Anna Levandi: The popularity of a sport is built over the years
By Ia Remmel (Pia)
Photos © 2010 Absolute Skating, SERGEI TROFIMOV / SCANPIX and Ia Remmel (Pia)
The Olympic Games are now over allowing our attention to go back to The European Championships held in Tallinn in January. Looking back, they passed us by like a fairy tale. However, behind this fairy tale is the long-term work of the Estonian skaters and skating coaches. Estonia now has capable athletes in every figure skating field and Tallinn's skating center Premia ice-hall has many training groups at different levels.
The important figure in Estonian figure skating is coach Anna Levandi, a former high level skater. She first came to Estonia after her marriage to famous Estonian Nordic Combined skier Allar Levandi, who won the bronze medal at the 1988 Olympic Games in Calgary. Anna brought to Estonia her experience, love and enthusiasm towards skating.
Anna Levandi, born Kondrashova, received her education in one of the former Soviet Union's elite sport schools and for a long time, she was one of the top Soviet sports figures. Amongst her coaches were Stanislav Zuk and Eduard Pliner. She was the silver medalist at the 1984 World Championships, four-time bronze medalist at the European Championships (1984, 1986, 1987, 1988) and five-time Soviet Union champion in ladies' single skating.
Her achievements in Estonia have been met with recognition by the Estonian public. In 2007 she was named Woman of the Year and in 2008 Coach of the Year.
Anna Levandi's current best pupil is Elena Glebova who placed 10th at the European Championships. Anna Levandi has three sons, the youngest is 4-years old.
Estonia does not have a long figure skating tradition. How did it happen that Tallinn was given the rights to organize the European Championships in 2010?
The Estonian Skating Union had been requesting the rights to hold this competition for a long time already. First, it is necessary to earn trust. You must have athletes at a certain level and you must have skilful organizers. Estonia has twice held the Junior Grand Prix and the ISU was quite pleased with their organization. It is because of this, that we were finally given the right to host the competition.
What level was figure skating at in Estonia when you started here as a coach?
I came to Estonia 20 years ago and started to work as a coach 10 years ago. For a while, me and my family lived in Norway. There, I got my first skating coach experience when I worked at a club in Lillehammer.
At the time I started as a coach in Estonia, we had one good male skater, Margus Hernits (current competition chief, vice president of Estonian Skating Union). His best results were 13th and 15th place at the European Championships in 1999/2000 and 2001/2002 and he placed 20th at Olympic Games in Nagano. By now the level has increased. For example, we managed to get Olympic spots for almost all the fields: in ladies single skating (Elena Glebova), in pairs skating (Maria Sergejeva-Ilja Glebov) and in ice-dance (Caitlin Mallory-Kristjan Rand). Our best male single skater Viktor Romanenkov is a first substitute in men's single skating.
When I started working, there was almost nothing in the Estonian media about figure skating. Popular sports were skiing, biathlon, basketball and football. Figure skating as a sport almost didn't exist for Estonian people. Today, things are different. This is largely thanks to TV reporter Anu SĂ¤Ă¤rits, who loves figure skating and has done a lot for the popularity of this sport. We also have some competent journalists who understand the nuances of figure skating.
Your pupil Elena Glebova, our best skater, was in the media spotlight before and during the European Championships.
Oh yes, Elena was quite the media star! However, aside from skating, she also has an interesting personality.
I was glad to see that the skating arenas were full in Tallinn during the competition. The almost empty arenas in Zagreb two years ago were a sad sight.
It was great to see that tickets for the competition sold so well. A great amount of people even came to the compulsory dance event. I can't imagine how the organizers managed to achieve that.
However, you can't attract interest in a day. The popularity of a sport is built over the years. Without any help and especially without the help of the media you can do nothing. Our "professor" of skiing, Mati Alaver (famous Estonian skiing coach, trainer of Salt Lake City Olympic champion and world champion Andrus Veerpalu) always says that alone you can do nothing.
Estonia is a small country with only a little more than a million inhabitants. Is it possible to find enough talented children for figure skating in Estonia?
All the children are talented. However, there is a big gap between a person who is a hobby skater and one who can be a top athlete one day. During their teens they will have to decide whether they will devote themselves to this sport and continue or not.
Right now we have very large training groups of beginners. The only thing we need is more ice-rinks.
The Premia ice-hall (the rink next to Saku Suurhall, where skaters had practice sessions during the European Championships) was built on your own initiative.
Yes, and I am very thankful for all the people who put their initiative and money to build the ice rink. Today it is the only indoor rink.
Let's talk a bit about how children first begin with figure skating.
First we invite the parents and children to the beginner's courses. Parents of the children must also be able to skate. The first lesson is about how to fall. The most important thing is to not be afraid of falling and being on the ice.
Elena recently started to teach a beginners group herself. She asked me how to start and I told her to first crawl with them on the ice, let them hug and kiss the ice. This way the children get familiar with the ice and are no longer afraid of it. Then practice falling. Elena did so. Although during the beginning of the training sessions, the children kept very close to their parents, in the end they gathered around the coach and were no longer afraid.
Children like to play. In the beginning, they should be taught through playing.
How do children learn jumps?
All the children like to jump and we start with it early. First they jump on two legs, then from one leg to the other.
Do they first learn the jumps off the ice or on the ice?
They learn both off the ice and on the ice. Skating must always be accompanied by off-ice training. Also, you must regularly do physical workout. Otherwise you are not fit enough.
Are all the children able to learn the double jump or does it require special coordination?
They must have very good coordination but 80 percent of the children are able to learn it. The percentage falls drastically with triple jumps. And very few are able to learn quads...
Right now, it seems like there are not a lot of skaters who can do a quad in mens single skatingÂ…
On the contrary! There are very many quad jumpers already in Europe: Plushenko, Lambiel, Joubert, Verner, Ponsero, VoronovÂ… and also many skaters in America and Japan.
The last two world champions were quadless...
Quad jumps need more physical and psychological resources than other jumps. It can happen that the skater concentrates on the quad and after that he is worn out for the rest of the program. In that sense it is easier to not execute the quad and try to skate flawlessly. It is also a lot easier to interpret choreography without the quad. Right now judges value flawless performances, so trying the quad is very risky.
However, the quad and the triple Axel are not the only decisive elements. You must also have a well-rounded program where everything is in a harmonious balance: jumps, choreography, spins, transitions...
You mentioned that there are few children who are able to learn triple jumps. What physical abilities are needed for learning them?
You must have a light body that is also very strong physically. It is almost impossible to be successful with a heavy bone structure.
Right now, skaters with an Asian body type do well in competitions. There are many skaters like this on the American team and also in Russia - such as Yuko Kavaguti in pair skating.
For skaters, the teenage years are a crucial time. They start to change and girls for example become women. During this process the body becomes more curved and girls gain weight. However, for figure skating, these are changes in the wrong direction. For triple jumps your body must become lighter and more compact. You must maintain your diet but that is also very hard and many girls can't psychologically manage that.
Olympic champion Sarah Hughes went through such changes after her victory and could not compete any more...
Now she is small and thin again. However, her teenage years were not a favorable time for her. The bodies of some girls change later than others. Recently, I watched the Russian Nationals. The bronze medalist, Liza Tukhtamysheva is 13-year old. She already has all the jumps and the triple-triple combo. But she looks like a 10-year old; her body hadn't started to change yet. Next year, she will compete as a junior and if she is also able to prove herself in the seniors, she can get very good results.
If you already have results, then it is easier to overcome this difficult period. The feeling that you have achieved something helps. However, very many skaters never make it.
How is it with boys? Do they also have problems during their teens?
Of course they do but it is more to their benefit. They get stronger and start to jump better. At first, girls are much better than boys, as boys are rather clumsy. However, during their teens the boys begin to improve.
Let's talk a bit about how you, yourself, started with figure skating. It was in Russia, a land with one of the best figure skating traditions. Was the training harsh during the Soviet era?
I started on an open-air rink near my home. I liked skating a lot and when my friends went to training lessons, I joined them. The trainer noticed that I had good skating abilities and recommended that I go to the sport school.
I was already seven years old and the supervisors of the school said that I came too late. However, my father didn't give up and finally the supervisors agreed to assess me. A trainer looked at me and asked: "What can you do? Can you do spins?" I showed her the spins. "Can you do a salchow?" I knew nothing about that jump. The trainer showed me and I did it immediately. Then she showed me the other triple jumps and I managed to perform them all at once. Maybe it was because of that, that I was allowed to the school for a trial period.
All the other children in the group were better than me but I improved quickly. Every year there were difficult tests and less and less pupils remained at the school. In the first grade there were 45 children, then in the second 30, in the fourth 10, in the sixth 3 and finally I was the only one left. Now, when I look back, I cannot understand how the selection was performed. All the pupils had excellent physical abilities.
There was always intense competition between the young skaters. It is therefore not a surprise that Russia has always had a lot of very good skaters. Nothing happens by itself. Children must have set goals and their parents must support them for those kids to be able to work so hard when they are young.
How important is it to have a good coach from the start and how important is it to have good basic technique?
Of course it is important to have the right basics. However, it is not crucial. It may sound unexpected but I think that the most important thing is the will of the skater. The skater must be willing to develop himself. Then he can do all the triples even when he doesn't have ideal basics. There are examples of very well trained and physically talented skaters who can achieve nothing in competitions. They lack the strong will, character and personality that is needed. Only strong personalities succeed.
So the psychological side is very important?
The psychological side is always important, both in sport and in life.
How do skaters prepare themselves psychologically?
The psychological side is always connected to the physical side. You don't feel comfortable if you are not fit enough for the competition. You must be a fighter; you must be ambitious and have the will to stand out.
The wrong mindset spoils the performance. Skaters start thinking about medals and how they look on TV. These are not helpful thoughts, as you must concentrate only on your own performance. It is not easy to stand alone in the middle of a large ice rink surrounded by a huge crowd. 20 000 spectators in America, 38 000 in Japan... You must be extremely bold to step on the ice and enjoy such big attention. If you're scared, you can never be a champion. In that sense, skaters who receive only the 20th place are also stars. This sport is extremely hard.
The Olympic Games will begin soon. Who do you think are the main contenders for the Olympic medals?
For example, in ladies' single skating, there are of course the Japanese skaters.
Their leader Mao Asada has had many problems this seasonÂ…
This does not necessarily mean much. She is an outstanding skater and it all depends how well she can adjust.
Of course, Yu-Na Kim of Korea is a strong contender and for a while she has given the impression that she is invincible. However, even she is not untouchable.
Joannie Rochette from Canada is also a great contender. It all depends on how she can stand the pressure of the Olympics in her homeland.
The American skaters are very good as well.
There was a lot of talk about Sasha Cohen's comeback.
It's not easy to make a comeback after such a long break. She has great spirals but the ladies field has developed very much in a technical sense since 2006.
We have seen some great comebacks in the mens field, such as Plushenko and Lambiel. However, every comeback is extremely hard.
Their comebacks are even more impressive, considering they both battle injuries.
That is what I call a battle between characters. They both have strong characters and are both great stars. They know exactly for what reason they sacrifice themselves.
Could competing like that cause bigger health problems in the long term?
An injury can be felt during your entire life. However, athletes are more tempered than other people. They can stand more pain. Skaters feel pain during every training session. They get used to it. Whoever is psychologically the strongest will win. In all the disciplines there are many wonderful skaters and each of them can earn a gold medal. Before it seemed like nobody could jump like Plushenko. Everyone swooned when Lambiel did his spins. Now there are many skaters with powerful jumps and beautiful spins. Whoever can put it all together and have a flawless performance will win. Charisma also plays a part in the result. An athlete can charm the judges with his performance, as judges are also human beings.