Going in-depth with Koshiro Shimada

October 30, 2023
By Reut Golinsky
Photo © Reut Golinsky

The first time I saw Koshiro Shimada skate was in 2014, at the "Ice Legends" show in Geneva.
A lot has happened in his career since then, including his move to train in Switzerland in 2017. We had a long and profound talk last March during my visit to the Skating School of Switzerland and then caught up again after he earned bronze at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf. This interview is a compilation of both our conversations.

You participated in "Ice Legends" 2014, met with Stéphane during camps in Japan and at the Youth Olympics 2016, and then decided to come to train in Champéry. If you could have advised yourself in 2017, what would you have said?

I'm really happy with my decision to come to Switzerland. So I would've just said: "Don't worry, the people who will be around you in Champéry are so wonderful. Just come and see what the situation is and enjoy skating there." That's all I would've said to myself in the past.

You were very young, you came alone, you didn't speak much English; it was a very brave decision.

Yes, and I really appreciate that my mother and my family allowed me to go and sent me to Switzerland. Although I think they were really worried about it because I couldn't cook, I didn't know how to clean or any other things you need to know to live on your own. In the end, thanks to Stéphane, Chris, all the coaches, they supported me and were so heartfelt and warm. I have many beautiful memories from that time, too many to share them all now. (smiles)

Have you any funny stories from that time, maybe something to do with you coming from a different mentality?

I think I was a bit confused about "yes" and "no." In Japanese, we always say "hai," which means "yes," even if sometimes it actually means "no." Even when I was not feeling well and someone, like my coaches, asked me how I felt or if I was okay, I would say "yes," but that "yes" meant "no," something like that. So the coaches were also confused, and I always felt a bit uncomfortable. But now I understand and can express myself clearly.

I enjoyed watching your practices in Champéry, and even though he was tired as this was the end of the season, Stéphane mentioned how much energy he gets from working with you.

Yes, me too. Both Deniss and Stéphane have so much passion [for figure skating], so even when I'm very tired, when I watch them at practice it gives me a lot of energy, this is something amazing Team Champéry possesses. And this connection is maybe something more private.

But we do know that about Team Champéry. Remember how many of us commented during the Grand Prix in Sheffield that you should come to more competitions with Deniss, because you do well together. Unfortunately, you can't choose the competitions you attend, can you?

No, not really. I can say which competitions I'd like to attend. Afterward, the federation reviews the choices and decides who will participate in each competition. I'm already happy that we share this during the practices.
That event in Sheffield was indeed amazing and we both performed really well. Stéphane said afterwards that it was a beautiful moment in his coaching career. I feel this is something that started from Deniss' European bronze medal last year. This was a wonderful moment that made all of Champéry's skaters push even more. Then there were the Olympics and then Worlds, when Shoma won gold. He also did great at the Games and the Grand Prix for the three of us and then Nationals for Shoma and me.

Talking about Nationals, we all were really happy for you winning the silver medal, considering how competitive the Japanese Nationals are. Did you try to analyse what you did right at that competition?

There were many things I understood. There is always this wave; you're not always bad, but you're not always good either. But when I re-watch my good practices, for example, when I had good jumps during the off-season, I see that I did them with less effort. It's like when you watch Yuzuru, it looks like his jumps are effortless, easy; he doesn't think about his jumps too much. So when I reach that state, all those small details make me feel more relaxed and natural. When I was preparing for Nationals, I thought to myself: "You already worked so hard towards this, now switch your mind and try to enjoy, to see what happens." I think this mindful approach was correct for me. You know, like Shoma, he looks very natural, always, even during the six-minute warm-up; he is just there, showing what he worked on. Every single factor - my body's physical condition, my technical level, help from everyone around, from my physical trainer, coaches - everything came together, was connected. Looking back, I can say that everything during that competition was spot on. I knew I could show a really good performance; I was expecting to do even better, actually, to do cleaner programs. When I popped that triple flip during the free skate, I felt: "Oh, no, it never happens to me!" So, yes, there was this very strong feeling of me being a fighter, and that feeling was amazing. Thanks to it, I did so well there and got this wonderful result in the end. It was a highlight of my skating life, for sure.

Why couldn't you recreate this feeling during the Four Continents? (Koshiro finished 11th there)

That's a very good question. I actually had a really hard time keeping my hip in good condition during practices. I had an injury two-three years ago, and during the Olympic season right after the Nationals, where I finished tenth, so I didn't have any more competitions planned, I went to the hospital to understand more about my condition. So, I was told that I needed to have surgery. We discussed it with Stéphane and Chris. It's not easy to recover from surgery, and even if I did it, the hip would have remained a weak point. So, we decided to keep working while trying to find another solution. That's when I found my physical trainer, Akihiro Otoshi, who has been with me ever since, and it surprised me how well it worked. He used various treatments for me, including acupuncture. But even with his help, it's still not always consistent. Sometimes some muscle pulls a specific point and it causes a lot of pain.
Even if I didn't do well at the Four Continents, I really appreciated being there and gaining more experience at big championships.

You decided to keep your "Sing, Sing, Sing" short program.

Yes, Stéphane recommended me to do so. He said he wanted to see more from me with this program. He knows it can get better during the second season, just like it did with my Chaplin free skate last year.

You have a new free skate to "Danse Macabre." It's interesting that you chose a different arrangement, for piano only.

When it came to selecting the music arrangement, we listened to various versions and once we heard Yuja Wang's arrangement, which is the one I ended up using, we found it to be truly special. While the music itself is known in figure skating, this particular arrangement had never been used before. It was a challenge, but I enjoyed working with Stéphane on this program; he brought so many unique movements and emotions to it.

I feel that this more delicate version makes it more complicated to skate to.

It will be a tough challenge, but when you want to improve, you need to choose the more difficult path. I feel that [with this program] Stéph is providing me with an opportunity to grow, so I have to do it and I really wish to do it justice. I already feel this program is going to be amazing, very complicated though. Even if I have some mistakes on the jumps, I still have to continue and maintain the flow without interruptions. It's also challenging because of the delicate piano music, so I have to pay attention to all those details to interpret it well. Incorporating jumps is hard, but it's always amazing when the jumps are there. (smiles)

It's similar to what I saw in Mao Asada's exhibition program that she performed at Skate America 2016 (to "Cello Suites" by Johann Sebastian Bach). It was absolutely amazing; you should watch it. She was breathtaking, skating to every single piano note. It evoked a feeling similar to watching ballet, more art than sport. That's why I wanted to choose something classical. However, to reach that level, I have to work really hard, and I'm really looking forward to working on it more.

Stéphane said that at some point in the program there is this image of a puppeteer that you portray...

Yes, exactly. Usually, he shares with me his images and thoughts, and as I saw him moving, I actually thought about something similar. This music's theme is also about being alive and dead, it brings darker feelings.

Indeed, this music is so dark, and when I watched you skate, I thought about how different it is from your personality.

(smiles) Well, yeah... In fact, I feel more comfortable with this type of music than, for example, with the pop style. My friend, Kazuki Tomono, said to me that he actually prefers me to show my dark side on the ice. He enjoys watching the other, fun side of me, too, but he prefers the more passionate side, like what I had with the "Romeo and Juliet" free skate or the "Tosca" short program in juniors. He remembered those programs and said he would love to see more of such programs from me.

During the Four Continents when you announced your music for the new free skate, you also mentioned Denis Ten, who had a short program to this music in the 2013/14 season.

When I watch Denis Ten's performances, I'm struck by how amazing he was with any kind of music, not just this one. Similarly, when I see my teammate Deniss Vasilejvs, I'm impressed by his ability to perform in various styles, and he is always beautiful to watch even during practices. I aspire to be like those skaters who can excel in skating to anything.

Like you, Denis Ten was a part of the cast at "Ice Legends" 2014. I wondered whether you had any interactions.

No, I was too shy and too young and I didn't speak English, so I just watched him. I only maybe have a group photo with him, but I still have a lot of memories. He is still alive in our hearts and in our eyes, at least we can still see his performances. It's so tragic what happened to him, he was an amazing skater.

One more question about your programs. How was your exhibition program to "Moulin Rouge" created, and why did you choose this music?

This program was choreographed by Stéphane, and we prepared it before Nationals. When I was not feeling fit, my physical condition was not great, he proposed to do something creative instead. When we discussed it, he said he really wanted me to skate to "Moulin Rouge." He told me: "The time has come to skate it!" I really loved this music, it has strong emotions in it. I actually almost never skated to something like that, maybe when I skated to "Romeo and Juliet" (FS from the 2016/17 season - ed). [When I skate it,] I would like to give it all to the audience.

Overall how did the Nebelhorn Trophy, your first competition of this season, go for you?

I was very, very excited to start this season. Of course, there is only one Nebelhorn Trophy 2023 in your life, so I wanted every moment, every second to be special.
After my summer shows, I worked really hard, even though I didn't have that much time because I arrived in Champéry on September 7th. Deniss (Vasilejvs) was staying in Champéry, and when I saw his condition, I was almost shocked by how ready he was. He looked really well, had clean run-throughs for both programs, and that pushed me a lot. The weeks I practised were great, much better than in previous seasons. I had clean run-throughs and felt quite ready for this event. I'm happy I was in good shape here, and I just enjoyed this competition. It brought me a lot of happiness, and that's the most important thing for me.

As you mentioned your summer shows, participating in which, I know, was your dream come true, tell me about some of the highlights, some meaningful moments from this summer.

My experience with shows started in the spring with "Stars on Ice" and "Bloom on Ice." Then there were "Dreams on Ice," "One Piece on Ice," and "Friends on Ice." It wasn't my first time with "Stars on Ice," and I appreciate that I have participated in it for a few years already as part of the Japanese group cast. I'm so happy to spend more time with American skaters and ice dancers, to create connections with them, and I'm enjoying every moment there. But the most special feelings were connected to the "Friends on Ice" show, being there with Stéphane and seeing so many legendary skaters, Shizuka, Daisuke and Kana... Every one of them has such a strong passion, such a unique personality, and seeing them made me realise how much I love figure skating. It was a pleasure to watch each performance, and after every single one of them, I found myself thinking, "Oh, I want to be like this skater." That inspired me to push more, to never get lazy.

There was a funny moment during the "Friends on Ice" finale when you joined others to perform a step sequence from Stéphane's "Poeta," and it looked really good!

(laughs) It was Kana, Daisuke, and Stéphane's idea. I actually learned it once from Stéphane, but it was a long time ago, so I didn't remember much, but there were some movements that I remembered. It was just for fun.

I wanted to ask you about "One Piece on Ice." Just recently I saw the new live-action "One Piece" on Netflix, and I know that actors came to see your show...

Yes, we had a meeting with them after the show, and we talked. They were really excited to see the "One Piece" story on the ice. They knew nothing about figure skating before and this is a great aspect of this show that people who don't know anything about figure skating, "One Piece" fans, come to watch us perform and get to know the sport. When we found out that they were coming to see us, we were a bit nervous, but they were so nice. We could see how their personalities really matched their characters!

Especially Iñaki Godoy who plays Luffy!

Yes! When we saw him for the first time in person, our first impression was, "Oh, it's Luffy!" because he is exactly like Luffy. I even mentioned this to Shoma.
So this show was also a wonderful experience because I love to see an ice show with an end-to-end story. I also enjoy shows composed of separate numbers, but I love shows like "Disney on Ice" or "Art on Ice." Such shows open up more possibilities for figure skating, and "One Piece" is incredibly popular all over the world.

I understood that the show received excellent feedback, and you became a star, with many interviews, including radio appearances.

Yes, I had many unusual experiences and tried new things. I never got tired; I had fun and gained even more energy from it. My entire summer was amazing.

If we say that Iñaki is exactly like Luffy, I would've said that Shoma is actually the opposite of Luffy, and yet he did so well!

As Shoma's friend I can say that, like with Luffy, you get this positive vibe from him and he is always very natural, he is himself, 100% every time. So there is some connection between them, but of course he worked so hard on all his movements and to the audience he probably looked very different. Because although he is always nice to the audience he was, probably, never so open and smiling. And here he was Luffy. Of course, he worked hard for this and maybe even struggled at times, we will never know. But I really appreciate his efforts because he inspired all of us to work hard as well. He was the leader of our team, and it felt good.

And what about you and Sanji? You mentioned that he was your favourite character but are you similar? Things I found similar: you both love cooking, you both have long legs. Also, Sanji fell in love very often and very quickly. Is that similar?

(laughs) No, for me it's not so, I would say.
But it was actually very comfortable for me to portray Sanji. The costume is very comfortable to move in, great work by our costume designer, and all those small details were helpful as well, like stretching my free leg a lot. All the acting stuff was so fun - the way I stand, my posture, the way Zorro-Keiji and I annoy each other. It was necessary for making Sanji real. All those small details create "One Piece," and they were very important for the "One Piece" fans whom we wanted to bring to figure skating. And that is awesome; that is what I want to do in figure skating - to open possibilities and show the beauty of this sport to new audiences that don't know it. I really appreciate that I got this opportunity.

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