Aljona Savchenko, a five-time pairs world champion, twice Olympic pairs bronze medallist and a favourite for PyeongChang 2018, has all the answers when asked why she has devoted her life to figure skating.
“I love that it is not just sport, that it’s more art,” explained the German. “Art and sport and music. We do hard stuff but with more passion. For me, it is art on ice.”
The 34-year-old won her first European crown more than a decade ago and yet she goes, with her partner Bruno Massot, to the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 as the 2017 International Skating Union World Championship silver medallist.
“I feel free on the ice, I love the atmosphere,” she said. “It’s hard to explain, but when you go to a competition you are going to work, but you are doing what you love. I enjoy every second of it, the adrenaline flowing, the public giving you energy and you giving it back.”
Figure skating at PyeongChang 2018 comprises men’s and ladies’ singles, pairs, ice dance and the team event. Each of the first four events involves a short and a free programme, both of which include a varying number of twists, spins, jumps, lifts and steps all performed to music and demanding extraordinary precision.
“You need everything,” she said with a smile. “You need athletic ability. You need stamina. You need rhythm to know how to move in which part to which bit of music. Everything counts. It’s not just skating, it is everything in one.”
“What we do every day and what we work for all of our lives, we put into four minutes,” Savchenko said.
Key Skills & Top Tips
Savchenko is worth listening to when it comes to the basics of pairs figure skating: she is on her second elite, medal-winning partnership.
“You need trust in the pair, trust is everything in pairs skating,” she said. “It is the differences in technique that make a pair, so you have to make sure your techniques work for both and not just one of you. That is the hardest part of skating as a pair.”
With Robin Szolkowy she took bronze at both the 2010 and 2014 Olympic Games, as well as five world and four European titles. After Szolkowy retired in 2014, up stepped Massot, a 29-year-old former French national champion. The pair defied all conventional thought.
“Everything takes a lot of time with a new pair, but we were really lucky, it was amazing we had a feeling that we had been skating our whole life together,” Savchenko said, the excitement still audible.
You need trust in the pair, trust is everything in pairs skatingAljona Savchenko
Less than two years later, the pair won World Championship bronze in Boston, USA. The key to their success is Savchenko’s mantra: “What we do on the ice we do off the ice”.
“I don’t do weights, I don’t need to. I do more running, more jumps, more strength (work), to make my body in shape and Bruno does weights because he does lifts on the ice,” Savchenko said.
Men’s and Ladies’ Singles
Savchenko competed in singles until she was 13, when the plethora of talent stacked against her in her native Ukraine, allied to her small stature and an astute coach, pushed her towards the pairs.
“The singles are more free, but they still have rules to follow, the jumps they need to do,” she reported. “They can improvise in the choreography, they can turn and spin differently. For us [in the pairs] you need more control.”
Performers have two minutes, 50 seconds for the short programme and 4:30/4:00mins for the men’s and ladies’ free programme respectively. Jumps executed after the halfway point of a programme in singles receive a bonus mark – taking into account the risk of attempting such moves once fatigue has set in.
The music choice is key to all figure skating events, but do not necessarily think slow waltzes or classical concertos: Savchenko’s and Massot’s choice for their short programme in PyeongChang is the distinctly upbeat That Man by Caro Emerald.
“It’s more dance, funny, quick,” Savchenko explained. “We try to mix elements of ice dance with pairs skating to make it more interesting. But there are seven compulsory elements.”
The free programme also has set rules but with more room to manoeuvre.
“The movement is more natural, more calm, it’s more harmonic,” Savchenko said. “We also try to bring some elements of ice dance into this but make it more fluid and the movements slower.”
“Ice dance is just about skating. Yes they have lifts but they are not higher than the shoulder, they do lifts halfway. For the spins they don’t jump, so everything is about movement,” said Savchenko.
“I do really like ice dance, now even more than before. They have more room to do interesting stuff, they have some special elements and they take some things from pairs skating. It has made it really interesting.”
Savchenko has never competed in the team event but, with it combining all the above into one competition, it is no surprise that the skating-obsessed German thinks “it looks really fun”.