Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy

Chasing the Ultimate Triumph

Thomas Kettner
Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy

This season will be the final competitive hurrah for Germany’s Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, and the duo is hoping to close out their decade-long career with the finest victory of them all: the 2014 Olympic title.

Savchenko, 30, and Szolkowy, 34, are once again demonstrating their love of risk and innovation this season by including the throw triple Axel in both programs. At Cup of China, Savchenko stumbled on the landing in the short program and fell in the free. In Russia, she took a bad fall in the short, injuring her hip and leg, and was unable to execute the element in the long.

“Who doesn’t take a risk won’t drink champagne,” Savchenko said with a laugh. “It is better for me to do it at the end of the programs. The elements before are like a warm up, and the highlight comes last.”

The duo has a reputation for pushing the discipline of pairs skating artistically and technically. They were among the first to add difficult elements, such as the triple twist and a throw triple in the second half of their programs. “We always have tried new and different things; otherwise, we wouldn’t be where we are now,” Savchenko said.

Four years after the disappointment of placing third at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, the duo is now in a different situation, facing off against a strong Russian team. “We are not looking at others; we are focusing only on ourselves. We have left a lot of points on the table in our competitions so far this season that we could get if we do what we are capable of,” Szolkowy said. “In the end, the best will win. Hopefully, it’s us.”

For the short program this season, the four-time World champions are skating to Chris de Burgh’s romantic piece “When Winter Comes,” arranged by André Rieu. “We listened to a lot of music. I think it was never as hard as this year to find music,” Szolkowy explained. “We decided on the free skate music quite early, and then looked for something that went with it.

“We listened to, like, 30 or 40 pieces. André called our coach, Ingo Steuer, and said he had a piece on his new album that maybe we might like. We listened to it and decided within two or three days. It was clearly the best. There is something to it, and I see us in this music.”

Their choice of selections from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” for the long program surprised many. But the classical Russian ballet is a logical choice that highlights the versatility of this team. “It is perfect. Ingo said about three years ago that he’d like to do this for Sochi,” Savchenko explained. “We decided last year that we were going to do it. Classical music is something new for us. It is an interesting mix of a German fairy tale and a Russian ballet. What could be better?

“It is challenging and difficult, which requires a completely different kind of body tension. I notice the next day that I have muscles I did not know about before,” she added with a laugh.

“This was and still is new for us,” Szolkowy said. “We have never skated to classical ballet music. Like Aliona, I feel it the next day or maybe even the same day when I get cramps that I usually don’t have.”

“But, imagine, at the Olympic Games, during the last warm-up group and the gold medal is at stake. This is the right music for this moment.”

Steuer has always choreographed the team’s routines, but this year he reached out to Canada’s David Wilson. “It was very interesting for us to work with David,” Savchenko said. “It was amazing to try new steps and moves that we never knew about. One tilt of your shoulder can make such a difference. I think it was a good choice to work with him.”

Their path to Sochi is clear-cut. “We want to work on everything that is not there yet. We reviewed the protocols from our competitions and talked to judges and technical specialists. We want to do each element at the highest possible level,” Szolkowy said. “You cannot just skate nowadays. You have to pick up every single point.”

And that is exactly what they did at the Grand Prix Final in Fukukoa, Japan, in December.

Nobody, not even the German team nor their coach thought they would win the Final because they felt they were not yet in top shape.

But, in an unexpected turn of events, Savchenko and Szolkowy defeated Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, the first competition the Russian team had lost since 2012 Worlds.

Savchenko and Szolkowy produced two solid programs but their coach, Ingo Steuer, said the couple was still only at about 75 percent. “Some elements weren’t absolutely clean. Their skating was let’s say, careful, but that’s logical,” he explained. “We had to deal with the hard fall Aliona had on the throw triple Axel in the short program at Cup of Russia in Moscow so we reconstructed the whole short program.”

That element was replaced with a triple flip at the Final and moved to the beginning of the program. Steuer also rearranged the transitions between the elements.

“We tried to give our best and we got the best,” Savchenko said with a smile. “There are still some places that can be improved, in skating, expression and choreography. Also the throw triple Axel. You’re never perfect. This victory is great for us. We are back and we are continuing to fight and we enjoy our last season.”

Szolkowy agreed. “There is still a lot of room for improvement, in both short and free program. We can pick up a couple of points that we left on the table and we’ll work on that. We still have a couple of weeks before Sochi,” he said.

That victory was important in many ways. It made everyone realize that perhaps the Olympic gold medal is not already spoken for.

“We found that the Russians are not invincible, which is also important for the others,” Steuer said. “They made mistakes, but I think we forced them to make mistakes. We increased the pressure, but we can’t look at the others. We have to continue on our own path. Now, everybody sees that we are right to say, the account will be settled in Sochi.”

The throw triple Axel will once again come into play in their Olympic programs. “We’ll do the throw triple Axel, we save it for the Olympics. I had to convince the athletes that they had to take a step backwards to take a step forward eventually,” Steuer explained.

“The throw triple Axel is still part of our training. Nothing was cancelled. It is shouting at us that it wants to be back in the program,” Szolkowy added.

At German nationals in mid December, Savchenko and Szolkowy captured their eighth homeland title, setting another record. While admitted to still feeling tired from Grand Prix Final the week before, they nevertheless wanted to compete at their final national championships.

“We won our first national title here in this ice rink 10 years ago, so it was important to us to come here,” Savchenko said, adding that they enjoyed the atmosphere, the support of the crowd, and the chance to skate without a lot of pressure.

They performed in one ice show in Berlin following nationals but that was it. After a short Christmas break it was back to work preparing for Europeans where they would once again face their formidable Russian opponents.

But Europeans did not turn out quite the way they had hoped. Second after the short the team was forced to withdraw the morning of the free skate. A medical bulletin stated that Savchenko was suffering from a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract.

Nonetheless, both said they are looking forward to their final Olympic experience, enjoying every moment and making the best of everything because afterwards it will be too late. “I basically know nothing about Sochi—just that it should be a bit warmer than you imagine winter,” Szolkowy said. “That sounds good.”

For now, everything is focused on those two days in February that pairs skating will take place, and the Germans are hoping that their personal fairy tale will come true.

The Olympic Games will likely be the last competition for this duo, who have indicated that they may not compete at the World Championships. They are scheduled to perform in shows in Europe next spring and plan to produce their own skating show, “Imagine on Ice,” next April in their hometown of Chemnitz.

Though Savchenko and Szolkowy will perform in shows after leaving the amateur circuit, both are thinking about the future.

Savchenko might take up coaching, and Szolkowy is interested in event management and organization. He also plans to marry his longtime girlfriend next summer.