Isabella Tobias and Ilia Tkachenko: "We always push ourselves"
January 15, 2017
By Andrey Yofis
Photo © Reut Golinsky
After their partners retired from competitive skating, Isabella Tobias and Ilia Tkachenko teamed up in the summer of 2014 to represent Israel. Very quickly this collaboration proved to be successful - together they have already won four medals in the ISU Challenger Series and, of course, set their goals high. At the TrophĂ©e de France we had a chance to sit down and talk through their current career together, their new team and new country which they have decided to represent, and their new beautiful and diverse programs.
You've skated together for two seasons now. In ice dance especially it is not easy to switch partners, and you in your first season together, have already achieved very good results. How did you manage to get into this partnership so quickly?
Isabella: I think it was fortunate that we're both classical skaters. We have a similar way of skating, we are both trained in ballet, and we both have been trained by Russian coaches our whole lives. That's why we were stylistically very similar.
We also skated together eight years ago, for six months, so it wasn't a completely new thing, and we can't take the full credit for it now.
Deividas (Stagniunas), my previous partner, retired from competitive skating; and in the back of my mind I always loved skating with Ilia. I knew that he was no longer skating with his partner, but I didn't know if he was skating in general at all. So I remember I had a meeting with Igor (Shpilband) in his house, and I asked: "What about Ilia, what is he doing?" So he called Ilia, who was in Egypt on vacation.
Ilia: We had just arrived there with my brother. We were at the reception of the hotel, waiting for our keys. And suddenly I see Igor Shpilband is calling me! He asked if I'd want to try out with Isabella; he said he believes in our skating and thinks we would be great. So, of course, I agreed.
Did you plan to skate with someone else, did you have any tryouts?
Ilia: No. I was helping pair skaters with the choreography in my hometown. They asked me if I was available, and while I was spending time with my family there, I worked with them for a couple of weeks. And then I went for a vacation and that is where Igor contacted me.
And how, after deciding to team up, did you end up representing Israel?
Isabella: My whole family is Jewish, I've been very interested in Israel and Israeli politics for a very long time, like many American Jews are. I thought it would be a great opportunity for us, and I am really proud that we can represent Israel, because Israel feels like a home country to me. It really does.
Ilia: Israel and Russia are very close countries. I was surrounded by many Russian Jews; friends of the family and relatives; so when we were discussing which country we would represent, I also felt that Israel would be a great choice.
How did it happen? Did you call the federation?
Isabella: It was some time ago, so I'm a little hazy about the exact details, but of course we had to talk to Boris (Chait) to see if he wanted to have us. He was very welcoming, everybody was very welcoming; and yes, everybody was very happy about it.
You have represented other countries, Lithuania and Russia. Do you feel any difference, in how the judges or the audience see you now?
Isabella: The Lithuanian federation was very good to me and Deividas, and they did for us everything they could. And the Lithuanian people, the fans, were always very welcoming. Obviously the struggle that I had with the citizenship is very well documented, but it was very important to Deividas to represent his home country, and I respected that. Overall I really have only very positive memories.
Ilia: I think when the federation is smaller, they stay together more. Everybody is like a family. In a big country there are lots of athletes and you don't spend so much time together. With the Israeli federation it feels more personal I think.
And do you personally know other Israeli skaters?
Isabella: Of course, we know them all. We all call each other "the Jew-crew", seriously! They're all very nice. We are lucky.
Ilia, will you be able to get Israeli citizenship?
Ilia: We hope so.
Isabella: We're working on it now. We're positive, and we feel more positive about it than I felt with Lithuania. I think that everything will work out the way it's supposed to be. We're doing everything we can. If god wills it, it will happen.
One of the most known things about you obtaining the Lithuanian citizenship is, of course, the fact that you had to learn Lithuanian. Do you plan to learn Hebrew?
Isabella: I'm terrible... I need to! I'm such a bad Jew! Because of the skating I never had time to have a Bat Mitzvah (a religious initiation ceremony for a Jewish girl aged twelve years) or anything. You can do it as an adult, right? I would like to do it in Israel. My mom speaks Hebrew, and my grandparents speak Hebrew, but I never learned it. I know a few words, but that is not enough.
Israel doesn't have its own competition, apart from the Nationals. Do you feel that it's missing, having a competition at home?
Isabella: It would be incredible! It's just a beautiful place to go.
Ilia: Of course! Especially this time of the year, when everywhere is cold, but it's still warm in Israel. Everybody would love to go!
Isabella: It's so gorgeous! I feel that Israel is a place where you should go in your lifetime, regardless of your background. Having a competition would be an incredible opportunity for Israel and for the competitors.
While in Israel, do you get to see the country as well and if yes, what did you like the most?
Isabella: We went to Jerusalem, Masada, and the Dead Sea. We went everywhere! Of course not everywhere, but where we could with the limited time that we had. I loved the Dead Sea. It was so cool!
Ilia: Once in a lifetime experience. I liked Masada also.
Isabella: It's hard to pick one. It's all incredible, honestly. And the food is unreal! The food is so good! We just feasted from the moment we got there. The first day we arrived at the Grand Prix in Paris, we went to the Jewish quarter of the city and went to get a falafel from an Israel stand there. Taste of home!
Israeli Nationals are held in Holon, which doesn't have a proper Olympic sized rink. Do you think it is necessary for you to compete there, even though you don't really have a competition in Israel?
Isabella: It's important to go and to see the people. It's important to have a connection to the country that you represent. We love it there, so we are not complaining at all! For us it's great.
Ilia, you were more used to how things worked in Russia. It was more difficult to get to the major championships because of the competition between the Russian teams, but you were also being pushed. Do you think this lack of competition in the Israeli team might affect you in any way?
Ilia: I think it only affect you in a good way. I have always been under pressure to make the Europeans and Worlds teams. I like that it's more positive now and you don't have to worry all the time. I like it.
Isabella: I agree - it's less stressful and more positive. And we always push ourselves. You can't train at Igor Shpilband's rink and not push yourself. He wouldn't allow that. Just because we're not pushed on the national level, doesn't mean we don't push ourselves for the international one.
Ilia: And of course we have other strong athletes in Igor's group, and it's like a small competition within the group.
Let's talk about your programs for this season and your approach to programs in general. How do you usually choose the music for your programs?
Isabella: This year, I think, Ilia pretty much came with both programs. He came up with the short dance, and then the free was more from both of us. It's Ilia's favorite piece of classical music, and I as a child danced to the "Nutcracker" for four years. So for us it's very personal.
Your dances are very different this season. The free is very classical, can't really get any more classical than that; and with your background it also feels very natural. But hip-hop is the complete opposite. How did you manage to brush off your classical ballet training to get it right?
Isabella: We both have known 50s music and swing in our careers, so for us it felt a little tired. And I guess we just wanted to use the music that we like, the one we would listen to everyday in our normal life.
We worked a lot with Rohene Ward, and he's great with all that modern style and that sexiness. It's fun doing something cool and new. We are so classical, and I don't want to do the same thing every year, it's boring.
Does it mean that next year you will pick something more modern for the free dance?
Isabella: Next year the short dance is modern - it's Latin. I think we will probably go the similar way: more modern for the short, and more traditional for the free. But we would never do two similar programs in the same year.
The rules in ice dance keep changing all the time, how do you manage to keep up with them?
Isabella: It takes time; we just practice things over and over and over. We're lucky that Igor is a great technician; he's really a great teacher. He breaks things down and explains them.
So every season you sit together and read through the rulebook?
Isabella: Yes, he sends it to all of us and we read it, he explains it, absolutely.
And the changes in lifts become more and more acrobatic. Do you have a coach who works on them?
Isabella: Yes, we have a coach, his name is Oleg Ouchakov. He's a former Cirque du Soleil acrobat. We are very fortunate that we have a pretty good height difference. So lifts for us are fun.
Are they your favorite element then?
Isabella: I like our lifts! We get a lot of comments that our lifts are cool, so it's one of my favorite things for sure.
Ilia: I like that our lifts are interesting. We can experiment with them. I don't like it when a skater does the same lifts every year; not changing anything, just using the same stuff that has worked before.
And the last question: what are your goals for the coming season?
Isabella: I always say we focus on what we can control. And all we can control is how we skate. We have no control over the judges, the technical panel - it's a totally separate thing. We really focus on ourselves and on our skating, and if we're happy about our skate, and Igor and Rohene are happy with it. Our goal is just to do our best. And obviously, we would love to qualify for the Olympics!
Good luck to you in reaching them!