Yuka Sato: skater, commentator, choreographer, coach


January 16, 2011
By Reut Golinsky
Photo © EMJO, Tina Tyan, Natasha Ponarina, Georgene Troseth, Reut Golinsky

"With me?" - Yuka Sato seemed very surprised when I asked her for this interview. "Ok, after this practice group".
Yuka came to the Trophée Eric Bompard in Paris with her student, Alissa Czisny, who joined Jeremy Abbott in May last year to train with Yuka and her husband, Jason Dungjen. But it wasn't at the ladies' practice I met her. With interest and concern she was following Takahiko Kozuka skating, who, as her father's student, in a way is her "child" too, especially since she choreographed for him. All three of them became natural subjects of our talk, but not only them. Yuka herself has years of experience in the sport. She has a very successful career as a skater behind her: she was the 1994 World champion and two times champion in the World Professional Figure Skating Championships. She skated with the US "Stars On Ice" tour for years and worked as a sports commentator for Japanese television; she was actually the one commentating Shizuka Arakawa's winning performance at the 2006 Winter Olympics. Yuka followed in her parents, Nobuo Sato and Kumiko Okawa, footsteps and is now in her second season as coach.
All this called for an interesting conversation.

Was Jeremy your first student or have you worked with someone before him?
I have been teaching different kids on different levels. I also helped Taka Kozuka with the choreography, with him I've been more involved in a process of raising him as an elite performer.

But you started to work with Takahiko when he was much younger, right?
Much younger, he was about 14 or 15. Very shy. He is a typical boy who just wants to be outdoors, play soccer... "Dancing in front of people is like something embarrassing. That's something not for me to do", he was just that kind of boy.

Then why did he choose skating?
He likes skating. But just the performing part of it was a bit embarrassing for him. I took him to a lot of different choreographers and dance teachers; I started educating him, but not necessarily to force him to do something he wasn't ready for. I always came up with less traditional choices of music to give him more personality. I was encouraging him: "Hey, you're a man. And I want you to express this as this sporty cool guy". Instead of a beautiful ballet dancer, which he is not. So I tried to encourage him that he can be a good performer by being cool, being sporty and that being simple is ok too. That's the approach I took.

His skating and him just gliding on the ice is a joy to watch, but he still seems a bit reserved.
I can share a little story with you. Taka and I went to Sandra Bezic (a Canadian former pair skater, choreographer and television commentator – ed.) who is, I believe, one of the best choreographers. She has a way of making people believe and understand who they are, very clearly. And what she has said was exactly what Taka needed to hear: that he is such a great quality skater, he can do all kinds of edges, that he is an artist; not just a dancer but an artist with his feet, with the blades. He took this from a different point of view and ever since then he started to grow as a performer. He understood that maybe sometimes he shouldn't use his arms or that some fluffy costume doesn't make him a good performer, but that he can do something that others can't do! And then, I think, he wasn't that discouraged doing this sport. I think we are on the right track; he's finally starting to become more confident. And now I'd like him to learn to send a message with the eyes and face; those are some things we started working on. It is still a little bit difficult for him, but I feel that he gets better each time, each time he is more comfortable out there.

This season he had a different choreographer for each program. Was that your idea?
Yes. I think as much as I enjoy choreographing for him, he needs to be exposed to different people. And I'm very open to that. He's been so trusting with my directions for him. We worked not only with the skating choreographers; we brought in different types of off-ice choreographers as well. And we mingle, we collaborate our things. That's what we did for his short program this year. I brought in a former ballet dancer who is a great choreographer. His name is Roberto Campanella and he helped Kurt Browning with his "Nyah" program. It's a very passionate piece that he has done, and you will always remember Kurt doing that number. Roberto's energy was something that we were always looking for to bring to the table. So we collaborated in our work together and I think it turned out to be a very nice piece.
The long program was done by Marina Zueva who is a skating choreographer. Taka has worked with her since he was younger; she was the first person that I brought to work with him. And he feels a certain type of attachment to her. It was his wish to go back to her and I thought it was a wonderful idea. I also had a feeling that he was looking for some kind of classical style again because we've been away from it for a bit.

Takahiko also has an exhibition program made by Kurt Browning, which was his dream come true?
Oh, absolutely, you have no idea... The first time we asked Kurt he was too busy and it didn't work out. This time it did, and Kurt really showed some interest in Taka as well. I've always thought that their styles match really well. In a way I'm glad that it worked out this time and not the last time because Kurt was now working with a Taka who had become a better skater and who could handle much more than he used. Taka really appreciated every moment that they could share on the ice.

Stéphane Lambiel, who recently started to choreograph, named Takahiko among other young skaters he would love to work with. What would Takahiko think about this?
I think he will be interested, yeah. Taka loves to work with a lot of different people and I think Stéphane is so talented; he has so much to offer.

Are you working with other American elite students besides Alissa and Jeremy?
Not at the moment. I have little kids that I work with at home, but mainly the two high level skaters you named.

In an interviews Jeremy explained his decision to work with you by saying that he liked you as a skater and as a person. Do you think those qualities are good enough to be a good coach?
Not necessarily. But I think it is important how the two personalities work together. That's why you do a trial stage. Jeremy came to see me in Detroit, he and I worked together for a week to have a tryout. And I felt that I could work with him, and he apparently felt that my style works for him. That's how we started working together.

You're an Olympian yourself, what was it like to be a coach at the Olympics?
Oh, it was wonderful. You know, I have not missed out on the Olympics because after I retired from competitive skating, I was there as a part of a broadcast team, as a commentator. I watched so many special moments, live, at the Olympics. And, watching my parents at the boards sending their skaters out, one of my dreams was that one day I would have my own student compete, and I would be there as a coach. I said that to myself and it really happened a few years later.

With all the Olympic experience you've had, what advice did you give Jeremy?
I just told him that it's a unique experience to be an Olympian. The Olympics don't always happen for you, so enjoy as much as you can. That's the main thing. I know he had some difficulty with the pressure he felt and he didn't do the best there. But I tried to encourage him that the good performance and less good performance alike teach us some kind of lesson, and it's not just a skating lesson but a life lesson. The way you deal with it, how you come out of the event makes you a new and improved skater. "Let's just take advantage of you being here and we'll see how it goes", that was my advice to him going into the long program after the disastrous short. It's hard 'cause you are there as a coach and you want your students to do well, your heart goes out to them when they don't skate well. But we took it as a really good lesson and moved forward.

How would you compare this season to the previous one?
Unfortunately, at the last competition in Russia (the Grand Prix Rostelecom Cup 2010 – ed.) Jeremy couldn't skate to his potential. But on the other hand for me as a coach looking at him since last year and working with him, I see that he has matured tremendously as a performer. I'm very proud of him, with a lot of the things we worked on so hard last year things are now starting to fall into place. I can trust him as a competitor much better this year than last year. Even in Russia, where it wasn't the best performance for him, it wasn't like he mentally fell apart. The fact is that we had some boots' issues and he missed a lot of training time. He wasn't training enough under a certain amount of pressure and he couldn't stamina-wise keep himself up while adding a quad to the program. So I really think he is in good place right now. It is unfortunate that he wasn't able to make the Grand Prix final, but in a way this gives us more time to settle in while switching boots, and more training at home may help for the future.

What do you think about his programs this year?
I think both programs are wonderful, I absolutely enjoy sharing [them with him] every single day, I'm lucky! The programs are not easy, they are full of transitions and it's not just skating into things and executing the elements. It's hard but I believe that Jeremy's skating skills are good enough and he can handle it. And it makes a beautiful story, especially the long program.

Now few words about Alissa; how did she come to you?
Alissa always skated in the Detroit Skating Club, where I work, and I've been helping her in the last few years as sort of a secondary coach. Actually Jeremy and I hooked up because of Alissa. Her head coach couldn't go to the show in Korea, so I ended up going and that's where I met Jeremy and he decided to come to me. Now when I think back it's kind of strange how things have worked out...

It's like it was your destiny...
Yeah, it happens. After Nationals last year, Alissa decided that she needed a change. I think what she lacked the most up until last year was to self define. Everybody goes through this stage at one point when they need to become independent and leave home. I told her: "I will always be there for you, but if you need to go elsewhere to explore, and I think that's what you need, you should do what's best.” I suggested that, but she ultimately decided that she wanted to stay in Detroit and work with me. I brought my husband Jason in as well so now we are working together...

Alissa's consistency improved this season. How do you work on this?
Technical things are important of course, but I think more importantly she needed to take some ownership of her own career; she really needed to make changes in her lifestyle as an elite athlete. She has always been a hard worker, she dedicates every minute of her life to what she loves to do, which is skating. But she needed to define exactly what she wanted out of this for her career. So she moved into her own apartment taking control over her life. Everything is new and she is still adjusting to her single life. Her Mom still lives in the Detroit area and helps out, but ultimately she is on her own now becoming an adult. And these are the things that show in her performances: taking charge of her own career, her own life.

How would you define your goals for her this season?
It would be wonderful if she could make the World's team again, I think that's her ultimate goal. But we are trying not to get too distracted from what made her stay on for another season: this is what she loves to do and she wants to do the best she can. Not necessarily just the results part of it. So we are trying to take the process day by day, to make her the best she can be. And that's our goal, one day at a time.

As a choreographer, coach and skater, what do you think of the Code of Points?
Well, I think a lot of good came out of it. When you work with someone like Jeremy or Taka, you see that it really requires that type of good, well-balanced skaters to be able to use the system well. I think that's the merit of this new system. On the other hand I think it's a bit too complicated for the general audience to be able to understand. And in my opinion as a professional skater, who sees this sport from that side too, you want people to stay tuned. You want them to be interested in what we're doing. And I think it would be nice to, hopefully in the future, have the system be a little more audience-friendly so they will want to watch skating instead of changing the channel to soccer or hockey. I really think that figure skating is beautiful and it has so much to offer; the depth of the sport is just incredible. It has artistry... it can be sportyÂ… it can be dramatic; there are all kinds of different things people get to watch!

But how exactly can we change the system to become easier to understand? For me personally the new system with all the protocols is easier to understand than "5.5" in the old one.
I don't know, I just think it takes time. The ISU is trying the best they can to make sure that the sport is fair first of all. Although any system that you use would merit this or that. It will never be perfect, but I appreciate the fact that people are trying to make things better.

As a commentator, how do you try to explain to the audience when someone fell, but still won; a classical situation which can happen under the new system?
It's hard to explain when that happens. And those are the parts [in the COP] that I'm a little disappointed in. Another way I would love the system to improve is changing the weird, "messed up" positions it now gives benefits for. I don't know if this really measures good quality skating. It takes away a lot from the simplicity of skating, from the beautiful part of it which is to glide with speed. No other sport can do that gliding: for example ballet dancers, when they carry their partners they have to walk to get to the other side of the stage. In skating we can glide with one push, and that's so wonderful. But instead we now have to do a lot of technical tricks to make it look more difficult and that's what's awarded. I hope in the future we will still be able to identify what good quality skating is.

You come from a skating family, your parents are coaches. Do they follow your work? How much are they involved in it? Do you ask for their advice sometimes?
Yes, I ask their advice all the time. My Dad has been supporting me through all this time, and my Mom as well. But they don't get too involved unless I ask. It's probably a hard thing for them to do because I'm sure they see what needs to be done; something better than how I'm doing it. Still, they try to stay within their boundaries and let me do my thing. But they are always there for me. I ask a lot of questions, but I also understand that certain things they know; only experience can teach me. I just need to take those steps too and not try to find shortcuts. People like to discuss competitions and rivalry, but I really admire my parents' work all these years. And it's such an honor to be here, sharing the boards with my Dad (Nobuo Sato was present at the competition too, with Mao Asada - ed.). I felt that at the Olympics too, when my student and my father's student were competing. Now I realize what kind of work they've put in and I really appreciate what they've done for me.

I'm sure they are very proud of you. Thank you for your time and for such an interesting conversation!


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