The 2010 U.S. Championships in Spokane, Wash. was supposed to be the crowning achievement on Alissa Czisny’s résumé.
As the reigning national champion, she had history on her side. Every American ladies champion since 1955 who won the title the year prior to an Olympic Games had earned a spot on the Olympic team the following season. But Czisny had a disastrous outing at nationals and landed in 10th place.
Back home in Detroit, Mich., Czisny stepped away from skating to contemplate her future in the sport.
“In that time, I really searched inside myself to find what it was I wanted to do,” she recalled. “I decided that I wanted to not only continue skating, but also to continue competing. The one thing that I remember thinking was that I couldn’t leave skating knowing that I hadn’t reached my potential. I didn’t want to have any regrets.”
Czisny made the difficult decision to part ways with longtime coach Julianne Berlin and turned to former World champion Yuka Sato to take charge of her skating career.
“I had worked with Yuka in the past while I was skating with Julie. I looked elsewhere, trying to determine what would be best for me and where would be the best place for me to be,” Czisny explained.
“I really felt in my heart that this was where I wanted to be. Really, the only thing was whether or not Yuka would accept me as a student.”
Sato and her husband, Jason Dungjen, took on the battle-worn skater. The first order of business was to change her jump technique.
“After the Stars on Ice tour, we spent the rest of the summer working on the basics, which was frustrating,” Czisny admitted. “But it was a good challenge for me. I enjoyed thinking about all the little things that I needed to do in order to make my jumps stronger.
“It made me realize that in the past I didn’t have as much technique to think about on the jumps, and all of a sudden I had all of these things to remember about body position and such. That gave me something to begin to rely upon.”
Her jump technique was not the only thing that changed over the summer. “I finally realized that my results in skating didn’t define who I am as a person,” Czisny explained. “Just because I had a bad skate didn’t mean I was a failure, or because I had a good skate, that I was a better person because of it. Being able to separate the two freed me to believe in myself and my skating.”
Czisny also began to believe that she could be a factor on the competitive stage.
With these new weapons in her arsenal, the 23-year-old headed to Skate Canada, her first competition last season.
It is the only Grand Prix event at which she has ever claimed a title.
“Going into the competition, I didn’t really feel prepared because I had made so many changes,” Czisny admitted. “I felt that there was so much more that I still wanted to improve on before competing. I was extremely nervous because it was my first competition since nationals.”
Czisny won the competition, capturing her first Grand Prix title in five years with two of her best performances in recent memory.
“It was so sweet for me to be able to win another Grand Prix in Canada, where I’d won my first one five years before,” Czisny said. “I felt as though the results of that competition were a reassurance that I had made the right choices.”
She headed to the Midwestern Sectional Championships and earned a berth to compete at the U.S. Championships.
Though Czisny placed third at Trophée Eric Bompard and earned a berth at the Grand Prix Final, she felt she could have skated better.
“I was not happy with my performances in France. Neither program was good, but I learned many things from the competition,” Czisny said. “My intention was to qualify for the final, and that’s exactly what I accomplished. I was motivated to work even harder for the final.”
The most important event on Czisny’s November calendar was the wedding of her twin sister, Amber.
“The wedding was beautiful, and Amber looked like a princess,” Czisny said of her sibling, who is a figure skating coach. “I was thrilled to see \her so happy and to be her maid of honor.
“The wedding took place the week between sectionals and Trophée Eric Bompard, so I didn’t have to choose between competing and attending the wedding.”
Czisny headed to the final in China as a bona fide contender in what was perhaps one of the most important competitions in her career.
“The last time I qualified for the final, I felt I wasn’t good enough to be there,” Czisny admitted. “This time I felt as though I belonged, and that I was equally capable of winning as any of the other five girls.”
After taking the lead in the short program, Czisny held on to take the title with a respectable free skate, earning personal best scores in both phases of the event.
“Even though I went into the competition with the goal of winning, I was still a bit surprised that I actually won something as prestigious as the final,” she said with a hint of pride. “I felt as though I’d proved to myself and others that I truly was capable of being a better skater than I had been in the past. I was indeed a new Alissa.
“While that was certainly an amazing feeling, the most important thing I took away from the competition was that I learned I was capable of doing what I needed to do exactly when I needed to do it, even under intense pressure.”
In late January, Czisny headed to Greensboro, N.C. as one of the favorites to win the U.S. title. She did not disappoint. Her programs last season, designed to showcase the maturity of her skating, were in stark contrast to her usual, prototypical, balletic, character-driven persona.
The free skate in particular played to Czisny’s newfound confidence and was hailed as the signature piece of her career.
“When Pasquale Camerlengo [her choreographer] and I first began to look for music, we wanted something different,” she said. “We found another piece that would have been quite a departure for me, but we decided against it. When Pasquale played George Winston’s ‘Winter Into Spring,’ my eyes lit up. I knew exactly what I wanted to skate to.”
Czisny’s goal was to project the feeling that her skating was actually creating the music, rather than to just be seen as a competitor skating to a piece of music. At two especially poignant moments in that long program, Czisny used her hand as a wand, as if she were a conductor swirling notes into a musical cauldron and bringing them to life.
She received a standing ovation and claimed the title, her second in three years.
“I was overwhelmed with emotion as I finished the program. I thought back over everything that I’d experienced the last year. I was happy for my coaches, after all they had done to help me.
FIGURING IT ALL OUT
Czisny was tired when she headed to Taipei City two weeks later to compete at the Four Continents Championships. The stress of nationals and an almost 24-hour trip to Asia took their toll. Czisny landed in fifth place.
“I had put so much of myself into nationals that I was emotionally exhausted and not quite ready to train and compete again,” she admitted. “It was my fault for not being prepared mentally to compete in Taipei.”
Determined to be better prepared for the World Championships, Czisny returned home and threw herself into training.
When she learned that there was a possibility that Worlds could be cancelled, Csizny said she was devastated. “It had been my goal all year and I did not want to finish the season without being able to go to Worlds.”
Czisny said she was excited that Worlds were relocated to Moscow. “At this point I am just happy that Worlds is being held anywhere,” Czisny told IFS in late March. “I have been to Russia several times and I enjoy skating there so I am excited to go to Moscow and I am hoping to do well.”
Originally published in June 2011