Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, 23, finished fourth at Russian nationals in what was probably the toughest ladies competition on the planet. In this exclusive interview, she spoke about learning the quad, the current state of ladies skating and why nationals was a “victorious defeat” for her personally.
You had a great 2014-2015 season, winning Europeans and Worlds, and now you seem to have gotten a second wind this season with two triple Axels in the free skate and learning a quad toe. Can you talk about this evolution?
I’d say that I got this second wind last season, and I caught it again this year. If you want to continue to be competitive you cannot stagnate — you need to make progress and up the difficulty. Therefore, I had to do the flip-toe (combination in the short program) and two triple Axels (in the free). For me, as an athlete that takes her job seriously, it wouldn’t make sense to continue if I am not competitive. So, I had to make the program more difficult, even though I didn’t know in that moment if I was able to do so.
You have always been a courageous person, and now it seems that you have overcome a mental barrier to suddenly do two triple Axels and a quad. What happened that led you to make this breakthrough?
Actually, I don’t know. With each year, I get more experience and more understanding of what I can do. I did the Axel, then I did two, then I started to learn the quad toe. I guess it’s simply because I started to believe more in myself and things started to work out. I started to perform more consistently, and Alexei Nikolaevich (Mishin) is constantly instilling in me that I’m in a very good and coordinative shape. That is, he believes in me and he is always telling me that I can do it. This helps me and I start to believe it myself to a certain degree.
Why is it so hard for you to believe in yourself?
I guess I’m just that kind of person. I first see everything bad and then, when something good happens, I can enjoy it. For me, confidence and self-assurance are kind of close to each other and I can never find that line between that and becoming overconfident. For me, it is easier to be more down to earth so that if things are good, it is really cool. If things are not so good, it’s fine and it doesn’t throw me off.
Daniil Gleikhengauz told us in an interview that you, with your technical ability, potentially could have learned all quads maybe with the exception of the loop. He said you could have done it earlier, but it was not necessary. Were you motivated by the rise in technical levels in ladies’ skating?
Yes, of course. It is a necessity. That is, if you want to be in the trend, to be among the leaders of the sport, you need to develop and go for quads — to say it directly. Yes, probably Daniil is right to a certain degree, but for now I’m sticking with the quad toe loop. I’ve been working only on it to make it consistent.
I remember you said in a 2015 interview that we did — after you won your World title —you wanted to learn the quad toe, and we have waited for the quad toe.
Did I? I don’t even remember. I just tried it once as a child — just for fun. I under-rotated it about 40 percent and I fell. I was like 13 years old at the time and I had just started doing the Axel. Now it was a conscious decision of a grown up woman to realize I need to do the quad. Obviously, these are completely different feelings.
When did you seriously start working on the quad toe?
I worked on it really seriously every day after the Grand Prix in China. Ten days later I landed the first one.
How did that feel?
It was great! First of all, I imagined already how it would be. That is, I pictured myself having done the quad already. And when I did it, I got goose bumps. I thought, ‘My God, it happened!’ I was immensely happy because I didn’t learn it for a year or two — I learned it in 10 days basically. I thought, ‘Where was this Lisa before? Why?’ Maybe this is why my career is so long because it develops over a long time, step by step. I’m apparently such a slowpoke. For me, it was a step forward. I am immensely grateful to Alexei that he talked to me so calmly and in the right way. He told me the right things. He tells me a mistake, I fix what he said, and it is easier right away. Just a detail, but this is brilliant. And I did the quad, that’s it.
It looked so easy in the video from practice?
When you train it and catch the same consistent feeling, it absolutely doesn’t take more strength than the Axel. It is even easier to some degree because it is more controlled. That is, if you don’t take off the right way on the Axel that’s it, it is a failure. If it’s the quad, you can correct it a bit. If I caught the quad, I can do it consistently in practice. But here, in a stress situation with only one minute left (in the warm up) … I just started warming up the quad … I realized that I didn’t think it through to the end, and I just didn’t manage to prepare.
People have seen that you can do this jump, but nobody probably thought that you would do it at Russian nationals. To do it in training is one thing, but to do it in competition is another. You can do one element and then miss everything else.
I had some concerns because of that, but I just pulled myself together and I thought — no more falls! I fought until the end. But, I didn’t know until the end with what content I would go to nationals. It was very hard to decide. In one practice I felt the quad, then in another practice I didn’t feel it — and there was very little time to skate the program with the quad and the triple Axel. There was critically little time. Here at the Championships, I realized that I’m going for an all-or-nothing gamble. There is nothing to lose and it was a good time to try it. Nevertheless, it was a good experience.
You wanted to go for it, but what about your coach?
He also wanted it. He gave me reasonable arguments why I need to do this quad and I totally agreed with him and went for it.
Was this decision very last moment?
No. Not in the least. In principle, I understood that I’m doing it in practice not just like that. The final decision to do it was probably taken in the morning practice because you don’t know how your body will behave and, after all, you need to look at two possible versions of the program.
Because you know that you are moving forward are you satisfied with the outcome of these Championships?
Yes, exactly. As I said already in other interviews, Alexei Nikolaevich put it in a good way: ‘a victorious defeat.’ This is exactly what it is, a victorious defeat. It was a victory for myself, and a step forward.
Last year you missed nationals, which could have been a successful event for you if you hadn’t fallen sick. What were your thoughts going into nationals this year?
I didn’t sit out the whole year. After all, I competed at the Russian Cup Final and I ended the season on a very high note at the World Team Trophy. I started the season with a good mood and inspiration. To nationals I travelled with nervousness, to put it mildly. This is already a syndrome of the Russian Championships because I perfectly understand the situation in figure skating today. For me, it was just important to skate well and to get a spot on the national team. That was my goal — to prove that I am capable, I am fighting and I am developing.
Nevertheless, there was this syndrome of nationals until the short program. Then everything went well. I didn’t travel to nationals with the feeling that whatever happens, happens. The most important thing was just to show that I am not just regarded as Lisa Tuktamysheva.
You said you were very nervous before the short program. Is Russian nationals the most nerve-wracking competition for you?
Yes, always. It’s the Russian nationals syndrome. Everyone knows, everyone says this is the most important event of the season and everyone is nervous. I see that. It is different when you compete at Russian nationals than at Europeans or the Grand Prix, even though these competitions are, in theory, ranked higher.
You are a very experienced skater and you have been to many Russian nationals. How do you deal with nerves?
Well, I can say that it was easier for me when I was younger. Now, even though I understand everything very well, there is still inside me that little Lisa that was saying, ‘It’s Russian nationals…’ This is a very strange condition. You lose to yourself. Many times there have been very upsetting defeats at nationals, upsetting falls and so on. Nationals is the deposit for the whole season, therefore this is one of the most important competitions. You don’t want to lose your name and you don’t want to show that you are in bad shape. You know that you are in great shape so that you can skate your program well even in a stressful situation like that.
What feedback did you get from judges and officials after trying the quad toe?
(Valentin) Piseev (honorary president of the Russian Figure Skating Federation) came to me and praised me. He said: ‘Well done that you went for it.’ It was actually very nice to hear that. It was very important for me to hear this from these people that it wasn’t for nothing and that taking the risk was justified. I also saw a lot of messages on social media. I was shocked and I think that notably because of this feedback I wasn’t sad for even one second. I was so impressed by what people wrote. I thought all this is not that serious and then, when reading it I thought woah! Apparently everything is not that bad.
While the young ladies do the quads now a lot of people are saying it remains to be seen if they will be able do them later. You are now the living example that everything is possible.
Yes, of course. However, why did Alexei Nikolaevich take me into his group? Because I had jumps. He saw that I was jumping high as a child. Jumps are my specialty. And even though I am now the personification of mature female skating, I still have that ability to jump. I have strong muscles, I am not the skinniest girl, but I have explosive muscles and they help me. I don’t know how inspiring it is, but also some others like Mariah Bell and Bradie Tennell are taking that step (to learn the triple Axel). However, they are taller and it helped me that I am short. I have curves, but the height does play a role. And this helped me to learn the quad.
What do you think prompted this development? Was it only the psychological barrier that you overcame or did something change in your training?
No, there were no major changes. I just became more consistent in practice. When you are upgrading the difficulty, the simple things come easier to you. When you are learning triples and quads, there are fewer mistakes on the triples. You realize that you became a better version of yourself than you were a year or two ago. I compared Russian nationals now to two years ago. Then I had a triple toe-triple toe, a triple Lutz and a double Axel in the short program and in the long program I had a triple toe-triple toe and all the other triples. This year I’m doing a quad, triple Axel, triple flip-triple toe, which I’ve never done before. If you had told me two years ago that I would do this in a short while…
You always need to believe in your abilities?
Yes, but it is not that easy.
After Miki Ando only a few ladies tried quads in practice and now we have quite a few doing them in competition. In your opinion, where does this wave of quads the ladies are now doing come from?
It is the competition. Everyone wants to be the leader and everyone wants to be competitive. If you want to be competitive, you need to do quads. Everyone knows that if a great skater is now doing her program with triples, a skater with two quads will beat her. There is a big difference between those who made that step forward and have a quad and those who are sticking with triples. You can’t get to the top unless the ones with quads fail. Alina Zagitova would be competitive, but it is very hard against the quads and triple Axels. Therefore, everyone wants to do it. And what is the point of competing if you know that you can’t win?
In the past it was something special if you did a triple-triple combination and now everyone is doing them. Do you think that the development in the ladies will be the same as the men — that many will start doing quads?
Not so soon, but eventually for sure. In my opinion, Sasha Trusova and Anna Shcherbakova are unique athletes that can master three, four of five quads in the free skate. This is something impossible for me, just physically knowing how much strength I need to do the quad toe and the triple Axel in the program. This is really hard and only very few can do that. I think there will be a development and girls will be doing quads, but it will be only one or two maximum. It is physically hard to do so many quads. Nathan Chen can do it, but he is the only one of the men and we have two girls that can do it.
Yuzuru Hanyu also landed five quads at the Grand Prix Final, but then he didn’t have energy left for the triple Axel.
I didn’t see it, but it is very hard to skate that content clean.
You and your coach always look for new choreographers and you mount new and interesting programs each season. However, you often go back to a previous program. Can you talk about that?
Alexei Nikolaevich sees it as a development to mount new programs. For instance, he suggested “Oblivion” so that I feel the “skateability,” the speed, and that I understood how I could skate the “Drumming Song” program. I loved this program that Shae-Lynn Bourne choreographed for me, but Alexei Nikolaevich saw me being antsy in it, even though it is this kind of dance style and then suggested “Oblivion.” I broke in that program and once I did that I asked to go back to Shae-Lynn Bourne’s program because I wanted to show it. I like it, the costume, the energy — everything came together. We changed the free skate because I really liked last year’s and I didn’t want to change it as I didn’t skate it enough.
If I had skated it for the whole season, it would have been a different story. But I didn’t have that many competitions to have fun with it. And this program is just great. You cannot finish it in a bad mood, no matter how you skate. Last season I had two great programs in which I felt comfortable. Everyone was pleased and therefore we didn’t touch anything. When there are issues, Alexei Nikolaevich likes to take care of them instead of waiting until they go away by themselves. He is always solving the problem somehow. We’re always working on something.
Alexei Mishin said that perhaps you will not go to another competition this season but you will focus on building new programs?
Yes, we want new short and free programs because now there is quite some time. A new program at the end of the season is a development. Therefore, even if we don’t want to change the program and want to keep it for a second year, the rule is to always mount a new program. I think we’re going to mount not just one but several programs.
With which choreographers do you want to work?
Most likely I’ll do a program with Stéphane Lambiel. I don’t know yet if it’s the short or the free, but we’ll do something with him — at least that is the plan. As for the second choreographer, I don’t know yet, but I’d like to work with Lori Nichol because I really like what she is doing — how she did “Schindler’s List” for Satoko (Miyahara). I watch her programs and I like them a lot. I want to see myself in different characters. Lori feels the people and might open something new in me. We all have different sides and you want to show everything, use everything. I also love Shae-Lynn Bourne’s work. But it is not clear yet what will happen in the end.
What other plans do you have now? Will you perform in some shows?
Actually, I’ll have my own show, on March 9, “Tuktamysheva’s Hot Ice,” in St. Petersburg. This will be organized with the help of the St. Petersburg Federation and Alexei Mishin. He made me this little present for me. I’ll take part in everything that concerns the show — the name, the list of participants. Betina (Popova) will be there for sure. I’ll invite Russians because there is not enough money to invite foreigners.
It sounds like you are excited about this project.
Yes, it’s cool. I want that everything will be in my style — bright, cool, fun, lighthearted and modern. So it won’t be a classical show where the stars are invited and everyone is performing one after the other. I want it to be in my style. I think it could be interesting.
Will you select the music for everyone?
Maybe yes. I won’t pick it for everybody, but I’ll tell them what style of music I want and they can try to do something themselves.
As you are the first substitute for Europeans, you need to keep in shape.
Yes, but anyway, when you are skating and you are learning something new, you don’t lose your shape that much even if you don’t skate the programs. Everything will be fine.
(The Russian version of this interview is available on the Russian Figure Skating Federation website),