Stéphane Lambiel: "I wish we were less 'connected' and more real"

March 6, 2024
By Maryna Nastevych
Photo © International Skating Union (ISU), Reut Golinsky

Before his second show in Bellinzona, we caught up with Stéphane to talk about the evolution and meaning of his programs, highlights from the Europeans in Kaunas, his students, preparation towards the main event of the season, and... artificial intelligence.

Let's discuss the programs you're performing here at "Music on Ice." You debuted them in Japan back in May, so now, with half a year having passed, how do you feel they've evolved? Have they perhaps gained additional meaning?

Both of them have a very strong meaning and they are quite personal. Mahler composed this piece (Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor) as a love letter to his wife, and I wanted to acknowledge this tribute to Mahler by creating my own interpretation of what love represents to me.
It's about exploring the various phases of a relationship. There is the initial moment where we meet, get to know each other with all our little quirks, and we decide to share a vision of the future. And that's where this moment of passion happens. And then, after the spin, there is a moment of turbulence, as I think no relationship is without its conflicts or miscommunication or misunderstandings. So, there is this heavy and dramatic turbulence happening after which comes a moment of quietness, with a sensation of comfort, security, which leads to the phase of actually meeting a person from a different perspective. The ending section mirrors the beginning with the reverse movements, serving as a reminiscence of the first meeting but with all the experiences you shared. It definitely feels different because the other person has shaped you, has given you so much, and you're being grateful for that.

It can be true not only about romantic love, but about any relationship, like friendship, or the relationship between teacher and student...

Definitely! But love is not only with one person; I love more than just one person, for sure. And this sensation of caring and empowering each other happens not only with one person. It's just different types of love. For example, with my grandmother, seeing her, feeling this connection - we are not always of the same opinion but we have this bond, and with this bond we empower each other. It's also love, right? So yeah, it's not only about that one person with whom you share all your life, but it's those people in your life who have actually shaped you and shared strong experiences with you. Sometimes it's just routine, but sometimes it's a very special moment that you will remember for the rest of your life.

Since the theme of this year's "Music on Ice" show is artificial intelligence, what do you think about it? And, knowing what your answer is going to be, can you still try to find something positive in it?

That's an impossible question! I'm completely against it, 100%.


Because I believe in humans. I definitely prefer to entrust my fate to humanity rather than to technology. You see, because of the quickness of the Internet and technology, everybody has access to everything, and everybody believes they have the knowledge, and that is the problem. Before, people went to the café, were talking to each other to find out about the news, and it was the news about their neighborhood. Now, we know everything about everyone in every corner of the world immediately, and we judge, and we all act like journalists...

And, of course, sports is a global phenomenon. If you want to compete internationally, you need to bring everyone and everything together. But consider the Olympic Games - they were originally about celebrating sports, a simple concept which was already beautiful. Now, they've become a very different story. The same goes for everything in the world right now. We receive so much information, so many documentaries, so many TV shows. Everyone needs to be entertained all the time, but no one takes the time to simply sit together. If you take a train, no one looks at the landscape. Yes, we are all connected, but I wish we were less "connected" and more real. I understand the benefits of the possibilities that technology provides, but the problem is we don't use them properly.

You've just returned from the Europeans in Kaunas, where you were with your student Deniss Vasiljevs. Now that it's been a week and you've had time to think and reflect, what are your thoughts and impressions?

I have a few highlights from that event. If we talk about Deniss, I've admired how well he was prepared and how steady he was while going into this competition. Yet I still struggle in finding the key to make him do what he's capable of. It used to be that he was not so stable in training and was more likely to pull off something that no one was expecting,and now I feel much more confident, I see that he's capable, that he has trained for it, that he is physically ready, but something needs to click emotionally so that he'll let go and show in the moment of truth what he's able to do. I think he should not think about what to do more to make it work, he should think about what to do less. When he is using more of instinct and less of brain, everything goes pretty smoothly, so how to get to that state when the pressure is on and when it's the moment? That's what he needs to figure out.

I think he loves to have a pattern, tries following it, and he keeps doing what he feels safe, hoping it would work. But I think he shouldn't trust the pattern. I mean it's very easy to say but just following the routine doesn't guarantee you'll make it work, right?

Well, he didn't really follow the pattern in the free skate by attempting two quads.

My issue wasn't with him trying the second quad; I'm completely fine with that. What wasn't fine was the fact that he didn't realize that doing a second quad without adding a combination decreased its value. It's not like when he missed the first one, I'm fine with mistakes, I'm not fine with the lack of reactivity. He's thinking so much, but in the end, it doesn't matter because he should be reactive. If you're analyzing, you're missing the timing; you should go with your instinct! So I was surprised that he landed on his feet [after the second quad] but didn't go for a combo.

What are your plans for him until Worlds?

He'll skate at the Bavarian Open (Deniss won it - ed.), and then I will give him a few days to relax a bit because he's been training hard. He's very disciplined, a hard worker, and he's thoughtful about so many things, so I would like him to have a few days when he can "unplug."

What were your other highlights from Kaunas?

There was a very productive meeting organized by the ISU with the members of the technical committee, and for the first time, they invited the coaches to participate. So we had a discussion between the coaches and a few members of the committee, and that was a very positive experience for me because I believe that we need to come together. Coaches, who are on the field and work with skaters every day, have a better understanding of what figure skating needs, and I think we have valuable input to offer. There are decision-makers and then there are coaches who are coaching, and it is such a long way until a decision is made, so this kind of meeting is a very good initiative to actually get together and have as many things out there so we can actually make things better. I was so inspired by that meeting that afterward, I attended the ice dance meeting, which they have been holding for a long time already. What inspired me is that for them, it's already a regular practice to have these meetings, it's much more collaborative and you really feel how coaches come together to work toward the betterment of the discipline.

We need to do that for single skating and pair skating to get this rhythm of conversations about what is educational and beneficial for the skaters, what our vision is, where we want to progress, how we make short program and free skate to look different - all these topics that are crucial, we need to discuss them, rather than just waiting for the rules to be published.

There were a lot of skaters from your generation who came to Kaunas as coaches now, such as Sara Hurtado, Javier Fernandez, and Florent Amodio. How did it feel to see them?

Well, Javi and I are very good friends, and I've seen him during shows in Japan. I've also seen Florent during the Grand Prix events. So, it was not something new; I've been in contact with most of them. In fact, I took them, along with Michal Brezina, who was also there, to that ISU meeting because I wanted us to sit together and talk about what we care about. We need to come together and defend what we believe in, right?

Your other student, Liuba Zholobova, how is she doing? It's been a year since we last spoke about her. How would you evaluate her progress?

It's hard to evaluate her skating [objectively] because I'm at the rink most days. But when I'm away for a few weeks during competitions, like during the Grand Prix, and I come back, I see that she has grown and integrated some things into her body. What I find impressive is how she is living her life; attending school in Switzerland, improving her English and French, and opening up. I love to see how she's evolving and opening up! Of course, I want her to be competitive, but we need to be careful because she's growing, so her joints are sometimes a bit sore from all the jumping. But overall, I really enjoy working with her, and she's a funny character. She doesn't like mornings. (laughs) She's a very good skater, a pretty girl, and we have good training [sessions].

Like I said, we need to be careful with her body. And I need to make sure she gets enough sleep, because sometimes in the mornings it looks like she didn't sleep at all! During our summer camp in Japan, we had a "no phones at night" rule so that young skaters could get a good sleep.

And let's finish our talk with Shoma Uno. Last December, he won his sixth National title. Were you - and Shoma himself - satisfied with his performances?

Yes, we were really happy with how it went. The preparation was not easy; between the Grand Prix Final and the Nationals, it was quite stressful, especially because the Grand Prix events and the Final were very close. So it was a tight schedule for him and for me as well. But I was able to see a few of his practices before Nationals, and we were able to work on some details for the rhythm of the steps, adding a bit of speed to some parts of the choreography. So I was satisfied with what he did; I was really confident. There was one practice when Koshiro [Shimada] and Shoma really impressed me; I was quite happy and after that practice, I thought to myself: "Oh, they are magical! Even if they don't perform well, they are very special, and I am very proud of the work we did together."

The strategy for Worlds is to skate beautiful programs with a good quality of elements. In his previous competitions, he has not yet collected all the points he could, so I think he has room to collect more. We will work with him in February and March, I will go to Japan, so I will see how he's doing. He has changed his boots, so we will know if he's happy with them.

What would you say about Shoma's goals and motivation for this season? Is he still enjoying skating? Does he still have the drive to win?

Ask him? (smiles)

At the NHK, I was pretty tense after Deniss' performance, and it's so impressive that Shoma was aware that I was upset, and he was able to see that just before he stepped onto the ice. I told him: "Ok, if I'm upset, you know what you have to do to make me happy," and then as soon as he finished the program, he looked at me to check if I was happy. I was so impressed with it! (laughs)

You see, success is like a birthday. Today is your birthday, and the next day it's someone else's, and you can't be jealous of someone's birthday, right? We all have our successes and we all need to be proud of them.

You often mention that success, all those points, and medals, is not really what matters the most.

I've got some medals, so it's easy for me to say they don't matter, but they really don't. And why can I say that? Because I didn't win the medal at the Olympics in Vancouver in 2010, and I really felt I failed, but I was able to react to this situation and recover from it. It's almost like someone gives you something and then takes it away: are you going to cry all your life because they took it away from you, or are you going to get over it?

But for me, points matter because I see how figure skating is evolving, and not just at the high level of competitions. The issue is that this kind of situation, where you don't understand what's going on, is happening at all levels - the rule changes, the judging, the concept of GOEs, the concept of components, or under rotations - and it kills our sport. I understand that I need to do what I want and how I want it, I need to believe in what I believe in and stick to my values, but if the system doesn't allow it...

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