Alena Kostornaia exclusive: Meet the rising star who dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon

In an Olympic Channel interview, Russian teen Alena Kostornaia opens up on the artistry in her skating, her new program, training with renowned coach Eteri Tutberidze and how life has changed since COVID-19.

By Ekaterina Kuznetsova & Nick McCarvel

“I'm a very emotional person actually. I find it hard to hide my emotions.”

What Russia’s Alena Kostornaia has revealed – via her emotions, her skating, her determination and her artistry – in just one year as a senior-level competitor in figure skating has been eye-catching. Her style, many say, is beautiful and authentic.

She holds the record for the highest score at a competition, totalling 247.59 at the Grand Prix Final last year. In August, she'll turn 17, already a year older than fellow Russian Alina Zagitova when she reigned supreme at PyeongChang 2018. The Olympic expectations are looming.

“Let me not talk about (Beijing),” she said when asked about the 2022 Winter Games. “There is still time.”

In an exclusive chat with Olympic Channel, Kostornaia opened up on plenty of other topics, including her emotive ways, how the COVID-19 hiatus has impacted her mentality and her training, the influence of her well-known coach Eteri Tutberidze, the departure of training mate Alexandra Trusova from the Tutberidze camp and how Kostornaia would like to be a neurosurgeon when she’s done skating (perhaps with a detour into equestrian if possible). And much, much more.

Successful season

Kostornaia was one of four favourites heading into the ISU World Figure Skating Championships in March when the event was cancelled due to the pandemic, along with Trusova, Anna Shcherbakova (who remains Kostornaia’s training partner) and Japan’s Kihira Rika.

Her arrival on the senior skating scene looked like this: Golden. Winning Grand Prix assignments in France and Japan in the fall of 2019, as well as the aforementioned Final in Turin in December and the European Championships in January. (At Russian Nationals she finished second behind Shcherbakova.) In addition to her high component marks, Kostornaia is one of few senior women to have a triple Axel in her jumping repertoire.

She sat down with Olympic Channel for an exclusive one-on-one chat after being named the ISU’s best newcomer for the 2019-20 season. The interview was conducted in Russian and translated and edited for clarity below.

Olympic Channel: Alena, congratulations on your ISU award. What's it like to become the best newcomer?

Alena Kostornaia: It was unexpected and very pleasant. For the first few minutes, I didn't even know what to say. Though I was asked and re-asked three questions, I just sat silently and couldn't find the words.

OC: You are a Grand Prix champion, a European champion. Are there any other figure skating awards you dream of receiving?

Kostornaia: The Olympic Games, the World Championships. All the serious competitions. It's not that important (in life), but I want to (fully) realise myself as an athlete.

OC: How did you come into the sport of figure skating in the first place? And what made you stay?

Kostornaia: My mother brought me into figure skating as I was a very active child, I constantly fell from the trees and from the swings. At the playground no one could stop me, I was constantly running. It was necessary to put that energy somewhere. My mum decided it would be figure skating because the rink was close by. Then at 5 or 6 years I was asked: Will you continue skating? I said: ‘Let's try it.’ And that's it.

New program

OC: How did the pandemic situation impact your life and training?

Kostornaia: I’ve studied a lot and worked out at home. Sometimes I film videos of how I do make up for competitions, or my hair styles. I’ve tried some ‘life hacks’ from Instagram. I’d like to start recording now... something like a blog. I’d like to show what really happens in the world of figure skating, obviously without any scandals. Let's say it would be pleasant and soul-warming and could help some younger athletes in the future.

OC: How hard was it mentally not to be on ice? Were you with your family during the lockdown? How have you kept in shape?

Kostornaia: Once we were told there would be no Worlds, everyone relaxed. It was like, 'Oh, it didn't work out?’ Everything became way quieter, the coaches started joking at the practices, to cheer us up. Yes, it was a little hurtful that we prepared for so long, but in general if something happened it means it was meant to be.

I spent all this time with my family, and I actually learned more about them than I knew before. This is very pleasant knowledge, pleasant moments... Because now I am here, training in Novogorsk [in suburban Moscow] for the second month. You can't come or go from here. And so here I am without my family but sometimes we talk via video calls.

OC: On Instagram, your choreographer Daniil Gleikhengauz posted a new program of yours. Can you tell us about it in more detail? Is it Billie Eilish's music?

Kostornaia: Yes, we have a very unusual choice of music, but both me and the coaches like it. We immediately heard it and realised this is what we need. The image I have is the same as (Billie Eilish has) in the video, we tried to repeat it, but didn't completely copy it. It actually suits me very much. I can't say anything concrete yet. The program is new (but) I know for sure that I like it. And probably with every year the programs become more and more interesting.


OC: What is it like to train with Eteri?

Kostornaia: Eteri Georgievna is very often referred to as ‘the snow queen.’ I believe this is not the case. She is a very kind, open and honest person who will always tell the truth… she’ll never keep it away from you.

"Eteri Georgievna will always help us, will always give advice or point out the mistakes and flaws. It can be both in training and in life. It's a stereotype that Eteri Georgievna is an iron lady. She's not. She's the same kind of person, the same mum."

OC: You were part of a group that everyone on the Internet called the 'Triple A' (including Kostornaia, Shcherbakova and Trusova). Now with Trusova leaving, how does the dynamic in the team change?

Kostornaia: I won't say that these are drastic changes.

Athletes come and go and there is nothing terrible about it. Every athlete has to find the coach with whom they feel comfortable and who will be able to lead them to the result.

OC: Trusova is known for her quads, you have your triple Axel. Where are you with your practice around adding a quad to your skating?

Kostornaia: I would like to learn the quad Salchow, but it is still too early to talk about anything right now. I need to train, to get back my jumps. First of all, to get back a triple Axel and at least try to skate the program with it. That's why... I don't want to make predictions, but in general I would like to (add the quad).

Ladies' Grand Prix Final top three (L-R): runner-up Anna Shcherbakova, winner Alena Kostornaia, third-placed Alexandra Trusova

Time away

OC: While it’s a different situation, you faced time away in 2019 when you broke your leg, not competing at Junior Worlds. How did you face those challenges? You came back stronger.

Kostornaia: Injuries always make us stronger, mentally and physically. Because you go out on the ice after a long break, you put your thoughts, your head, body… all in order. You understand what it is that you need and what do you want to get as a result. And what needs to be done for that. Sitting at home I had a fibula fracture in my left leg. I found out about it before Worlds and we decided not to take risks and withdrew.

(But) this time away, where I just sat there and couldn't do anything normally, (it) motivated me a lot. I don't see my life without figure skating.

OC: In regards to your current form and comparing it to March, how would you evaluate your current shape right now?

Kostornaia: It is clear that there has been a recession. As soon as we came back, there was even a video published, where I enter the ice and throw my mittens at Daniil (Gleikhengauz). [Laughs] Because it was very unexpected... I came out and I didn't understand what was going on.

It's not even like it's uncomfortable, no, there was no such feeling. It just felt as if I stepped on the ice wearing boots, not skates. And my legs moved sideways. It felt like everything was not mine. It was very unexpectedly strange and even unpleasant. Then we skated and kept jumping. After some time, Eteri Georgievna arrived and in these two and a half, three weeks, I recovered the triple jumps, started jumping bigger. Yes, it's not always successful but I jump and jump...

In general, the situation is pretty good right now, considering what could have been if we stayed at home longer.

Alena Kostornaia during her free skate at the 2019 Grand Prix Final in Turin

Future dreams

OC: In 2018, you told R-Sport that you dreamed of being a neurosurgeon, but then recently said that you changed your mind, (and) wanted to dedicate your whole life to figure skating. Tell us about these dreams and where you stand on them now.

Kostornaia: It's really simple: Figure skating is not a sport in which you can skate up to thirty years and win. Yes, you can skate, you can please the audience, participate in shows, but you won't be in first place because there are 15-year-old girls who produce a bunch of quadruples. They have a lot of power and energy. There's no stopping them.

"I’ll try to go through this season (and then) through the Olympic season. And then I will start fulfilling my (medical) dream. Maybe I will skate in shows; I always wanted to go on some long tour for almost a year, it is my dream. And then I will start realising my dream to become a neurosurgeon."

OC: And why exactly do you dream about neurosurgery? What interests you the most about it?

Kostornaia: There are a lot of different diseases. There is a lot of undiscovered stuff… surgeries that could be done but no one has attempted them yet because there are great risks. And I think it's a lot of adrenaline.

Alena Kostornaia during her short program at the European Championships in Graz, Austria

On the ice

OC: You said you were going to skate until the Olympic season. What would it mean to you become an Olympic champion in Beijing in 2022?

Kostornaia: Let me not talk about (Beijing). There is still time. Time will tell everything.

OC: In general, how important it is for you to win at competitions? And how do you deal with failure in what you do as an athlete?

Kostornaia: It's important for me to win over myself. For me, it's important to show my maximum. And what judges decide… it's their decision. In the case of failures, I try to understand them, to understand myself, to understand with the coaches what mistakes were made. And the next time to work so that it doesn't repeat again.

OC: The situation in the world is still unclear and there is a risk that in October and November the Grand Prix season won't happen. How would it impact you?

Kostornaia: I'm not going to do anything special. I will keep training (and) if something happens, it means it is meant to be.

OC: What are your strengths as a person?

Kostornia: Sincerity and devotion… if I've made friends with a person and got attached to them, then it's very hard to break it off. I'm (fully) alive. If I don't like something, I prefer to say it, or at least insinuate that something is not right.

OC: What about the weaknesses?

Kostornia: I'm not disciplined. Let's take Daria Pavliuchenko, she is my very close friend. Dasha is very disciplined in terms of... she is never late. If the warm-up starts at 15:15, she will be there at 15:13, even earlier. I will come at 15:15, running into the gym, making it in five seconds.

I'm not saying that I am completely undisciplined, but maybe a little bit. It even helps. You can't constantly remain collected. We have a very difficult sport - if you are constantly introverted and collected, it won't be enough. You should take things easier.

OC: In figure skating you are known for being such an artist on the ice, often earning high program component marks. Where does that come from?

Kostornaia: I'm a very emotional person actually. I find it hard to hide my emotions. If I'm sad, I start crying. If I have fun, I laugh. You can hear me laughing from the end of the corridor. (For me), there is sadness, anger, joy or the feeling of being offended. And it all spills out one hundred percent. I don't have semitones, it's either good or bad.

This artistry is the same on ice. I not (only) give my maximum but I show my emotions... After the competition I just sit there and don't know what to do. I'm sitting and I don't have anything inside. Because I spilled all this on the ice.

OC: You’ve also professed a love for horse riding, equestrian. Would you compete in that sport, as well?

Kostornaia: Equestrian is of course my hobby, that will remain forever. But I'm so eager to try myself as a surgeon... You can always come back to equestrian (for fun).

On popularity

OC: Your popularity on social media has grown in leaps and bounds over the last couple of years. How do you handle that? You have fans all over the world.

Kostornaia: I don't think Instagram affects anything because it's just a social network. Yes, sometimes I get recognised on the street and asked to take a photo with people. I treat it absolutely calmly. I try not to wear a crown, let's say it like that. It's much more pleasant to communicate with a person who doesn't depend on public opinion, like someone who will not specifically post something on Instagram for the sake of subscribers.

You must always remain yourself.

OC: Did you feel that people changed towards you when you became popular?

Kostornaia: I don't have a wide circle of friends, so nothing changed. I was someone's best friend and so I remain. Like I was a loving sister and so I remain. Naturally, all my relatives and friends support me always, whatever happens.

OC: Who inspires you in the world of figure skating? And outside of it?

Kostornaia: Outside of figure skating I am surprised at the moment by doctors who fight diseases and... Gymnasts, we recently got very close with them. They teach us a lot and probably when I look at [Russian rhythmic gymnast] Lala Kramarenko, who is like a pioneer in her sport with her amazing spin, or Dina and Arina Averina [also rhythmic gymnasts] who have been performing well for so many years.

And I think that you have to strive to compete for many years and without any losses. And in the world of figure skating, probably every athlete inspires me a little bit. But overall, I try to look only at myself. To find my perfect benchmark and (then) move towards it.