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Anna Shcherbakova exclusive: "On the way to Worlds, sometimes I just wanted to give up"

In an interview with Olympic Channel, the newly crowned world figure skating champion opens up about her steely mentality, Olympic season expectations, and more.
By Interview conducted in Russian by Tatjana Flade, with translation by Ekaterina Kuznetsova. Edited by Nick McCarvel.

After capturing gold at nationals three years running, expectations were high for quad-jumping 16-year-old Russian Anna Shcherbakova at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships last month.

In her debut at the event, Shcherbakova delivered.

After skating to a slim lead in the ladies' short program, Shcherbakova held off fellow Figure Skating Federation of Russia (FSR) skaters Elizaveta Tuktamysheva and Alexandra Trusova, claiming her first world title in the lead-up to the Olympic season.

It was the first time that skaters from one nation had swept the ladies’ podium at worlds since 1991, when the United States did so.

It also marked a triumph following a season of adversity for Shcherbakova, who was treated for COVID-19 in November and shared publicly her physical struggles that followed her thereafter.

Here, Shcherbakova opens up in exclusive interview, on exhibition gala day in Stockholm.

Interview conducted in Russian by Tatjana Flade, and translated by the Olympic Channel team.

Olympic Channel (OC): Anna, we are talking to you on your 17th birthday (28 March). Have you celebrated it somehow?

Anna Shcherbakova: Honestly, I don’t feel at all that it’s my birthday. So much has happened in the last couple of days that I haven’t realized anything yet. Obviously, it's a huge joy for me that I won. And then it’s my birthday. I haven't had time to get excited about one thing, and there is already another. So, for now I am in a kind of stupor. I’ve already made myself the biggest present. The exhibition training is also a gift. When I am on the same ice with great skaters, like Hanyu Yuzuru and Nathan Chen, it is a great joy for me. It will be a very memorable birthday for me. Usually on this day I always have training, no celebrations, and now it's more interesting and it's an unusual day.

"So, for now I am in a kind of stupor. I’ve already made myself the biggest present." - Anna Shcherbakova on winning Worlds just prior to her birthday

ОС: So you haven’t realised that you’ve become a world champion yet?

Shcherbakova: I haven’t realised it at all and I catch myself thinking that I still don't believe that the competition is over. I haven’t understood anything yet.

ОС: When do you think the realisation will come?

Shcherbakova: I think it will take me quite some time. It's been two days since the free skating program, and I still don't understand what happened and how it will or will not affect me.

'Right attitude' was the difference-maker

OC: How did you feel at this world championship? It was rather unusual and besides that, your parents could not be with you.

Shcherbakova: I was ready that my parents would not be with me and made peace with it. We were in touch, it’s all good. I had no hopes until the short program. I thought that I would try to do my best in each program and have no regrets. After the short program we had a day off, and it was very nerve-racking; as much as I wanted to shut out all my thoughts, I was putting pressure on myself, thinking that this was my chance. All these thoughts of not missing an opportunity made me nervous. However, in the end I had the right attitude for the free skating program.

OC: During training sessions, you didn’t succeed in everything, but in the competition itself you pulled yourself together and performed very well. How do you manage that?

Shcherbakova: I'm very satisfied with the short program. And I had no problems in practice before the short program; I did all my triple jumps perfectly. My mindset was very important. In the free program, I fought for every element to the end; I was able to handle anxiety and nerves as well - there were no problems with them. The problem was in my physical preparation, the inconsistency of my quads. There were some problems in my training, and in the competition, I did everything I could.

OC: What is your plan for quadruple jumps for the [Beijing 2022] Olympic season?

Shcherbakova: I did not have a specific plan before the free skating at the world championships. That is why I am not able to say for sure what will happen in the Olympic season. There is no point in making any predictions now.

ОС: Do you have any wishes for your Olympic program?

Shcherbakova: Even though it is the pre-Olympic season, I think from one competition to another. The world championships is a very important tournament and I needed to concentrate on it.

So, I haven’t thought about the fact that the next season is [the] Olympic [one]. Now, yes, you need to think about this, about programs, about a set of jumps, preparation. But so far, I can’t say anything for sure about this.

Anna Shcherbakova: 'I fought until the end'

OC: What conclusions have you, perhaps, already drawn from the experience of performing at the world championships?

Shcherbakova: As cliché as it may sound, once again I realised that I must go all the way and not give up. On the way to this championship, I sometimes wanted to give up. In Moscow I had a lot of unsuccessful practice sessions. I tried not to show it, but I got very upset. I've been looking forward to this competition and wanted to be in good shape for such a long time. But not everything is always smooth. And going through the difficulties, I didn't understand why it all piled up on the eve of the most important event. That's why it's probably very valuable that I didn't stop at any point in my preparation, I went all the way to the end. No one knew how everything would turn out. And this championship proved that people are not robots; everyone makes mistakes. That's normal. As they say, the ice is slippery. The fact that I fought until the end helped me to achieve this result in the end.

OC: You really have the ability to pull yourself together. An athlete with true strength on the inside.

Shcherbakova: Everyone is surprised that I know how I can focus on performance. People who know me well know that, though. I'm just a fairly private person with strangers. And those who don't know me well enough are surprised that I can get so focused at the right time.

"As cliché as it may sound, once again I realised that I must go all the way and not give up. On the way to this championship, I sometimes wanted to give up." - Anna Shcherbakova to Olympic Channel

ОС: You watched the men’s free skate from inside the arena.

Shcherbakova: Yes, I was in the stands. The schedule made us incredibly happy. We saw that we would finish a day earlier than the boys. This is very rare for us – usually we close the competition. We finally had a free day here when you could come and cheer for the boys. This is an incredible experience. Before the competition, I always watch other [disciplines], but it happens quite calmly, usually not in the stands. I watched pairs in the hotel room, in a much calmer way. But here I could really watch and cheer. There were all the strongest skaters, and there were unreal emotions from watching.

I was totally impressed by Nathan Chen; it was an incredible performance. Probably he made an even greater impression than usual, because I usually watched him skating on the Internet, and this is completely different than live. I watched with bated breath, my legs were shaking, it seemed that I was worried more than during my own skate. Here I had the opportunity to see his training, to see how he prepared for his performances. All this is a great experience for me. I am extremely happy that I was able to see it. Also, Hanyu Yuzuru will always impress me. He is a genius skater; he delights me with any performance of his programs. It is so interesting to watch him.

There were also many other guys who are very interesting to watch. Kagiyama Yuma, Uno Shoma. We were also rooting for our guys: Evgeni Semenenko did a great job. We were cheering for Mikhail Kolyada and Morisi Kvitelashvili.

Reflecting back - and looking ahead

OC: This whole season turned out to be quite difficult for you, just like for many other skaters... Can you analyse it already? Reflect on it?

Shcherbakova: Now there is an emptiness inside, and it's hard to look at the whole season. You can probably say that I have faced many difficulties that athletes face in their profession. Sport is always about ups and downs. It is normal for sports that you face difficulties and steel yourself by overcoming them. If we evaluate the results of the season, then, of course, I am glad about them. Even though a large number of competitions that I wanted to attend have been cancelled, this season ended with the most important event. And for me this event ended with the maximum result, the one that I was even afraid to imagine.

Still, the worst thing is unjustified expectations, when you expect something for yourself, believe in it, and it does not come true. It's very hard to get over that. So I tried not to burden myself with expectations that I would win. But, of course, it was inside of me and I wanted that. That's why for me what happened is an incredible joy.

OC: How do you see your development compared to the previous season?

Shcherbakova: This season I have definitely changed, probably I have matured. This is normal. There will be some changes every year. In general, I try to constantly develop not only in technical terms, but also in the presentation of my programs, in all other aspects. With each competition I gain experience and self-confidence. Last year I performed confidently, and this year I became even more confident in myself. Now, speaking of competitions, I understood that last season at some competitions I was prepared a lot better than now, but something did not work for me, because I wasn’t as confident in myself. Now, in terms of preparation it was worse, but at the same time I was pulling myself together anyways and, looking back, I understood that I could have done it then if I had prepared myself in a different way. [Now] I can clearly see all my previous flaws.

OC: Now you will participate in the World Team Trophy (15-17 April, Osaka). What's next? Some rest maybe?

Shcherbakova: I will take part in the world team championship and in a show. I want to [approach] it in a more relaxed way, because there is a feeling that I have already spent all my nerves. It may seem that I am not nervous and can get ready and focused for the competition, but inside I am really worried. I was worried about the performances at worlds for a long time: both during preparation and during the competition. I feel pretty exhausted from all of this. And I want is to be calmer about the competition, to enjoy it all.

However, this does not change the fact that I will try to do my very best. But I want to spend the rest of the season a little more calmly. Then rest after that, I really look forward to that, too. After that, I want to start the new season with new strength, mentally and physically recovered.