After season of challenges and illness, ice dancers Sinitsina and Katsalapov are “ready for anything”

The ice dancers were surprise champions at Europeans in January of 2020, but have had injury and illness to fight amidst the pandemic.

By Tatiana Flade, Katerina Kuznetsova, and Nick McCarvel
Picture by 2019 Getty Images

Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov were flying high after their gold medal win at the European Championships in January of 2020.

Never could they have anticipated the year that would follow.

As the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the sporting world, prompting the cancellation of the 2020 world figure skating championships and limiting the 2020-21 season, Sinitsina would eventually spend a week in hospital due to her own fight with Covid-19.

“[It was] scary, because I was alone at home, I live alone, and I realized that I do not understand anything, I do not control anything,” Sinitsina, who skates on behalf of the Figure Skating Federation of Russia (FSR), said in her native language, in an exclusive interview for Olympic Channel.

After leaving hospital care, she spent two weeks at home resting, suffering from what Katsalapov described as “severe” lung damage for his partner as they missed the Russian national championships in December.

The 2019 world silver medallists will be one of the top teams this week at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships, being held in Stockholm, Sweden, without fans.

But what sort of form they are currently in remains to be seen. They missed weeks of training due to Sinitsina’s health, having already spent time off of the ice in the summer months due to a knee injury.

Here, a Q&A with Sinitsina and Katsalapov, who confirm they have gone back to both of their 2019-20 programs for the rhythm and free dances, to maximize their talent in hopes of finishing the season strong.

The interview was conducted in Russian and translated.

Sinitsina: 'I didn't have any fear' returning to training

Olympic Channel (OC): Vika, Nikita, the season turned out to be difficult for you. There were injuries, illnesses...

Nikita Katsalapov: Fortunately, now everything is absolutely normal, everything is back to normal.

Viktoria Sinitsina: Even before the competition at the beginning of the season, I had big knee problems. Unfortunately, I could not combine preparation for the competition and treatment, it would have been useless then. I gathered all my strength to compete in the Russian Cup [in September], but I failed to compete. The pain was very strong, and I simply could not endure it, although I am a very patient person. Then I seriously went for a treatment: Every day I did therapy, procedures, pumped the knee, and finished it just a week or two ago.

Now everything is well, and I dealt with all of it in a correct way, I think. We all reacted to the situation very correctly, calmly and wisely. I managed to survive everything thanks to Nikita, who constantly supported me.

OC: Unfortunately, after the Grand Prix Series event in Moscow, you fell ill with coronavirus and even ended up in the hospital.

Sinitsina: I felt very bad, I got a high temperature. I thought that I could stay at home, but at some point I just called Nikita and Sasha [Zhulin, their coach] and said that I felt very bad. And they said, "That's it, call an ambulance."

OC: Was it really scary in general?

Sinitsina: Precisely scary, because I was alone at home. I live alone, and I realized that I do not understand anything, I do not control anything, and God forbid that I am alone, and no one can help me. So I decided to go straight to the hospital. I was in the hospital for six days, almost a week. And after that I spent two weeks at home.

OC: Other athletes who had been ill in a serious form said that when they went out on the ice after an illness, they were afraid if they could skate at all, because it was difficult to recover. How did your recovery go?

Sinitsina: I didn't have any fear. I just experienced very severe dizziness. When rotating, it darkened in the eyes and legs felt weak. But it passed literally two or three weeks later. Maybe I just lost the habit of training.

Familiar programs: Going back to what works

OC: When did you decide to return to last year's free dance?

Sinitsina: Just after we went out on the ice after my illness.

Katsalapov: Because of her illness, Vika spent a week in the hospital. Before and after the hospital, she stayed at home, [so] a lot of training time was missed. We did not have time to prepare for anything, although everyone had set their expectations on us: Whether we can/can't, whether we prepare or don't. We just understood in a human way that it was absolutely impossible. And in terms of this new virus – even if there were no super complications straight after, as all the doctors told us – they can appear at any time. It felt, of course, that you are suffocating. You don't feel your body.

It was clear that we couldn't prepare and couldn't skate our new [free] program properly. What we showed in the first half of the season was quite damp, we sketched some pieces there, tried to quickly prepare it all for the competition, because there were injuries. We realized that the only correct decision, of course, was to return a [familiar], good program. Moreover, the boss [coach Zhulin] immediately said: “I see Dvořák [their free dance to the music of Anton Dvořák, originally used 2019-20] as a whole piece, a whole program. In relation to the new program that I see now, the Dvorak one is much more advantageous, you can't even compare."

In general, this conversation was short, five minutes maximum, and we quickly agreed. [His] arguments were very strong, serious, and difficult to dispute. And on that same day, we immediately started to return and skate our old program. Of course, also because everything began to gradually return to normal – under the supervision of doctors, there was a recovery from injuries and illnesses, everything went quite well. So we were prepared quite well for the Russian Cup final, although not without problems either.

OC: Did you quickly restore the old free program?

Katsalapov: No, I can't say it happened that quickly. In figure skating, when you skate a program, especially an arbitrary, long program, you need to skate these kilometers, to skate it all through. This is being said by Tatyana Anatolyevna [Tarasova, the legendary Russian coach], and any coach will tell this to you. You need 20 tries, some would need more. And you need to just feel it. When we went out, we began to skate it in pieces, subconsciously understanding, when it gets harder, and where you can breathe. So, it was already strategically ready for this season. But to make it complete we needed to skate it and to work really hard, which is of course, difficult.

Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, world championships, 2019

'When you are ready, you are ready for anything'

OC: How do you prepare for this upcoming extraordinary world championship?

Katsalapov: After the final of the Russian Cup [in early March], we rested for two days and as soon as we went on the ice, we literally did all the physical work with the coach, not only skated. So we didn’t let go of our loads, because we weren’t tired. For us, one might say, the season had just begun, but we felt very well, that is, everything goes positively.

OC: [The world championships] will be held without spectators, and you will live in a hotel without the opportunity to go outside, except for the ice rink. Will this be difficult for you?

Katsalapov: No idea. In general, none of us have ever been in such situations, it's hard to say. The most important thing for us is to be physically ready. We performed in different conditions at competitions and without this pandemic. Think of the schedule, for example, at worlds in Saitama [in 2019], when you get up at 4 in the morning, go to practice, skate, stay on the rink and perform. When you are ready, you are ready for anything. This is the world championships, this is a very important competition. It's just in your head, and you don't think of anything else.

OC: So the absence of the audience in this situation will not play a key role?

Katsalapov: I don't know. Most likely it will be hard. At any competition, the audience helps. But I just don't want to say now that it will be hard and to bring this kind of attitude. It will probably be harder than usual, but it will also just be a competition in a different way.

Interview conducted in Russian by Tatiana Flade.