Ondřej Hotárek: "We want to be the protagonists of Milano-Cortina 2026"

March 21, 2024
By Reut Golinsky
Photo © International Skating Union (ISU), Reut Golinsky

Ondřej Hotárek has always been one of our favourite skaters to follow and talk to. We've had lengthy and interesting conversations with him and his partners throughout his career, and now we finally got an opportunity to catch up with him as a coach. And not just any coach, but one of the leading coaches in one of the best pair centres in the world.

Last time we talked was in Moscow in 2018 when you were still competing. And then, after that season ended, you almost immediately started coaching, right?

Yes, I did some shows while also coaching a bit in the club, so I gradually entered Franca Bianconi's team. She is a head coach and the coordinator of everything that happens in [the IceLab] Bergamo, and now also at the Forum (Mediolanum Forum rink in Assago, town in Metropolitan City of Milan -ed). So little by little, she integrated me into the work, and since then, we've been lucky to grow a bit, too. It's a bit difficult to recall the exact point of when and where it started because the whole transition was quite organic; I always wanted to end up being a coach. And so it was quite natural, just daily work.

My first experience of seeing you coaching was actually during the COVID-19 pandemic when you hosted ISU online training sessions. And I must say, I was really impressed.

Yes, during that time, we needed to improvise quite a lot. We all ended up at home and didn't really know what to expect. For a couple of weeks, we were just waiting to see whether everything would really be closed for months. And when it happened, we started collecting ideas. Then the ISU came up with these online lessons, and Franca proposed that I do them.

So, I did some preparation, gathered information, and thought of things we could do. I received a huge amount of help from Luca Demattè; he handled most of the technical support. He held some meetings to understand what we all needed in terms of connections, with Zoom, and all of us streaming live. He was the producer behind all of it. To make it run more smoothly, we also did some pre-runs. Even before, we had already been conducting such online sessions with our skaters; it's just that this time we needed to involve more people. In general, this whole thing [of online sessions] was quite amazing because we collaborated with other coaches as well. For example, we contributed ideas for certain workout exercises for boys, but we had fewer ideas about routines for the girls. So other coaches from different clubs stepped in; our girls took lessons with them, and their boys took our lessons. Then we had joint pair sessions together, although that was really complicated logistically and involved many people.

And then, within two to three months, we were already back on the ice because Italy reopened for sports very quickly. High-level sports could operate, so we got a bit of an advantage. Luckily, the concerns that the virus would spread faster at the ice rinks were baseless; in our rink, we never had an outbreak. We only had a limited number of cases. We stayed out of the locker rooms and always kept our distance, and it worked out for us. Our federation even held some competitions, so that period was not very bad for us. However, for Italy, it was a disaster, especially in Bergamo, where many skaters lost their relatives. You probably know Sara Conti's story (Sara lost her father); for her, it was particularly difficult. But I also think a certain strength came out of it too.

Your school is doing great, and each season your students show better and better results. Last season, you had podium sweep after podium sweep.

Yes, the main reason, I think, is that we try to create an environment, a feeling of healthy competition every day. When someone feels a bit low, they look around and understand that they can't give up. They support each other, and we try to maintain the right balance. We value all the coaches and everybody's work, and it somehow naturally became the way we do things. We had to add more training sessions; right now, we have six sessions and three groups. We have eleven pairs at the international level; some of them are not in Bergamo 100% of the time; they come and go.

And you also mentioned Forum.

Yes, all pairs are in Bergamo. The Forum is for ice dancers; for example, Marco and Charlène train there. There are also single skaters; Angelina Turenko, who moved from Egna, is now coaching them. Cristina Mauri, who coached Nicole Della Monica & Matteo Guarise, has a young junior pair and also teaches singles. There is also an additional rink in the Milan area, in Sesto San Giovanni.
And we're looking to develop and expand even more to be the place where people can come, engage in the process, gain knowledge, and learn from the experience of the coaches and the skaters.

I saw that you also held some international pair camps.

Yes, it was more like some pairs came and joined our pairs' training sessions. In certain weeks, we had up to fourteen pairs, which was quite challenging. But some of them came with their coaches, so it made it easier.

With the home Olympic Games approaching, you must be feeling a lot of pressure now.

Of course, there is pressure, but this is something I had in the back of my mind last year, too. I was already thinking about the Games even the season before that. The moment it was announced that Italy won the bid, I thought to myself: "Okay, now we need to be the place to be." I saw this as an opportunity for us to be more visible, that people would come to [the IceLab] Bergamo because they would want to experience Italy a bit before the Games, so we were getting ready for that.

And last year, I started saying to our students: "You're at the beginning of the most important thing [in your lives]..." Because they need to know that! When I had my last Olympic cycle as a competitor, I often thought about what John Zimmerman once told me. He said that every day of his Olympic season, he saw it as the last day of preparation towards the Olympics. He explained that I needed to make it count as if it were my last day of training. So I started telling them that from that moment, we already entered that mindset. That they need to make every day count because they're never going to experience home Olympic Games in their lives again. We're trying to be involved in numerous projects with the federation; we want to be the protagonists of Milano-Cortina 2026. And all the skaters who are skating with us, we want them to be able to say: "I didn't just participate. I played an important role in these Games." Because I had this experience; in my first Games, I felt like I just participated, but in my next Games, people really remembered us. And it was a totally different experience. So I want our skaters to have that kind of experience, to go to the Olympics when people notice you, when people know you have an important role in those Games.

One can really see this mindset, and not only with the Italian pairs who are thriving right now, but the whole Italian team is gaining more and more acknowledgment.

I'm a bit sad that the women's field is not as strong; we really miss Carolina Kostner. For me personally, skating in two Olympic Games with Carolina on our team gave me a lot of strength. As we're both part of the same group, "Fiamme Azzurre" (the sport section of the Italian police force), we now work on a lot of projects together; she is basically my boss. And she is also starting to be more involved in coaching. So I think slowly, we're going to fill that gap in women's skating as well. We have some promising skaters, but with girls, it's especially tough to help them through puberty and to convince them, to help them realise that their career can be long. If you look at Carolina, that's what we need. Maybe we're a bit late with that for these Games. But I think Lara (Naki Gutmann) can push it; she is the best one right now. In pairs, our main goal is to secure three spots for the Olympics, and then it would be great if we could have two or three boys because we're strong there as well. And with ice dance...

Charlène and Marco currently don't promise they will stay.

It's getting closer and closer to the Games, but we agreed that they will take it step by step. And then when it's one year to the Games, you know...
So, yes, having the home Olympics is pressure, but it's a positive pressure

It also opened up opportunities. I understand that there was, for example, a focused effort on building more pairs. Sara Conti and Niccolò Macii mentioned that they were initially part of "an Olympic project"; they started skating together because of the Games in Italy.

Yes, and there are teams that will go beyond these Games, of course, like Anna and Manuel (Valesi / Piazza). And we have some younger skaters as well. We have a team that represents Finland, consisting of an Italian boy and a Finnish girl (Milania Vaananen / Filippo Clerici). They had their first competition in Bergamo, and they managed to achieve their technical minimum scores for the Worlds already. That's a promising project because they are in their twenties, so there is a lot of room to grow. Additionally, we work with a young team from the Czech Republic (Federica Simioli / Alessandro Zarbo). Then we also have teams that are pushing to achieve as high as they can, like Annika Hocke and Robert Kunkel, and the top three Italian teams.

It sounds exciting!

It is! It's a lot of work, a lot of planning. It's about making the sessions count because we needed to sacrifice some ice time. There are some difficulties, but we try to make it work.

Who is on your coaching team right now?

Franca Bianconi remains the coordinator, and, because of her work with the ISU she is working only off the ice. Barbara Luoni coaches Sara and Niccolò, along with some younger teams, and she's an essential figure in our school. Luca Demattè, Rosanna Murante, who previously coached with Bianca for an extended period and was one of my coaches, now works with Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini (also, with Lucrezia Beccari and Matteo Guarise). Finally, Daniel Aggiano, a former pair skater and single skater, who competed in juniors during my competitive years, is also part of our coaching team.

I need your advice. As someone who creates content, I've noticed that materials about pairs receive less feedback compared to other disciplines, despite pairs deserving more attention. Let's think about it together why this might be happening and what can be done to change it?

I think it's about being creative. Back in the day when I was skating with Valentina (Marchei), we had an Instagram page. In general, people were more inclined to get creative, wanting to promote their sport. Right now, I'm not involved in that area; I'm solely focused on coaching on the ice and have a lot on my plate. However, I believe skaters and the media alike need to find something unique about each pair and stick with it.

Pairs skating is a fascinating discipline, but perhaps it's also the most challenging to comprehend?

Oh, we could discuss that for hours. Yes, change is necessary, and it's needed across all disciplines. We need to make changes in many aspects - how we award medals, how we design programs. Currently, there's little difference between the short and the free; we need to push for them to be more distinct. They should have more impact and be easier for people to understand.

And perhaps we need even more drastic changes. For instance, we're the only sport where you compete twice and receive one medal. I believe it would be fairer to separate the medals and maybe even have a combined medal as well. In other sports, athletes can return from the Olympics with multiple medals, and I always found it quite unfair for figure skaters. Additionally, having more champions would enhance enjoyment. We should prioritise programs based more on experience and presentation rather than solely on technical aspects, but we must figure out how to score this. It would foster champions with longer careers because currently, we have one champion one year and another the next; it changes so rapidly that people can't relate to champions anymore.

2018 was the year when many pairs we were accustomed to seeing retired. We want people to be familiar with the teams and to anticipate their new programs. I feel we're still in the process of rebuilding with this new generation, but I see a lot of potential. Bruno Massot is doing an excellent job in France, and Dmitry Savin with his teams; we've worked with him, and he has always been the standard I aimed to achieve. Right now, we need to exercise patience, focus on building, and showcasing the skaters. It's crucial to make the events more exciting and involve the skaters more. And I think we also need to restore the overall quality of skating, and then the competition will be truly thrilling.

If you mention 2018 and that generation, it was the last one that attempted quad twists and throws; now, it's not worth the risk.

The technical elements pairs are required to perform now are actually much harder than when I competed. And with the +5 you can get in GOE, everybody is playing it for the GOE and for the quality. However, we're also focusing more on transitions and the overall program.
We had an idea to work on quad twists with some of our younger teams, but it's a risky element for the girls, so safety is a priority. Consider this: I'd need a skater capable of landing a quad jump before even considering teaching them a quad throw, and many struggle with triples. We must be strategic to preserve our skaters. I want to ensure I've provided them with a fulfilling career and that they can continue to lead healthy lives after retiring from the sport. I want them to have what I experienced when I retired.

Ondřej arrived in Montreal with his Czech, Finnish, and German teams. Milania and Filippo reached their target of qualifying for the free skate, while Annika and Robert dazzled everyone with their energetic performance. We caught up with him for a comment right after their time in the Kiss & Cry, while he was still brimming with this positive energy.

The short program went great for all of the teams, he said. I'm super happy for Annika and Robert. They had a really good preparation, and I think now they are in their best shape they have been this season. The medical issues Robert had with his back were sorted out. They've been doing some shows with "Holiday on Ice," and they found these inner performers in themselves. For example, you could have noticed it when Robert encouraged the audience to cheer louder before their lift, and he got a great reaction. I hope it gave them confidence and helped them to find their genuine personality. I think this has been the main change in them since Europeans. Now they are more focused on performing and having fun with what they do. It's so much different than when we started working. When we started this season, they were focused on the results. And now they want to have fun, to feel the energy, the audience, and that's what I always enjoy. So, we're getting on the same page, and it's great. I'm really happy.

Tomorrow is going to be a bit harder because today everybody skated really well. I'm so happy; pair competitions are starting to become really exciting, from the first to the last competitor. The free skate truly shows who is prepared and who is not, so I hope we will demonstrate that our skaters are always well-prepared and can perform at their best. And then, of course, a little bit of luck is also needed, but they are all ready, so we will see how it goes. So far, it's been a really great World Championships, and I'm really pleased with this competition and with our teams.

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