Since she stepped off the ice at the 2014 World Championships in Saitama, Japan, life for Carolina Kostner has been turbulent to say the least.
Instead of basking in the glory of a successful season that culminated with a third place finish at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, Kostner became embroiled in a scandal that could have effectively ended her competitive career and tarnished her legacy.
Carolina Kostner’s legal woes took root in the summer of 2012 when her then boyfriend Alex Schwazer, the 2008 Olympic champion in the 50 km race-walk, was banned from competing in the Summer Olympics in 2012 in London after failing a doping test. He subsequently received a three-and-a-half-year ban from the sport.
However, the problems for Kostner were just beginning. In a subsequent enquiry into the case by Italian prosecutors, it became apparent that she had not been truthful with the WADA doping inspectors who had attended at her apartment in Oberstdorf, Germany, looking to conduct a random doping test on Schwazer. Though she later encouraged him to return to Italy and submit to testing, the damage was done.
Kostner subsequently became embroiled in a protracted legal battle with the Italian National Olympic Committee. Though she maintained she knew nothing about Schwazer’s doping, her protests were to no avail. In a judgment rendered by the Court of Arbitration for Sport on October 5, 2015, Kostner’s original punishment of a 16-month ban from competition was increased to 21 months. Backdated to April 1, 2014, it meant that she could not return to competition until January 1, 2016.
“The last two years have been quite a rollercoaster for me,” Kostner said. “A lot of things happened, both good and bad, but I tend to believe that there is always a good reason.”
During this dark period of her life, Kostner was sustained by the loyalty of people close to her, including family, friends and those involved in helping her navigate through the legal issues she faced.
“I was lucky enough to have a family that supported me and opened their arms. It was a long journey to get back to normality for the people that worked alongside me, but I think the work united us,” Kostner explained. “It created an intimacy that is very special. After dealing with all these very difficult and unpleasant things, finally, since Jan. 1, we can actually start dealing with pleasant things and that gives me a lot of energy and enthusiasm.
“You can always learn something from life experiences, and I truly did. I finally had the chance to spend time with my family. My brother is a hockey player. For the last two years, he has played in a team in the Italian hockey first league and I saw a whole lot of his games. They recently won their league cup. Our bonds just got closer, which was very nice since I had moved away from my family when I was 14.”
The time away from competition also gave Kostner the opportunity to explore and experiment with different art forms. “Art has been a big part of my family history. My grandfather was a lifetime artist and the head of the art academy in my hometown,” she said. “So I knew the interest was always there, but I never really knew what was going to happen in which direction. Now, slowly, I think I can direct that new understanding into my skating and use it as a force.”
Though Kostner has focused on the positives, it is clear that she still feels a sense of betrayal toward her former boyfriend who, through his actions, caused her a multitude of problems the past two years. “You are very disappointed and angry,” she said. “You want to know why, and you can’t understand because you cannot see or hear what is in somebody else’s head. I trusted a person and that trust just exploded into something bigger than it was or seemed. You are thrown into that and have to deal with it.”
Kostner’s first on-ice appearance after her ban ended was at the Kinoshita Group Cup Medal Winners Open, a pro-am event that took place in Osaka, Japan, on Jan. 15. She finished second behind Canada’s Joannie Rochette, despite not attempting any triple jumps in her program.
Three weeks later Kostner announced at a news conference that she planned to make her competitive return this September.
“You tend to see things from a different perspective and I discovered maybe one more time that I truly love my sport,” the 2012 World champion explained. “I truly love what I do and I feel that I have still so many things to learn. It’s motivating and inspiring, and has awakened my interest to find new ways to maybe do the same thing differently — maybe discovering a little bit more of the artistic side in me.”
From the sidelines, Kostner had watched a new generation of young and precocious talents from Russia dominate ladies’ skating the last two seasons, but she believes that she and other veterans such as Mao Asada still have a lot to offer the sport.
“It’s absolutely exciting that there will be two of us, especially since I had the chance to meet Mao outside of competitions — which was fantastic,” Kostner said in reference to the “Ice Legends” show that took place in Geneva in April in which she and Asada performed.
“I discovered that it was a nice moment to not just get to know each other, but to actually exchange experiences. For me, Mao has been absolutely inspiring with her journey and what also happened in her life. I can learn so much from her and I think we can be a good force, a counter-balance maybe to a completely different style, which are the little ladies coming from Russia.”
The Italian star firmly believes that there is plenty of room in figure skating for different types of skaters, and that winning or losing is now secondary to expressing herself on the ice. “The beautiful part of our sport is that there is no measurement that says, ‘You’re better than that.’ You go out there with your vision, your character and your personality and try to do your best,” said Kostner. “The beautiful fact is that we can inspire people, not only in competitions but also in shows. We can create a situation where maybe people can feel joy in watching. At the very end, the medal does not matter so much.”
During her time away from the sport, Kostner also took ballet classes and observed how, in that discipline, ballerinas come into their prime at a much more advanced age than female figure skaters. She feels that this is something that could change figure skating and take it to another level.
“If you look at the ballet world, they devote a lot more time to the education of the ballerina — the schooling and everything. When they are between 25 and 35, that is when they are mature enough because their technique is based. What completes this is the artistry and that comes with maturity and life experience.
“I was lucky enough to be able to learn and master skating technique at a very young age. I had my difficult moments, like everyone, but now is my chance to evolve into something much deeper than just a technical skater.
“This is what makes figure skating complete for me. I mean, there are so many girls that can do a triple Lutz well, but it’s not the triple Lutz that makes the difference now. It’s how the music is interpreted and how skaters make you feel the music and the choreography of a program. That’s what is now figure skating.”
BACK IN THE GAME
There is no doubt Kostner is enjoying her return to the ice after such a lengthy absence. At “Ice Legends,” she skated a number of routines as part of an ensemble that included Asada, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, and Stéphane Lambiel.
Those collaborations exposed her to new ideas that she is hoping to incorporate in her performances next season. “I spent a few moments with Tessa because the duet I did with Stéphane was quite a new thing for both of us,” Kostner said. “I asked Tessa,
‘Well, I have to do this, this and this. Can you show me the easiest way or what, in your opinion, is the best?’
“To have those kind of experiences, to help each other empowers and unites people. It creates something full of energy and it’s a very special environment. It gives wings to the whole thing. I hope that I can take the positive out of what I learned in the last two years, and bring it into my skating to maybe create something new and something different. You always want to go forward.”
Kostner said the most important thing she realized during her time away from the ice is that she is not done with skating. “What I learned out of all this is to keep an open mind; to expand my horizons, keep my eyes open and say, ‘This is not it.’ I am lucky enough to have a gift and to be able to share this gift with a lot of people that may feel joy by coming to watch me skate. I don’t want to give up on that.”
Now that the nightmare of her legal battles is behind her, Kostner is focused on the future. She has a far more carefree approach when it comes to skating and said she will be content with whatever transpires going forward. “You never know what is going to happen. I think for me the Olympic Games in Sochi showed that the best way to experience life is not to expect. I don’t want to say you should not want miracles to happen, but just believe in your dreams.
“You start moving in the direction of your dreams, but you don’t know where you are going to end up. Maybe you are going in one direction but your direction is another way; then you end up somewhere and you discover that it is even better in ways that you could not have imagined.”
(Originally published in the IFS August 2016 issue).