In September, Latvian figure skater Deniss Vasiļjevs produced the free skate of his life to win the first international figure skating competition of the 2020/21 season – the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany – giving him the biggest victory of his career to date. Here, we speak to the Winter Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Lillehammer 2016 silver medallist about his progress since the YOG and his ambitions for Beijing 2022.
How challenging has the last year been for you, with many competitions cancelled due to the pandemic?
“I was very fortunate to be allowed to continue practising during this time, and so I was working, continuing to improve my skills and constantly preparing for competitions. The only sadness is that I haven't really had the chance to express myself, and to see what the reality of my skating is in a competition set-up. And because of that I would say it kind of feels like it's been an empty year, but on the other hand it was still a working year. So, I have mixed feelings about it. You’re still doing your best given the situation, but on the other hand, it’s also difficult not knowing what’s going to happen. But I bet everyone – not only athletes – has been feeling this too. It’s just something that we all need to find the power to go through. But I look forward to finally starting up real performances in front of a crowd again, because for me, personally, I hold those experiences dear.”
You won the Nebelhorn Trophy in September – your first ISU Challenger Series victory – after skating a new lifetime-best score in the free skate. How did you feel after winning?
“One of the biggest reasons I love competitions is for the whole atmosphere when you have a lot of people there. So yes, I was very happy I won, I had fun and enjoyed it as much as I could. But the lack of atmosphere with no one there to watch was something very different. I’m very grateful that they were able to organise the event at this time. But I treat my sport like an art, and this kind of exposure with the crowd is what drives me. It’s this extra motivation that I feel; I feel the appreciation of the people who are there. So it is not so easy without them there.”
You achieved your highest-ever score for your free skate – how pleased are you with the progress you are making?
“I think I have improved in the technical aspects as well as in the artistic aspects. As I said, it's pretty difficult to judge based on this season because I had only one competition, but then in that one competition I managed to land a quad jump, which to me is kind of a big deal. And also, I got my best score, so I think I’m doing well. But it’s hard to judge my improvement because I can only judge it on what I do in training, and training is only part of how you evaluate yourself. But, at least in my mind, I think I have improved, and the people around me find that I have improved too. But it’s difficult for me to know for sure; I like to see the scores in competition because then I know it for a fact.”
What are your memories of the Winter YOG Lillehammer 2016?
“The whole organisation, the event, the way it was done… to me it felt enormous. It felt so huge to wear the Olympic uniform and compete in an event like that. It was something that impressed me very much. And it was amazing to be with other athletes who were more or less my age, all in one place. It was pleasant and really enjoyable spending time making new friends and exchanging experiences with different people from different sports and different countries. I made new friends there and actually met my coach there [Swiss Olympic silver medallist Stéphane Lambiel, who was an Athlete Role Model at the Games], who I am still skating with now. It was something that connected all of us, so I’m pretty grateful for such an experience.”
And presumably winning the silver medal in the men’s singles made the experience even better?
“I'm very happy that I won the silver medal, but I can't say that was the sole purpose and reason for me, personally, to be there. Being a figure skater, my aim is to always do my programme as cleanly as possible, and then we see what place we get to. I don’t remember a desire to win a medal; I more remember trying to feel the music, feel the moment, and enjoy skating it. I knew there were people supporting me, but to me it was trying to treat it like another day at work and not get too caught up in it being something really incredible and really special. Then when I got the medal, it was really pleasant; it was fun.”
Were you able to learn a lot from your experiences in Lillehammer? Did they help you prepare for the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018?
“When I think of PyeongChang, I actually struggled during my performances because I was too focused on that desire to move up the ladder and be a competitor, rather than an artist. It might sound weird, but what I learnt from Lillehammer is that I have to be pretty chilled about desire, and focus more on the whole performance, and doing that will get me better results. I also learned a lot about nutrition in Lillehammer because of the educational activities they had there, and I had a lot of fun exchanging thoughts with the professional athletes [who were there as Athlete Role Models].”
What are your goals for Beijing 2022?
“Well, to start with it would be very good to qualify for the Games. I think my biggest goal is not to forget my past Olympic experiences, especially the short programme in PyeongChang, when I was so eager to do it that I made more mistakes just because of the anticipation.
My goal is just to be myself and show my enjoyment and dedication to what I'm doing. I don't have so much of a concrete place I want to target because, as I explained earlier, I just want to perform to the best of my ability and not focus purely on my spot on the ladder.”