She had been told that she was too old and that her body shape was not suited to pairs skating. And when Valentina Marchei, a singles skater her entire career, started trying pairs moves with Ondřej Hotárek last summer, her coach felt it was a crazy idea and did not want to be involved.
But six months later, Marchei, 28, and Hotárek, 31, silenced their critics when they twirled into fourth place in their debut at the European Championships.
The unlikely pairing of Marchei and Hotárek came about while both were at a training camp in Italy last summer. Marchei, a six-time national singles champion who won her first title 11 years ago, placed fourth at the 2013 European Championships and finished 11th at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. She has always enjoyed singles skating but said she had been interested in pairs skating for a long time. “I always dreamed about it, but people told me I was too old, that there was a lot to learn and that my ligaments or tendons were not strong enough,” she recalled.
Hotárek was on the verge of retiring from competition after he and his longtime pairs partner, Stefania Berton, parted ways in the spring of 2014. Hotárek and Berton had been successful on the international stage, and had claimed Italy’s first Championship medal in pairs at 2013 Europeans. “My idea was to start teaching. I was not even trying to look for a new partner,” Hotárek explained.
During a coaching session at the camp, Hotárek joined his students on the ice. “Valentina and I started jumping side by side, and it looked really nice. One thing led to another,” he said. “I want to try this; I want to try how it is in the lift and, at some point, we just said, ‘Why don’t we try it?’”
Marchei’s coach, Franca Bianconi, was shocked when she saw what her student and Hotárek were attempting. “She said, ‘I don’t want to know this. When you do this, do not do it in front of me because it is dangerous for you, Vale,’” Marchei recalled. But it was not long before Bianconi changed her opinion after witnessing what the duo was able to do. “When the fourth try of the throw triple Lutz worked, she was like, ‘What the hell?’” Marchei explained with a laugh.
“Basically, on the second day, Valentina wanted to do a triple throw,” Hotárek recalled. “She was not afraid to do the lifts, and everything just started to happen. It was pretty easy, just like playing around.”
“It was as crazy as it was natural,” Marchei added. Bianconi wanted a second opinion and sent the skaters to Montréal for three weeks to work with Canadian pairs coaches Richard Gauthier and Bruno Marcotte. “They were positive, and they helped with our communication and how we interacted on the ice,” Marchei said.
Hotárek agreed, adding that his pairs skating elements also improved during that time. They turned to former ice dancer Massimo Scali to choreograph their short program to Ernesto Lecuona’s “Malagueña.” Bianconi and Corrado Giordani crafted the free program to the “La Strada” soundtrack.
Marchei and Hotárek made their international debut at the Warsaw Cup in late November. The duo placed third with 154.60 points but more important, they earned the minimum scores required to compete at the 2015 World Championships. Two weeks later, they twirled into second at the Golden Spin of Zagreb. Their combined score of 167.18 was an improvement of almost 13 points over what they had earned in Warsaw. In late December, Marchei and Hotárek claimed their first national pairs title and earned a trip to the European Championships.
The duo turned in two solid performances in Stockholm. They opened their free program with a side-by-side triple Lutz, a jump that only one other team at the senior international level is attempting this season. Marchei and Ondřej Hotárek landed in fourth with a new personal best score of 175.39. “It almost didn’t feel like a debut,” said Hotárek, who has competed in pairs at the international level since 2006. “It almost felt like, … you know, I’ve been here forever. We just did the stuff together.”
Marchei said they had achieved more than they had anticipated. “To do well in the short was a big thing already. We didn’t expect more than that. It felt so good to be in the last group for the free skate. “We were in a kind of easy position, not really fighting for a medal. So, for this year, we agreed we should enjoy this now because next year might be different.”
Though everything has come together quickly for this team and they have progressed at a rapid pace, both admit there have been hurdles to overcome. “When we started, it was very hard on Valentina because sometimes I would forget that it had been only a few months that she had been doing pairs. Sometimes, I would get frustrated,” Hotárek admitted.
Marchei also had her own moments of frustration. She recalled one instance when they were working on their short program with Scali. “Massimo is Italian, and he knows me very well,. Sometimes, he’d say, ‘Vale, how come you don’t look at him? Don’t look for the hand; just go for it.’ And I would say, ‘I have never done this before.’”
Another problem they have had to deal with is money. With no funding, they have had to pay for everything themselves. “We touched our reserves. We didn’t have a choice — we had to go and be good right away, and we needed the money to do that,” Marchei explained. “These are the rules. When you start from zero in a new category, you cannot say you are going to work with the best choreographer because you just can’t afford it,” Hotárek added. “We already had to pay for the ice and the coaches. We couldn’t spend any more money. It was everything or nothing. We said, ‘We either do it the best, or we quit.’
“If the season had not gone as well as it has, we probably would have sat down after Europeans and said we should stop wasting our money.”
While other skaters their age are thinking about retirement, Marchei and Hotárek are embracing this exciting challenge. “Our strength is that we do it for ourselves,” Marchei said. “Starting from zero means that you appreciate the little steps you take and appreciate how much you have achieved with nothing, other than just the right, positive people around you, the right guides and the right partner.”
Hotárek agreed. “Who would have imagined that, after 10 years in pairs, I would be able to land a triple Lutz in competition? The last time I did a triple Lutz in competition, I was maybe 15 years old,” he recalled. “The thing is that, for me, it’s a challenge, and I feel younger and younger every day. You push your limits, but that’s how you feel when you still have so much to give.”
He recalled the initial reaction of some people to his pairing with Marchei. “So many people criticized us because we didn’t have a connection. It seemed like they were saying it because they did not want to believe that this could actually work,” he said. “Now those people have forgotten that, and they look at us as a pairs team.”
Marchei appreciates the opportunity to complete in a new discipline and is happy that she discovered it before it was too late. “I probably wish I knew I had this ability to do pairs before, but I don’t regret anything,” she said, adding that the most difficult elements for her are the twist, the death spiral and the spins.
After a decade of flying solo, the hardest thing for her to learn was to compromise — not with her partner, but with herself. “It was not about trusting Ondřej because he made me trust him right away. But I always used to do everything myself, so the hard part was to compromise with myself and let myself be attached to somebody else,” she explained. “It is totally different from singles skating. I look at Ondřej and attach myself, which is totally different, but it’s so nice. A victory shared is worth 10 times more than one you have by yourself. I still perform alone, but now I feel there is something missing; I am incomplete now when skating alone.”
Following a short break after the European Championships, the team returned to Montréal to work on their technique with Gauthier and Marcotte. “At Worlds, we want to be more competitive than we were at Europeans. Worlds are harder, and there are more pairs,” Hotárek said. “We want to stand out, and we want to work our way up. We’re not going to do this for one season or two. It is too much hard work. We have a four-year plan.”
In Shanghai, Marchei and Hotárek twirled into ninth in the short program with a personal best score. “Everything went well. It is the first time that scored over 60 for the short,” Hotárek said. “After Europeans we improved our speed and we are much faster now. It took a lot of hard work and we kept practicing to secure a good performance.”
A problem on the final lift cost them dearly in the free program, and they wound up in 11th place overall.“I am sorry about the missed lift but we still enjoyed the moment. It is beautiful to be here with a partner after competing at seven Worlds in singles,” Marchei said.
“We had no expectations coming here. We wanted to be more competitive than we were at Europeans,” Hotárek added. “Worlds are harder, and there are more pairs. but we wanted to stand out. We know we have to work our way up. We’re not going to do this for one season or two. It is too much hard work. We have a four-year plan.”
Marchei concurred. “The Olympics are on the radar for sure because, otherwise, we wouldn’t have put ourselves into this little game. But as of now, today, we want just to show that there is another pair that is competitive and one that has a lot to offer.”