The Big Question: How to be a Champion Figure Skater
With his partner, Evgenia Shishkova (now his wife), Russian-born figure skater Vadim Naumov competed in two Winter Olympics, and together they captured the World Pairs title in 1994. In 1998 they turned pro and moved to the United States. Today, as pairs coaches at the International Skating Center of Connecticut, they’re passing their knowledge on to a new generation. We spoke with Vadim at the home he shares with Evgenia and their 6-year-old son, Maxim, in Simsbury.
If I presented to the kids who are just starting out how much it takes for them to get to the Olympics, there’s no way they’d do it. It’s no fewer than 10 years of hard training — no summers off, no vacations. You have to fight through the idea that you’re missing out on things with your friends. Then you have to be resilient enough to withstand the injuries, the pain, the frustration, and people telling you, when things aren’t working, to stop because you’re not going anywhere. It’s very difficult. I bet if you asked the world’s best skaters whether they’d want their children to walk the same path they did, almost all of them would say no.
“We had a girl who finished skating at our rink a few weeks ago. She and her family had moved from Tennessee just so she could be here. They sacrificed a tremendous amount to make the move. They left their house, brought all their stuff, and moved into a small apartment, just so their daughter could skate. The girl ended up not appreciating it — she didn’t want to push herself as much as she should. Her parents couldn’t find jobs, either, and so finally they decided she should stop, and they moved back [to Tennessee].
“People don’t understand how expensive it is to be a skater, especially in this country, because it isn’t accepted like baseball, basketball, or football. We worked with one team, Katie Orscher and Garrett Lucash, for six years. They were national champions in 2005, and even after that they still struggled for money. They couldn’t find a sponsor. Medication, equipment, ice time, coaching, the choreographer — they had to pay for everything. I bet it was $25,000 to $30,000 a year.
“I believe kids in this country are overexposed to competition. That goes back to the cost. Because of the price, parents want to see results for what they’re paying for, and coaches want to show those results. It’s like, You’ve achieved this, okay, let’s go to another level. In Russia the government paid for our training. I practiced with a group, and I didn’t start to really compete until I was 15. Our focus was to develop our abilities, not just win competitions. That came later.
“We fall all the time. You have to make an enormous number of attempts to achieve one successful element. But [then] you have to make another million attempts to become consistent. Even then things can happen. What’s important is being able to pick yourself up, finish strong, and stay on target. If you can’t, you’re not going to go anywhere.
“We’re not naturally made to do what we do on skates. You’re balancing on a metal plate a third of an inch wide, doing tricks that even while standing on your feet would not be possible — while moving as fast as a sprinter, being graceful, and delivering emotion, all at the same time.
“It’s an amazing feeling when everything’s working, almost as though you’re watching yourself skating. Your mind has to be absent, because if you try to process what you’re doing, control every movement, you’re not going to be successful. That’s where the training is so important. Your body just continues what you’ve been doing for so many years. When people ask, What were you thinking when you landed? I have no idea. Maybe I was looking at the ceiling, or the judge’s face — I don’t know.
“When you win a championship, it’s proof that everything, all that work, the ups and downs, has been worth it. But at the same time you think, What’s next? I’ve been there, the highest peak; there’s nothing more. You’re a champion only as long as you’re on the podium. That’s why you have to find another target — another motivation to continue — because knowing that you may not need the skills that you’ve trained 25 years to develop can leave you with an empty feeling. Fortunately, Evgenia and I found coaching. The goal shouldn’t be a medal. If you don’t go to the Olympics, that’s okay. There’s still a lot you can get out of it. It teaches you to be tougher. There will be times when you have to perform at your best at a particular moment and not the moment after. That’s worth a lot.”