Despite the coronavirus pandemic playing havoc with the skating schedule on both the domestic and international levels last season, Michal Březina found a lot of positives in the change of pace.
With limited competitions on the skating calendar in the fall of 2020, Březina was looking forward to the only Grand Prix he was scheduled to contest — Skate America in late October — but just weeks prior to the event he suffered an injury during a training session, which forced him to subsequently withdraw. “I was doing a run-through and as I went into a triple Axel, my blade got caught in a rut that someone had caused going into a Salchow or loop — some edge jump — and my foot got stuck,” the Czech star explained.
“I still went into the jump but I ended up with my feet above my head and I landed on my back. I went to the doctor who told me it was basically just a bruise. I had an X-ray and an MRI and they did not show anything, but the doctor told me I should take a couple of days off to give my back a little bit of a rest.
“I am not the youngest one in this game anymore, and the doctor wanted to make sure that I was not going to get re-injured by pushing it too early. So I could not really do anything for a day or two. After that, I was allowed to skate but I could not do any jumps for two weeks. That happened a few weeks before Skate America, so I had one week to get ready for that competition. My coach, Rafael Arutyunyan, said it would not be a big deal if we did not go. He just wanted me to be healthy. So we decided to scratch it. I was still in OK shape, but Rafael did not want to go to a competition just in ‘OK shape.’”
His competition hiatus was further extended on Dec. 10 when the International Skating Union (ISU) announced the 2021 European Championships had been cancelled. Though Březina believes the break from constantly travelling and competing gave his body time to recover — something he would not normally have had any time to do — he was especially grateful to be able to spend a lot of time with his daughter Naya, who was born in early February 2020.
“In my case, it was more of a blessing that I could be home with my daughter because otherwise I would be training all day every day and traveling,” he said. “I had a lot of commitments in the Czech Republic after the 2020 World Championships, so I would have been gone almost two months. It kind of helped that as she was growing, started crawling and basically walking, I was there every day. It was more that I could enjoy the time with her, but at the same time I think it helped a little bit to be away from the ice for a while.”
WEATHERING THE STORMS
Březina has always considered himself fortunate to be based at the GreatPark Ice and FivePoint arena in Irvine, California, where he trains alongside Nathan Chen and Mariah Bell, but the past year made him even more grateful. While many rinks around the globe were closed for long periods of time throughout 2020, his rink shut its doors at the onset of the pandemic in March but once it reopened in June, there were no further interruptions.
“Rafael had his own ice time so when we had regular sessions there it was just Nathan, Mariah, me and Stephen Gogolev on the ice. We were totally separate from everyone else in the building. Our rink was blocked off and no one could really just walk in from the other sessions until we were done with ours. We were lucky that the rink did that for us.”
In late October, the bush fires that ravaged California were on the verge of landing on Březina’s doorstep. Though fire fighters were able to contain the blazes before they reached the development where he lives with his wife Danielle and daughter Naya, the air quality was so dangerous that the family was forced to evacuate.
“That was fun,” Březina recalled with a hint of sarcasm. “It was a little scary at the beginning because the fire was out of control due to the wind, so no one really knew where it was going to go once it got into the development — especially here in Irvine where there are a lot of trees and parks. It was so windy; the fire could jump from one street to another and then the whole area would be in flames. It burnt all the greenery around the highway but fortunately, it never jumped into the development.
“But the air was so bad we had to evacuate. We went to stay with Kevin Wu, a representative for Jackson Skates, who lives in San Diego. We have a child, two cats and a dog, but he invited us to stay there for a couple of days. We returned when we got the all clear.”
Březina has trained under the watchful eye of Arutyunyan for five years. When he first arrived in 2016 he did not know what to expect, but it turned out to be the best place he could have landed, and Březina has found the experience to always be extremely productive.
“Every time you come into the rink Rafael has new ideas. His approach to training is always the same and has not changed in the 40 years he has been coaching, but every day when you walk into the rink in the off-season, he has new things he wants to try — like new entrances and new ways he wants his stuff to be done,” Březina said. “That is what makes it more exciting when you are training. When you do the same thing over and over, it kind of gets boring after a while.
“Also, I feel very comfortable with Rafael. He has been a very good coach and he helped me get back to feeling confident on the ice again. Those are the main things that have kept me here. I also help him with coaching the younger kids, so I am basically an assistant to him you could say.”
Březina also works twice a week with pairs skater Alexa Knierim on her jumping technique, an arrangement that first began when Knierim and her husband and former partner Chris Knierim moved to California to train with Jenni Meno and Todd Sand. “They joined the skating class that we have every morning to work on skating technique and skills,” Březina explained. “Alexa started taking first from Rafael, but I think she wanted someone to actually show her things on the ice because she understands things better when she sees them.
“So Rafael suggested she start working with me so I could show her the exercises and do things on the ice with her. I basically just show her new exercises and if she has any questions she comes to me and I show her, so she sees exactly what we want from her. We are just basically giving her more tools to work with.”
Though many skaters rued the fact that no fans were in the stands at the 2021 World Championships in Stockholm, competing without a live audience was not a new concept for Březina. “It was pretty much like skating competitions you do when you are young,” he said with respect to the six seasons he competed on the junior circuit, which included three World Junior Championships. “At the competitions I did up until I was about 15, you basically just had your coach behind the boards and the judges. Not even your parents were there. That is what it was like with a maximum of a couple of people in the stands.
“The first Junior Worlds I went to in 2007 was actually the biggest because it was in Oberstdorf and any competition there draws an audience. The next one in Sofia, Bulgaria the following year was basically more of a skating audience, and not so much people who just walked into the rink to see an event.”
A DIFFERENT WORLD
Given the circumstances, Březina was as prepared as he could possibly be heading into the World Championships, his first competition since 2020 Europeans some 14 months earlier.
But he was excited about the World Championships for more than just the competition. Due to the pandemic, Březina had not seen his family, who live in the Czech Republic, in more than a year, and he was looking forward to seeing his sister, Eliška Březinová, and his father (her coach) in Stockholm. “I see my parents on the phone every other day but they have not met my daughter yet. She is 1 year old and they have only seen her on videos,” Březina said. “Every time they call they see her on the camera, but that it is kind of heartbreaking because they missed everything from crawling to walking. They watch her grow but it is not the same as actually holding her or playing with her.
“I don’t even know if we will be able to go to the Czech Republic this summer because the way they are doing things there is a little crazy right now. Travel is closed; the borders are closed. I could go because I am a citizen, but the restrictions on travel imposed even for citizens are tight.”
With the Championships determining the berths for each nation at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, a lot was on the line in Stockholm. The weight of earning a place in the men’s event for the Czech Republic rested solely on Březina’s shoulders as the only entrant from his country at the competition.
Skating 12th in the field of 24 in the free, Březina opened his program with a hard fall on the quad Salchow. Though he landed a clean triple Axel immediately after, as the program went on he began doubling jumps and popped the final loop. Březina hobbled off the ice in obvious pain.
“The program was received pretty well and if it was skated better, the second mark might have been even higher. Given that I only did three jumps, the second mark was still pretty high,” he said. “Even in the warm-up the Salchow was fine and then, I don’t even know what happened. I just went for it and fell on my hip.
“As soon as I landed, I got a shooting pain down my leg, so I was actually pretty surprised that I even got up. But after that, I was basically just skating through pain the entire program and it was hard to get the jumps done — especially the ones that were from the left leg. Since I was compensating and trying to jump from my other foot, at the end of the program, I had no power.”
He finished in 19th place overall but achieved his goal of earning an Olympic berth for the Czech Republic.
Březina was part of a very exclusive club in Stockholm. Though we often see men over 30 competing in pairs and ice dance, we rarely see it in singles. Alexei Bychenko and Valtter Virtanen, both 33, and Březina — who turned 31 on March 30, two days after the competition ended — were the three oldest men in the field.
He cited a number of reasons so few men skate past their mid to late 20s, one being the technical difficulty of the sport. “All the things the young kids are doing is pretty crazy. When you are doing a lot of quads and putting your body through hell your entire career, there comes a point when your body just can’t do it anymore. It is hard mentally and hard physically at the same time. That is why a lot of skaters stop once they accomplish certain things they wanted to and feel that their bodies are giving up.
“I don’t know. I just like skating and like everyone says, age is just a number,” Březina added. “Age is not how you actually feel; it does not have to define what you are able to do or are capable of doing on the ice. As people get older, it is important to plan and to do things the right way. I can’t train the same way that Nathan does. I would definitely not be skating any more at my age if I trained like him.
“I have to modify what I do and Rafael always tells me that. He makes sure that when I do things I do them right, but that I do them in moderation. He is very hard on me with detail, and he makes sure that I do everything correctly, but he also makes sure I don’t overdo things, especially when it comes to doing a lot of jumps or running programs.
“Nathan does two long program run-throughs in one session. I can’t do that. Rafael tells me to do one program, make sure I do what I have to, then run parts of it and train things that I will need and make sure they are done well. I always listen to him and then follow what my body tells me. So if I feel a little bit tired and I want to modify my training, I also have to make sure I still do everything I need to do without overkill so I do not get injured and am able to train the next day.
“There are not that many pairs or ice dancers that are over 30 anymore and those are usually the disciplines we see older skaters competing in. It all depends on how you take care of your body. We were actually talking about this the other day with Nathan. Sometimes Evan Lysacek comes and skates with us. In the conversation we had with Nathan he said, ‘Oh Mike, you are old.’ I said ‘Yes, I know that.’ When I went to my first Olympics, Nathan was not even 10 years old. It puts a perspective on everything.
“Also, in that conversation I was listing people that I used to skate against. Evan was one of them as was Stéphane Lambiel, Evgeni Plushenko, Brian Joubert and people that Nathan said he had never heard of or did not even know they were skaters. It gave him a perspective for how long I have actually been doing this.”
The 2020 European Championships was a high point in Březina’s career. For the first time in 13 appearances he won the short program, capturing his first European small medal. However, following an error-ridden free skate that dropped him to seventh overall, he said he was undecided as to whether that would be his final competition.
A year later, he began giving serious thought to how much longer he would compete, but so far no date is set in stone. “I think I stopped counting,” Březina said when reminded that it was his 17th season. “Sometimes I forget how long I have been competing. My first junior Grand Prix competition was in 2004 in Hungary, my first Junior Worlds was in 2007 and my first Europeans was in 2008.
“I missed one Worlds and I have not missed a Europeans since the first one I went to. Out of the 10 World Championships I competed at, I was only out of the top 10 three times — Shanghai in 2015, Helsinki in 2017 and Stockholm. I take that as an accomplishment, the highlight of my career. Not many can say they finished top 10 at that many World Championships.”
He is slated to open his Grand Prix season at Skate America and will close it out in Sochi at Rostelecom Cup. With the 2022 Winter Olympics on the horizon — his fourth consecutive Games — Březina is committed to continue as far as Beijing, but said that will likely be his final calling card. “After the Olympics, that is probably going to be it. I am pretty sure you will not see me on the ice competing anymore.
“I still feel like I can push myself to keep it at a competitive level, but I can feel that my body is slowly — not giving up — but every day I feel like I need almost a longer break to be able to push 100 percent. It takes some effort to take care of my body to be able to perform at the level that I want to.
“I have not even thought about 2022 Worlds. To be honest, I don’t even know where it is. I will see how I feel, how I skate at the Olympics and if it goes well and everything is exactly what I want, then I might want to finish and not wait another month.
“I am going to take it day by day and see how my body feels. Also, I will talk to Rafael and get his opinion and take it from there. It is always nice to end on a good note.”
2021 GRAND PRIX SERIES