, who did very well in the junior Grand Prix. I was very happy for him. I know his coach very well, so we are happy to help when needed. I was competing with the coach, Edoardo [De Bernardis], when we were kids.

How do you divide up coaching between you and Stéphane, and now Ghislain Briand as well? How do you decide who does which lessons for which skaters?

It's Stéph deciding the lesson plan for the international skaters. I do it for the younger, developmental, and local skaters, and of course Ghislain is giving the line, technically speaking. When he comes here, we try to follow his lessons and his master classes so that we can then stick to the line. Stéph, of course, knows very well what Ghislain says because he also worked as a skater with Ghislain in the past.

It's not that we have a specific task all the time, but Stéphane decides that I need to work with some skaters, and I do that. Especially when they are not feeling so well physically, or maybe tired, we switch a little. Now that the season has started, we basically work on the programs, sometimes we take time to do a little bit of technique. When he was working on the choreography, I was working on the spins with the new rules for Deniss and Koshiro. Then if something needs to be changed, of course, it's Stéphane that takes the lead. For instance, we try to put the criteria to get the levels first, then we need to see if it fits to the music to get a higher GOE. That's more Stéphane's job, and he takes care of the choreography and of the general program. Then I do the same for the younger skaters.

Do you choreograph for them as well?

No, I don't do choreography. We have other coaches that come and do the choreography usually. (On the photo - Salome Brunner, Stéphane's choreographer who continues working with him and his students.) But let's say, I blend the training for them, as much as Stéph does for Deniss, Koshiro, and that group. We have basically divided the skaters, so Stéphane is responsible for the seniors, for the novice I'm responsible, the junior we share – but even some novices, Stéphane takes responsibility, because of course we have more novice and young skaters than international.

Because you come from a shared school of technique, that means you approach things similarly enough that you can work with the same skaters and be coordinated?

We try to follow a line and then of course, we speak a lot. Every coach has his own ideas, so if I find something that works, I try to share it with Stéphane or the other way around, or if I have some difficulties or some problem with a skater not rotating this jump, I'll ask for his opinion. We try to share ideas and we work this way particularly in the off season. Then during the season, as you see, there are a lot of travels and less time for sharing, but we are always in contact and try to always share what we do. When Stéphane is away, I try to update him on all the skaters' practices. If there's something off, I ask for some advice, and otherwise, I just tell him how things went.

When you are on the same rink it's easy, when you're not it's much harder. We have some students that are part time here and part time with other coaches, and it's much harder. I try to keep the connection [with their coaches]. Sometimes it works well. Sometimes it's challenging, but I think it's possible when we speak and share.

Do you work with Shoma too?

Sometimes, when he comes here. Of course, Shoma is mainly managed by Stéph. We worked a lot with Shoma when he was here full-time during the pandemic... I also had the opportunity to work with him – and it was a pleasure – when he came here to Champéry [before the Grand Prix]. It was during the Nepela Trophy and Stéphane was in Bratislava with Deniss. For a couple of days, three, four days, he basically worked with me. But other than that, he's the one that I see a bit less than the others, because he's not here in Champéry so often. But it's always great to work with him. He's such a great guy. Very hard working.

Is it okay to communicate with him, even though he doesn't speak that much English?

Oh yeah, he doesn't speak so much English. But when it comes to figure skating, he understands very well what you mean and what you want from him. And anyway, he's not someone that you need to teach things. He knows. You need to help him find his way, staying in between the lines and not get off track on some jumps. Giving him the feedback on what he needs to do. Then basically encouraging, trying to push him to give his best, but he's very self-motivated, so that's not a hard job.

Good luck to Angelo and all his students as they compete in their National championships this month, and keep an eye out for part two of our talk soon!

Update: Part two

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