Figure skating coaching carousel keeps moving in elongated off-season

PyeongChang 2018 silver medallist Evgenia Medvedeva’s recent coaching change was just one of many in the figure skating off-season, where a coaching carousel continues to turn.

By Nick McCarvel

With no international-level competitions since February, figure skating headlines in the last few months have been driven by moves made off of the ice instead of on it.

The main source? Coaching changes by some of the best skaters in the world, most notably PyeongChang 2018 silver medallist Evgenia Medvedeva, who announced last week (16 Sept.) she would be returning to Moscow to work with Eteri Tutberidze having been with Brian Orser in Toronto since 2018.

“She (Medvedeva) and I agree if there was no pandemic, we would not be having this discussion,” Orser told NBC Sports after the move was announced. “I told her, ‘I can’t do anything for you if we can’t be together. The pandemic is bigger than both of us.’ Our hands are tied.”

While some changes have been COVID-related, the moves have been many. In addition to Medvedeva’s return to Moscow and Tutberidze, two of Tutberidze’s up-and-coming prospects, Alexandra Trusova and Alena Kostornaia, have left her Sambo-70 school to train with Torino 2006 gold medallist Evgeny Plushenko.

“The doors of my school are always open,” Plushenko said amidst the changes this year. “We are open to dialogue and ready to work with any athlete.”

It wasn’t just the Russian women who were switching things up: Mikhail Kolyada of Russia, a PyeongChang team silver medallist and the 2018 world bronze winner, made his own jump, going to famed coach (formerly of Plushenko and other champions) Alexei Mishin. Kolyada missed the entire 2019-20 season due to a sinus infection.

Tanith (Belbin) White, the 2006 Olympic silver medallist in ice dance alongside Ben Agosto, said coaching changes are made for any number of reasons that are particular to the skater him or herself.

“There are so many reasons for a skater to decide to make a coaching change. Those reasons are subjective to each individual athlete’s needs and their circumstances,” said White, now a commentator for U.S. broadcaster NBC. “It may be a decision for the purpose of teaming up with a specific coach, but it may also have to do with necessary re-location of training rinks for any number of reasons or maybe being nearer to other training resources.”

White continued: “I think the most important factor in any successful coach-athlete relationship is having that trust. It’s through honest and open communication with one another, (as well as) mutual respect and understanding. That’s the most sought-after element to any great coaching-skater team.”

The changes have not just involved Russian or senior-level skaters. American Alysa Liu, the two-time and reigning U.S. champion at age 15, looks ahead to next season when she’ll be age-eligible for international senior-level competition.

In June, Liu went from childhood coach Laura Lipetsky to a trio of coaches, including two-time Olympic ice dancer Massimo Scali, renowned choreographer Lori Nichol and longtime Canadian coach Lee Barkell, ideally splitting her time between her home in Oakland (where Scali is) and Toronto (where Nichol and Barkell are based).

Then, in August, it was 2018 U.S. winner and PyeongChang team bronze medallist Bradie Tennell who left her longtime rink and coaching set-up with Denise Myers in the Chicago area to join forces with Tom Zakrajsek in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Zakrajsek shared on social media soon after the coaching change was made that he had already been working on improving Tennell’s jumping repertoire, including trying to add both a triple Axel and quadruple jump(s).

While Tennell is working with Zakrajsek for the first time, fellow American Vincent Zhou is back in the Colorado Springs fold after making a switch to working with Barkell in Toronto in January of this year. Zhou, impacted by the pandemic shutdown, returned to the Rockies in late March, and is now being coached by Christy Krall and Hamada Mie, with Zakrajsek advising on his jumps.

“I parted with Lee on good terms,” Zhou told Team USA. “I’m still in contact with (choreographer) Lori (Nichol), and when she has time we’re still doing some virtual choreography sessions.”

“Coming back from lockdown and getting back on the ice really forced me to get comfortable with the basics again,” Zhou said.

While the coaching carousel trend has involved skaters at different points in their career and at different levels of the international standings, White, who changed coaches with Agosto in between their two Olympic appearances, said sometimes it can be about a different perspective needed on the ice.

“I think sometimes – as was the case with me and Ben – skaters are looking for a way to re-invigorate or re-invent themselves or trying to get to the next level,” said White, who is married to Sochi 2014 ice dance champion Charlie White. “By teaming up with someone who is less familiar with them and their skating, that potentially gives (the coach) a different perspective on the kind of skater you (the athlete) could become. It’s not about whether the new coach versus the old coach is better or more qualified… they may just be a better fit for you in that moment or chapter of your career. I think every skater should seek out that perfect fit, even if that means making a coaching change at a certain point.”

That reasoning could be said for the new pairs team of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, who left their respective partners during the off-season.

Frazier, who formerly skated with Haven Denney, has made the move to California to work with Knierim, a team bronze medallist in PyeongChang alongside her husband Chris in 2018. The new duo is working with three-time world medallists Jenni Meno and Todd Sand.

And while changes can be vast, often times skaters will add someone to their for a particular skill: Jumping, artistic expression, choreography or to up their mental game.

Meagan Duhamel, the Canadian pairs skater alongside Eric Radford who won bronze at PyeongChang 2018 said: "A skater sometimes needs more emotional support from a coach, depending where they are in their career. It can also be about... wanting more attention from a coach, or being in a place where there are more high-level skaters where you train. It really depends on where the skater is in their career. Are they looking to revive their skating? Jumpstart their career?"

In-mid June, Japanese skater Kihira Rika, the two-time Four Continents champion, said she would expand her own team beyond the aforementioned Hamada, bringing in Orser to her team, with the medal stand in Beijing 2022 on her mind.

Surely the coaching carousel will continue, though one skater has stepped off of it for the time being, as Tutberidze’s Alina Zagitova, the 2018 Olympic champion, has opted to focus on a Russian skating TV show versus the Russian test skates, held in early September.