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On July 19, 2018, the world learned the tragic news that Kazakhstan’s Denis Ten had been murdered in his hometown of Almaty. The news sent the global skating community into a state of shock and disbelief. Who and why were the questions everyone was asking.
News reports stated Ten confronted two thugs attempting to steal the side mirrors from his car on a street in Almaty. An altercation ensued, which ended with one of the perpetrators stabbing Ten in the upper right thigh, rupturing his femoral artery. Found by a passerby lying in the street, Ten was rushed to hospital. But he had lost three litres of blood, and though surgeons operated immediately, they were unable to save him. Ten died three hours after being admitted.
Two suspects were arrested and ultimately sentenced to 18 years hard labor for what can only be classified as a despicable and senseless act. One of the suspects had been arrested for stealing car mirrors in Astana a week earlier and was ordered not to leave that city. Apparently, Ten was not the first person he had stabbed. Online reports following Ten’s death indicate petty crime is widespread in Kazakhstan and that stabbings are not a priority for the police.
Beyond Kazakhstan’s borders, Ten was an unofficial global ambassador for a nation largely unknown in the western world. Among the most popular figure skaters on the planet, Ten was honored and respected for his commitment to the sport. The 25-year-old had amassed a legion of fans in life, and perhaps even more in death.
Inside Kazakhstan, he was revered and considered a national icon. Ten was the official ambassador for Almaty’s bid to host the 2022 Olympic Winter Games and was at the forefront when his nation entered the bidding process. It was a disappointing moment for him when the International Olympic Committee announced Beijing had won the bid.
The Associated Press reported that Ten had been working on a film script in recent months, which Timur Bekmambetov, a Kazakh-Russian director, said will be made into a movie. “We’re definitely going to try to realize his idea and shoot a film dedicated to this multi-talented person,” Bekmambetov said in a statement issued by the Kazakhstan Embassy in Russia. “In his 25 years, Ten managed to do very much and had grand plans which he would surely have put into practice because he was a really hard worker.” That promise has now been fulfilled.
Shortly before his death, Ten posted a short online video clip, wherein he likened life to a can of Coca-Cola. “In the beginning it’s dark, its bubbly, it’s sweet …and then suddenly it’s over. Life is so short.”
Ten was laid to rest on July 21 in Almaty. Around the world, Kazakhstani embassies invited fans to sign condolence books that would be ultimately passed on to his parents.
The images of the many thousands who attended his funeral is a testament to the love and respect his own people had for him. Some carried banners that read, “Forgive us, we could not save you.”
Those who knew him personally were shattered by the news — perhaps no one more outside his immediate family than his longtime coach Frank Carroll. “My secretary called me at 5:15 in the morning to tell me Denis had been murdered,” said Carroll, who had coached Ten since mid-2010. “Needless to say, I have not been in a great place. We were together all those years, through all the successes, through all the failures, through all the ups and downs, and Denis never stopped trying. We had six pairs of skates at one time, taking one skate from one pair and another from another pair. He just kept trying all the time to get the skates right with his really badly deformed feet, so he could skate. When he was in good shape, he was so brilliant and so magnificent to watch. And now he’s gone. There is such a void.
“He was such a good student. He would say, ‘Tell me what you want. I’ll do anything you want. Just tell me.’ That’s the way he was. But unfortunately, we would work hard for a few days and then he would be in such pain and be off the ice on crutches or not be able to skate. Denis never had the chance to work full out for long periods of time because of his injuries. He would work in spurts and then he would have to stop.
“With all the jumps, you have to do them every day and then you have a consistent performance. He was unable to do that, but I think Denis persevered because he really loved skating.”
Ten was a flower boy at 2005 Worlds in Moscow, where one of Carroll’s star pupils, Evan Lysacek, won the bronze medal. “Denis idolized Evan and always wanted to be like him,” Carroll said. “He always told me he wanted to skate like Evan and make people happy.
“Denis was scheduled to go to Toronto at the end of July to work with two of the most brilliant people in figure skating at this time — Lori Nichol, who was going to do a new short program, and David Wilson. The long program David did last season was so beautiful. Denis wanted to keep that program and David was going to work on it. I am so sad he didn’t get to use it.
“After all the crying, I have no more tears left. It is kind of like I am watching a movie and not in it, and I am going to walk out of the theatre and everything is going to be all right. It’s very hard to explain my limitless sorrow.”
Carroll said he understands in a way why Ten would have been protecting his car that fateful day. “Denis loved his cars, so I can understand he was defending something he loved.”
His grief was compounded by the fact that he tried to send flowers to Ten’s parents but was advised by the florist there was no wire connection to Kazakhstan. “It is very hard to be so far away and left out and not be in touch with them to express our sorrow. So, we don’t know what to do. We are kind of at a loss.”
Nichol, who had choreographed routines for Ten from 2010 to 2016, was all ready to craft a new short program for him — she had the music organized and ice time booked. Health reasons had forced her to cut back on the number of programs she crafted the last two seasons, so she was looking forward to collaborating with Ten once again. “I should be at the rink, seeing his smiling, delightful face,” Nichol said through her tears. “I should be on the ice right now working with him.”
Ten, she recalled, was a “multi-talented, complex genius. And I mean, truly a genius as an artist, an athlete and intellectually. When we worked together over those years, the process frequently mirrored where he was at in his life at the time. It was always a fine balance to have structure and discipline so that his ideas could flow and he could get the best of himself and not be overwhelmed by them. I feel we achieved that with ‘The Artist,’ ‘Caruso,’ and ‘Silk Road.’
“What broke my heart was that he was always in pain. I don’t remember a day where he trained feeling really good. He was very sensitive and he could feel even the slightest change in his foot or the blade. Denis was very in touch with his body and how it interacted, which is probably what made him so phenomenal as an artist. It was also why he would feel the slightest change and be bothered by it.
“He had a phenomenal pain threshold and a desire to carry on no matter what. He was a very strong young man. Skating was a huge joy for him, regardless of what it cost him physically, emotionally or financially. He absolutely loved it and it was an outlet for his other creative talents.”
Nichol said she spoke to Ten at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang following his disappointing short program. “He was not sure what to do. I just told him he has to do what makes him happy. The skating world will always need him.”
She recalled how Ten would get “this impish grin on his face and you could see the million thoughts going through his head and you would be waiting for them to come out. He was hilarious. Denis was a great humanitarian and universally loved. He was the most multi-talented, soulful, unique skater. There will only ever be one Denis Ten. Others can emulate others, but he was his own skater. He deserved so much more.”
Daisuke Murakami, who trained alongside Ten for six years, was devastated when he heard the news. “He was a natural, genuine, sincere person. I never felt like he had a bad bone in his body. I first met Denis in 2012 in Lake Arrowhead where we were both training with Frank. I could tell skating was his passion — he was almost like a mysterious person on the ice. It was all business. He would only talk to the coach he was working with and not be distracted, which I thought was a true champion mindset.
“But off the ice he was the most fun person — completely different to what he was like in training. In the locker-room or on a weekend away from skating, the Denis you saw on social media was what he was really like. He had a passion for photography and was always taking photos. Once, after a banquet at a Four Continents Championships in Korea, we ended up having a little photo shoot. He was telling us how to pose and what to do. His photos blew me away — I had no idea he was so multi-talented. I have a lot of great memories of him.”
In the summer of 2017, Ten went to work with Wilson on a new long program. Two years earlier a friend had sent him a clip of a young man performing a song in a singing competition in China — “S.O.S. d’un terrien en détresse,” from the French/Québécois cyberpunk rock opera, “Starmania.”
“It is about an earthling in distress, almost as if they are calling out to the heavens or the universe or extra-terrestrials to please help me,” Wilson explained. “It has a ‘this life is crazy’ kind of message.
“I had been watching Denis for years and loved him and his skating, so when he decided to come to me last summer, I was really excited. I started looking for music and then I remembered the piece my friend had sent. I thought, ‘this would be amazing.’ Denis was like a boy in a bubble. You didn’t really know what he was thinking or feeling, but I just had this sense that it might be interesting to him. So, I fired off an email to
him saying, ‘I can only find
clips of this song; I don’t
know if we can even find a
proper recording; I don’t know who this boy is but the song is incredible. I don’t know if you are interested in doing a French song — what do you think?
“Denis wrote back, ‘you are not going to believe this. I know exactly who this is. As a matter of fact, I just met him because he happens to be Kazakhstani.
“I had no clue. I thought he was Chinese — he was on a Chinese singing show. He has this unusual name Dimash (Kudaibergen). Denis sent me a picture of himself with the guy. They had met a week before my email at some function of famous Kazak people. Dimash told him then he would love to sing for him when he skated in a show or something. So they had already made a connection.
“Denis reached out to Dimash. He had never recorded the piece so we created a version of the song, edited it to what we wanted and sent it to him. Dimash went into the studio and recorded the song just for Denis. It was fantastic. When does that happen?
“It was so bittersweet last year. Denis struggled with injuries all season and couldn’t skate the program the way he wanted to. It is the kind of piece that really requires you to skate from deep within. But he loved the program so much. There was something about the song that actually touched him — the meaning of the words and the music that he connected with, and the connection with the singer and the nationalistic pride was great.”
Wilson thought Ten had retired after the 2018 Olympic Games, so he was surprised to receive an email from him in early July. “I decided to stay in the sport for another year and wanted to keep the Dimash program,” Ten wrote. “It would likely need some changes based on the new rules and perhaps some cosmetic updates. I was wondering if we could arrange that?”
Wilson wrote back: “Absolutely! Whenever you want to come, just come. I was thinking, ‘wow, we get another chance.’ When we finished the program last year his mother, who does not speak much English, had tears in her eyes. She said, ‘you brought out a side of my son that I have never seen before.’ So, I knew that there was something that spoke to him. I was thinking that now he has a chance to do this the way he wants to this season.
“The words of the song for the program kind of foretold what has happened in an eerie way,” Wilson added. “His death was so tragic. I still really can’t believe it. I was reading his email again the other night and I was tempted to respond — like, how can this be true?”
Everyone who knew Ten describes him as an intelligent, articulate, funny and engaging young man who remained humble despite his accomplishments and stature in his nation. Carroll referred to him as the “Prince of Kazakhstan.”
One of Ten’s biggest dreams was to invite the figure skating world to his homeland. He knew that if his nation were ever awarded a World Championships, the world would come.
Few in the western world had ever heard of Kazakhstan until Ten arrived on the international scene. Born in Almaty to Korean parents, the younger of two boys, Ten was part of that nation’s Korean minority. As the great-great-grandson of a Korean independence fighter, Min Geung-ho, Ten was immensely popular in both his native and ancestral homelands.
He first learned to skate on open-air rinks in the depth of winter. Ten recalled his mother dressing him in so many layers he looked like a cabbage on the ice.
At age 10, he and his mother moved to Moscow to train with Elena Vodorezova. Three years later, Ten made his debut on the Junior Grand Prix circuit, but success eluded him the first two seasons.
In his third year in the junior ranks (2008-2009), he captured his first medal (gold) at his second event in Gomel, Belarus, making him the first skater from Kazakhstan to medal at an International Skating Union (ISU) competition. He added to that historical note when he qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Final that season.
Two months later, Ten placed ninth in his senior debut at 2009 Four Continents and ranked eighth at the World Championships, earning two berths for his country at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. It was the first time his nation had ever qualified more than one Olympic entry in any figure skating discipline.
Ten placed 11th in his Olympic debut in Vancouver. Following his 13th-place finish at the World Championships a month later he met with Frank Carroll and asked if he could train with him. IFS European editor Tatjana Flade recalled that meeting in Torino, Italy.
“Denis and his mom wanted to meet with Frank, but Denis did not really speak English at that time so I translated for them. We had a secret meeting in a storage room at the ice rink,” Flade said. “It had always been Denis’ dream to train with Frank and he idolized Evan Lysacek.” Carroll agreed and an eight-year collaboration began.
The next three seasons were up and down for Ten, who landed on only one podium at a major international competition. A 12th-place finish at 2013 Four Continents, his worst result at that event in his entire career, marked a low point in his life. He was very disappointed he had skated so poorly and said, “when I got home, the first two days were bad.”
That season, his short and long programs were set to selections from “The Artist” and Ten was worried people might not understand the concept. He knew he had to skate both programs well so audiences and judges could appreciate what he was doing. That did not happen. Ten regretted that he “had such remarkable programs and did not perform them to their full potential.”
WORLD & OLYMPIC GLORY
In the month between 2013 Four Continents and Worlds, Ten made radical changes to his lifestyle. He increased his off-ice workouts and was mindful about his diet. He started training late at night and on weekends, noting at the time that, “while everyone else was resting, my day was still going full speed.”
What many did not know at that time was that he had suffered a right ankle injury in December, and shortly afterward he injured the left. It would be the beginning of a string of injuries that would haunt him for the remainder of his career.
The 2013 World Championships were a saving grace and an inspiration for Ten. The month of hard work and sacrifice paid off in London, Ontario, where he laid down a long program performance that brought the audience to its feet. His reaction at the end of his program, and again when his marks were announced, were medal-worthy in their own right.
Ten won the free skate over Patrick Chan and placed second overall, losing to the Canadian by just 1.3 points. Many in the skating world believed Ten was the actual victor that night, but he was accepting of the result and happy that he had made history as the first person from Kazakhstan to ever medal at. a World Figure Skating Championships.
Though he was excited about — and rightfully proud of — his accomplishment, the always-humble young man admitted he never believed he would finish the season on such a high note. “I didn’t sleep well these last two nights, I was so nervous. I was waiting for this moment so long.”
When he learned the then-president of Kazakhstan had sent a telegram to his federation congratulating him and his coach, he could barely believe it. “I had to ask, ′Really? The president of my country?′ I came a long way from skating like a cabbage to skating at Worlds.”
His victory in Canada brought with it high expectations and a lot of pressure in advance of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Ten acknowledged he felt a lot of responsibility “as the people in my country are now expecting a medal, preferably the gold, at the Olympic Games.”
However, injuries continued to haunt the then 21-year-old during the summer of 2013. An ankle infection, which caused black spots to appear, traveled to his jaw forcing him to have a tooth extracted. “I have so much bad luck concerning my health,” Ten mused.
In late 2013, he was scheduled to compete at an event in Austria, when misfortune struck again. One of his skates broke, so he was forced to compete with two different skates — one from a spare set and one from a new set, both made of different material.
Ten loved to tell the story of how the second pair of skates made it to him from his homeland. “I was training in Italy at the time and my father, who was bringing the second pair to me, got stuck at a checkpoint in Ukraine. So, my mother flew from Italy to Ukraine to retrieve them. That adventure took three days.”
At a practice session at the 2013 Winter Universiade that December, Ten reinjured his left ankle. He withdrew and was out of action for two months. He took a trip to the Graf factory to learn how his skates were constructed and said it helped him understand that the reason his skates were always very different was because they were handmade.
Following a fourth-place finish at 2014 Four Continents, he headed to Oberstdorf, Germany, to prepare for the Olympic Winter Games. But that preparation was short-lived after he reinjured his ankle in a practice session. Ten said his ankle had become so weak because he never had the time to allow the ligaments to properly heal and “it seemed like the problems never ended.”
Boot issues once again haunted him just prior to the Games in Sochi — something, Nichol saw as a sign of good luck. Then suddenly, in Russia, he started experiencing knee pain — something he had not known since childhood — just days before he was scheduled to compete. Ten said, “It was like someone had made a voodoo doll.”
Winning a medal in Sochi seemed a remote possibility after finishing ninth in the short program. Despite the fact that less than three points separated third and ninth, Ten was worried about the “11 other guys. It wasn’t just me who had a chance.”
A good-luck message from Lysacek, the 2010 Olympic champion with whom he trained in California, was an inspiration for Ten. “You don’t have to win them all, you only have to win once when it counts.”
The night of the free skate would be one Ten would never forget. He laid down the performance of his life, rising to third to capture the bronze medal, writing another piece of history for his nation. His accomplishment was even more significant given that Ten took home the only medal claimed by Kazakhstan at those Games. It made him a hero in his homeland.
Backstage in Sochi, Ten was reflective. “Last season I had a couple of sad fourth places and until the last moment, I thought maybe I will be fourth. I am glad that the fairytale had a happy ending.”
When told he was the only medalist from those Games who had never claimed a medal on the Grand Prix circuit, Ten replied: “I probably have the mindset that the more important the competition is, the better I skate.”
HIGHS AND LOWS
Ten initially considered retiring after the 2014 Games, but there were two reasons he chose to continue. He understood that if he retired, it would have a negative effect on the skating programs in his country. Ten’s goal was always to inspire young skaters and attract more people to take up the sport.
In his opinion, the development of sport should not only be viewed in terms of expense or medals and money won, but it should also be a socially efficient platform and that involving children in sporting activities leads to a healthier and stronger society.
He conducted seminars for young skaters and their coaches with that goal in mind, but the slow pace of progression frustrated him. “To be honest, figure skating is not developing as I would desire. I would like to change that. Maybe one day I will open my own athletic academy to develop a concept so that the children really will go in one direction. Right now, everything is floating around here. A strategy is lacking that everybody follows. I hope that this will work out.”
The second reason was the pressure from within his country to continue competing. Many assumed that because Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko made a comeback in his early 30s and brought glory to his nation, that Ten could also accomplish that feat. He was not so sure. “Evgeni is a legendary athlete, and I think only he can return to the sport like this.”
In 2014, Ten produced his first show on home soil, “Denis Ten & Friends: Olympic Energy.” It was a huge success with the Kazakhstani and international fans scooping every ticket within a matter of hours. Ten said it was “a great honor for me that so many people came. No one could imagine 16 years ago that one day so many figure skating stars would come to my country. At that time the sport didn’t even exist here.”
He learned from the experiences the skaters who performed in his show shared, and took the advice given to him by 2002 Olympic champion Alexei Yagudin — “Soak it in like a sponge but do your own thing” — to heart.
That same year, Ten graduated from the Kazakh Sport Academy and Tourism with honors and began working towards a master’s degree at the Kazakh-British Technical University, an institution that is affiliated with the Hollywood Film Academy.
He returned to work with Carroll in June that year and Nichol choreographed new programs the following month. Ten cancelled all his days off heading into and during the 2014-2015 season. He felt he accomplished more when he trained alone on the weekends.
With his injuries healed, Ten wanted to enjoy skating — something he felt had been missing from his life the past few years. “Somewhere, something was always hurting; equipment problems and stress in my daily life. Now I am trying to put less pressure on myself and continue to develop. In a comfortable setting, this is much easier.”
In November 2014, Ten finally claimed a Grand Prix medal — bronze at Trophée de France.
In early 2015 he scored a runaway victory at Four Continents and a month later mined bronze at the World Championships in Shanghai. Following the free skate, he revealed he had suffered a sprained ankle after Four Continents and undergone two surgical procedures before Worlds. His long program that season, which he and Nichol referred to as “Silk Road,” was considered one of his best.
In a 2015 interview with the New York Times, Ten said, “by coincidence I was born on the Silk Road, and the name of the street where my home was actually means ‘silk way’ in Kazakh. It’s a cool story, and I feel myself like I’m a nomad who explores the world.”
The following season did not go well. Suffering from lower back and hip pain, Ten failed to medal at any other competition and ranked 11th at the 2016 World Championships. Later that year, he skated into second place at Internationaux de France — taking home his second and final Grand Prix medal. It would be his only success that season.
His ankle injury continued to plague him and he withdrew from his second assignment, Skate America. At the 2017 World Championships, he finished in 16th place.
In August 2017, Ten sustained another severe ankle injury while preparing to perform in a show in Korea. This time he was on crutches for months, which made it impossible for him to prepare for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games the way he needed to.
He returned to the ice for the Grand Prix Series that fall, ranking ninth at Rostelecom Cup and eighth at Internationaux de France.
Haunted by illness and equipment problems, everything went downhill just two weeks before the men’s competition in PyeongChang when Ten tore his big toe. With little preparation, he headed into the Games hoping for the best. Backstage he said he woke up in pain every day, but also with hope.
In what was perhaps the most dismal performance of his career, Ten placed 27th in the short program and failed to make the cut for the free skate. It was a hard fall from his third-place finish just four years earlier. “My story deserves a TV show. It’s actually kind of funny. When I say it, it doesn’t sound real. I just had one problem after another,” he said of his pre-Olympic illness, injuries and equipment problems.
Though much had changed for the then 24-year-old, he was still as passionate about skating as he was in 2014 and described himself as “someone who loves the sport and the fans, and who is happy about his successes and upset about his failures.”
In an interview with the ISU last September, Ten said, “Independent of what happens in the future, I realize that I had a great career, where everything happened — highs and lows, medals and disappointments, nice memories and not so nice ones, unique events, meetings and many magical things.
“Somewhere, I realized that I was a really lucky person with a quite fulfilled sports life.” With files from Tatjana Flade
A gala event celebrating the life of Denis Ten will be held in Almaty on July 20, 2019. IFS will have full coverage of the show in the October issue.
A biography (in Russian and English) is currently in the works and is scheduled for release later this year. We will have full details about where you can purchase the book in a couple of months. All proceeds from the book sales will go to the Denis Ten Foundation. The editorial, photographs and book design were all gifted to the foundation.