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The Olympic season was a disaster for Maxim Kovtun, and a year ago it seemed that the three-time European medalist had finished his competitive career.
Plagued by injuries, he withdrew from one competition after another. Kovtun placed 12th in the short program at 2017 Skate America — and then withdrew citing back and knee injuries. Following a 16th place finish in the short program at 2018 Russian nationals, he then withdrew from that competition. It seemed his once promising career was at an end without him ever realizing his full potential.
“My life was hell. Bad things were going on in my life. My head was in a muddle, I didn’t know what to do. My weight … There were many problems,” said Kovtun, unwilling to share any further details.
The then 22-year-old was forced to make a choice: continue competitive skating or retire. “One day I sat down and realized that I cannot accept that my life goes nowhere,” he recalled.
In January 2018, Kovtun joined an ice show in St. Petersburg portraying the role of “Drosselmeyer“ in “The Nutcracker,” and performed in 40 shows in a two-week span. “I wanted to let go, not think about anything,” he explained. “I took part in Ilia Averbukh’s show, spent some time with my parents and did what I wanted to do. At this time, I decided for myself, ‘that’s it, I’m done with competing.’ I put on weight and in the show I did only triples, nothing more. I felt great and it was a good experience jumping in the dark. Physically, I had to last through three shows a day.
“For the first time I realized what real life is. I was always inside the sport, and when something didn’t work, I had thoughts like, ‘I won’t get lost. They will call me and everything will be fine.’ When I was confronted with real life, I understood that things are not like that. Everywhere people are fighting for their place and everybody fights for himself.”
Kovtun took some time to weigh his options and made the decision to give competitive skating another shot. In an interesting twist, his former rival Evgeni Plushenko played a role in his decision. The relationship between the two men had not been the best since 2014 nationals. Kovtun won the event over Plushenko but Plushenko was selected for the sole men’s spot at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
Inna Goncharenko, with whom Kovtun had trained the previous season, had moved to Plushenko’s academy to work after leaving CSKA Moscow in January 2018. Kovtun said he and Plushenko spoke on the phone and then had a meeting to discuss his options. “Before starting to train with Zhenia, I asked my parents and friends for advice. I also asked Ilia Averbukh for his opinion. He told me that this is a chance, why not try one more time.”
In February, Kovtun called his father, a figure skating coach in his hometown of Ekaterinburg, to tell him that he was returning to competition. “He took it as a joke,” Kovtun said.
He recalled Plushenko’s advice when he first began training at his academy. “At the first practice, Zhenia told me that, ‘from this moment, you’re nobody. You don’t have titles; you are just a skater who came from a village — just Maxim.′ And we started everything from scratch. Zhenia pushed me a lot during practices and convinced me that I should not look back, just ahead. Everything became easier for me. I really felt the huge desire to train.”
However, the situation at the academy was not perfect. The ice surface is smaller than standard size and there were many children learning to skate. Kovtun felt he could not train efficiently under those conditions, so he asked if he could return to CSKA Moscow to work with his former coach Elena Buianova (nee Vodorezova).
“At first I wrote her a message, then I called, and we met. Obviously, she was in shock. She didn’t expect this at all. We talked for more than two hours and after that talk she thought about it for a long time. On April 1, I received a message that I should come to the coaches’ office. I took my skates and began training that day at 4 p.m. I realized that a new life had started.
“I have realized a lot of things in the past months. In the life of each athlete, there are times when you work without putting your soul into it. In these moments it seemed to me that if I stopped competing everything would be great. But then I realized that the feeling of not having reached my potential would just devour me in the future.
“I also realized that I should not talk much or make promises. I just have to switch on my head and prove it on the ice. Maybe I had to go through all that because understanding comes from making mistakes. Better late than never.”
However, his comeback has not been easy. Kovtun has had to regain the trust of his coach and the Russian figure skating federation. He had shown so much promise earlier in his career, winning medals at Europeans and on the Grand Prix circuit, but he had also often disappointed and failed to meet the goals set for him. A lot of people had written him off completely.
“I need to regain the trust of people, and of the fans that un-followed me on social media,” Kovtun said. “Obviously, there are loyal fans, whom I know by name. The others want to see results. If there is a result, they love you. If there is no result, the love is gone. But it is like that in all sports.”
His coaches, Buianova and Alexander Uspenski, set strict conditions for his return. He had to lose weight in a short time and if he did not get his weight down to 70 kilograms, they would not take him to a summer training camp. Kovtun lost almost 12 kilograms in three weeks, following a strict diet that a friend, a nutrition specialist, had put together for him.
He also started a training diary, writing down everything he did in practice, what worked, and what did not. He got that idea at university where he is currently studying for a diploma and said the diary helps him keep his head straight.
After practice sessions, Kovtun discusses everything with Uspenski, writes down the elements he did or didn’t do and assesses what he has improved on. His training now follows a strict regimen. “Thanks to that, every day is fruitful compared to what I used to do,” Kovtun said. “When I go to practice, I do exactly the same thing every day, like a robot. I had to get used to that, but now I can do everything with my eyes closed. Even on tough days, I fulfill this plan and it takes me into battle condition, no matter what condition I am in.”
The result has been a consistency in training that has transferred into his competitions. Kovtun won 2018 Tallinn Trophy — his first competition since March 2017 — by 13.30 points over the American Vincent Zhou.
A couple of weeks later Kovtun competed at the national championships in Saransk. Holding a narrow lead over Mikhail Kolyada after the short, Kovtun nailed all but one of his jumps (a quad toe) in his “Carmen” free skate and captured the title in convincing fashion. It was his fourth national victory (2014, 2015, and 2016). His mentor and long-time supporter, coaching legend Tatiana Tarasova, who was commentating for Russian television, broke down in tears as she witnessed this unlikely comeback.
Kovtun remained calm and cool about his success. “Without doubt, I am satisfied I did my job, which was to return into the national team and to prove that I still exist,” he said. “But there were also minuses. There was a major mistake in the short and also in the free. The impression of my programs would have been better without these mistakes and I would be completely happy had I skated clean. Nevertheless, I took a step toward that goal and will continue to work in that direction.
“The week before nationals I made not a single mistake in practice on the quad Salchow and quad toe. This kind of work allowed me to get in training mode before the competition because everything has been done a thousand times. Even if the adrenaline is kicking in and distracting me, I can overcome it and execute the elements well.”
Leaving his comfort zone has been the key to his success. “I always feel discomfort in practice, and in competition it can’t be comfortable. There is always something not quite right, something hurts, or something distracts me,” he said. “I have to learn not to pay attention to these things. Even if something hurts, I still have to skate.
“Some practices are easy, but I actually enjoy them less than those days when I overcome myself and fulfill all my tasks. That is a step forward. When everything is good and your body does the quads — like, by itself — there is less benefit from that.”
Kovtun plans to keep the jump content he currently has — a quad Salchow and toe in the short and three quads (two toes and one Salchow) in the free — for the remainder of the season, but wants to improve the quality of his elements. “I want to add a lightness and not have people going waaaah! (being anxious) when I do a jump,” he said. “Currently, we are focusing on me being able to show my best when it counts.”