Catching up with Stefano Caruso

March 19, 2018
By Reut Golinsky
Photo © Reut Golinsky, Natasha Ponarina, Stefano Caruso

Stefano Caruso competed for Italy with Isabella Pajardi. In 2010 he teamed up with Tanja Kolbe to represent Germany. Together they won seven international medals and two German Nationals silver medals. They placed eighth at the 2013 European championships and competed at the 2014 Winter Olympics, finishing 19th.
After ending his competitive career in 2014, Stefano began coaching in Barbara Fusar-Poli's team in Milan. We met in Moscow, during European championships, and talked about his coaching career, his project for "Coldplay" and why his favourite dance is Lindy hop.

Let's go four years back when you announced your retirement. It was not your choice, right?

It was my partner's choice, yes. She wanted to start a family and it's very understandable. Culturally in Germany people start a family at much younger age than in Italy. So for me at the beginning it was hard to understand. She was very young, 23, and she already wanted to have a baby, she felt that this man would be the right one for her. Our first goal when we started skating [together] was to get to the Olympic Games and in a short time we've achieved really good results. And we felt that we could have gone further than that, for sure. But life is not only about skating, I respect that. When she had a baby and I got to meet him, I understood. And they are happy; she misses skating though. But that's normal, when you've been doing it for your whole life... But, yeah, that was it. I had a couple of tryouts, both girls were quite solid, but I didn't feel that any of them can be my partner.
I was very happy about how my career went and about what I've achieved. I started from zero, had to learn German even though I wasn't even sure whether I could get the passport, had to gain the trust of the German Federation and show good results [at competitions], had to pass a language exam, a history exam. Never in my life I imagined that I would be German; I even joined the army because they were sponsoring us, so I had the military training in Germany.

And now you have a dual citizenship?

Yes. Actually, I have three citizenships, because my mom is Hungarian; so I'm Italian, Hungarian, and German.
I'm very grateful to the German Federation. I'm still working for them - this year I will go to Frankfurt for a seminar, in order to become an international ice dance technical specialist for Germany.

The country matters for judges, but not for technical specialist, is it not so?

It doesn't matter, but you must have a nation that is sending you out. I'm really happy to work for Germany; I'm organizing seminars in Germany for novice skaters together with German coaches. I bring my small kids; we have four novice teams, and they have more, and we organize a seminar. So I'm in good contact with the German Federation even though I'm working in Italy, in Milan. But I feel that we are working in an international center, not working for the Italian federation, even though I have Italian teams.

When and how were you invited to join Barbara's team?

I always liked coaching; even when I was a skater I was always trying to find the time to do choreography and especially [to work on] skating skills. I'm really interested in this area. I have been trained by a lot of top level coaches and that gave me a wider range of choosing what is best for which athlete. After the Olympic Games [in Sochi] I had a three months' vacation, for the first time in my life, which I really enjoyed. And then I started checking what was going on in the [skating] world. I had a lot of projects, did a lot of work with single skaters, received some offers in America, Australia, went to Spain. I traveled a lot, did choreography. And then I said to myself: "Okay, let's stay in Italy for a year and see." I honestly don't remember how it started. One day I just asked Barbara: "Can I come?" It happened also because I used to skate in Bergamo for a couple of years and I attended University there; I studied German and English literature. So I came to Barbara and asked: "Can I come in the morning just to see how you're working? Because I never actually paid attention to how you are teaching, I always paid attention to the mistakes and how to correct them, it was very different." And even though we always had a really good relationship, she told me: "Listen, yes, you can, but that doesn't automatically mean you will work in my group." But I understand her. Every step I had to earn at the beginning, I had to prove that I was reliable. And slowly with time we got better. She has a very strong personality. And so do I. Sometimes we can argue about some ideas, but the main goal is always trying to understand what is best for each team. It's teamwork. And I'm learning a lot from her. We are a good match, I think. I'm very happy about our new rink, in [Mediolanum] Forum.

This is the one which will host...

...the World championships, yes. And finally, we have a [skating] club behind us that is strong, the "Ice Lab". It is the one that has a rink in Bergamo and they also manage this rink, in Forum, and another rink in Sesto San Giovanni. The president, Federica Pesenti, is not coming from the figure skating world but she knows what she wants. She is not only clever, but also emotionally intelligent and that means a lot, especially in figure skating.
Now we have ice dance time every day - from 7am until 3pm, and then in the evening, from 7pm till 9:30pm. I have time to work with the kids and it is so nice to have quality ice time with them! Kids are our future! This is a big project and it's the first time ever in history of Italy that we have something like that, with a lot of time, with quality time.

And you also have off ice facilities?

Yes, you will see during the World championships that it's a multi-sport complex; we have table tennis, swimming pool, room for workouts, room for ballet, room for contemporary ballet and an ice rink - we have everything we want, we have a physio there. Before we had to organize everything, so the workout was 2 kilometers away from the rink; the gym at our rink was not good, so we had to find another place; for ballroom we had to go to a different place too. So even if international skaters wanted to come to us, we didn't have the best conditions to offer. Now you come here, you start at 7am, finish at 3pm and then your day is over, so you still have a life to enjoy. If you want to study, you can, if you want to go hang out with friends, you can.

I guess you have a lot of students. How many teams do you have now at the Europeans, for example?

We have five teams. We have Charlène Guignard and Marco Fabbri, but I'm not working with this team as we were both competitive at the same time. But if I see something which I think can be fixed, I tell Barbara, because I still care about them. We have another Italian team, ranked third in Italy, Jasmine Tessari and Francesco Fioretti. Then we have Lucie Myslivecková and Lukás Csölley, from Slovakia. We have Justyna Plutowska and Jérémie Flemin, from Poland. And we have Victoria Manni and Carlo Röthlisberger, from Switzerland.

And two of those teams qualified to go to the Games?

Yes, Italian and Slovak teams.

And will you go too?

No. Our choreographer is going and it's fair because he used to be Luk√°s' coach since long, long time ago, so he's going from Slovakia.

Those teams you send to PyeongChang, did you talk to them about the Olympics in general? Do they ask questions about how it's going to be, what they should do, where they should go?

Honestly, no, not yet. I think they haven't realized it yet. I remember the feeling of 2014 and until the Europeans were over I was not thinking about the Games. But after Europeans, it's then that you start to realize. So I'm pretty sure that after the Europeans they will start to realize it better.

So what are you going to advise them?

In general I like to live things very emotionally, and I do remember how I went on the ice for the short dance and they announced my name, and I was getting flashbacks, was thinking about all my friends who were watching me now, about all the sacrifices that we have been doing as athletes - all the athletes - in our life to achieve that moment.
"Figure skating" is not a proper word; I like it more in German - "Eiskunstlauf", because "kunst" means "art", what we are doing is art on the ice. So I say: "Guys, why are you stressed? It's normal to be stressed but you have to understand that you want to do this! You work hard to do this, to enjoy, so this is what you should do." So that's what I'm going to tell them, to enjoy.

You mentioned choreography earlier; tell me more about who you work with. Do you also work outside of your current team?

Until last year I was working a lot with single skaters as well but not top-level skaters. And I was working mainly on skating skills. Together with Barbara we had some fun doing the choreography for a German junior ice dance team, Charise Matthaei & Maximilian Pfisterer, and the German junior pair, Talisa Thomalla & Robert Kunkel. Next season, we will work with some senior pairs as well!

I wanted to ask you about one video project you did, the "Everglow" clip. It was so beautiful and different, I really loved it. How did this come about?

That was two years ago, around March. The manager of "Coldplay" approached us, sent us a message through our Facebook page and our website. At first I thought it was a joke, but then I read it and it was very particular. I called Tanja: "Listen, I'm forwarding you a message; I think we are going to make a video for 'Coldplay'!" So we had a meeting in Hanover, in Germany. We met the video director, Joe Connor, he explained the idea to us. It was a love song; actually, it was about a hard breakup. The story shows that when you are in love with somebody and then, it can happen, you break up, some part of you is still there [with the other person] even though you're not there. So this is why we came up with the idea of me being invisible and Tanja being visible. And Joe said: "I'm sorry for you [not being shown in the video]." But it was OK, I really liked the idea.
During that meeting, he showed me some general figure skating videos. He also sent me the music ahead of the meeting and I came with some propositions. Back then Tanja didn't skate for a year already and we didn't skate together for a year, but I said: "That's OK, follow me, we'll do this and that". We showed the result to the video director and he was very happy. Then we fixed the contract and all the other stuff. We also met with "Coldplay", Chris Martin was there.
The video was filmed at the arena in Hanover and it was shot in three days. My skates didn't arrive so the first day I was doing it in hockey skates. And we were on the ice for 12 hours every day, but it was really nice. I think that for me it was even more emotional than the Olympic Games because we never had the chance to do something that was without stress and with a lot of emotions. And then with the final product, every time I see it I start crying.

What I loved about it the most was that at the beginning, when you watch you don't get the point, it's later into the program that you understand that she doesn't skate alone.

Right, because I'm not skating with her during the first minute. In general we built this program together with Joe, the video director, and he is amazing. I told him: "I don't know how you want to do this video, but I know to listen to the music, so I can tell you what we can do at this part of the music and you can tell me what you prefer the most, and then it will go smooth."
Unfortunately, in the end they decided to not go with this as the official video for the song, but permitted the company that produced this video to release it.

For the last question I usually love to ask something not about skating. There are two things apart from skating which I know you are really good at and a big fan of: traveling and dancing Lindy hop. Which topic do you want to choose? Or we can talk about both.

Actually, they really go together, because most of the time when I travel I'm trying to dance Lindy hop too. And the best thing about Lindy hop is that you don't have a fixed partner like you have in figure skating. You have to be a good leader; you have to feel what your partner is doing because everybody is different. And the atmosphere is great; this kind of dance is called "social dance" and I feel very good in it. Even though I cannot practice that much, every time I go somewhere I'm trying to find some social dance class lesson or evening and go dancing because it just feels so good - to follow the music, to create steps, because the basic steps are fixed but you can and have to improvise. And if the lady you dance with can follow you, it creates magic.

It is also a very happy and positive dance...

Yes! It started when people in America were working all week, and in the weekend, they just wanted to dance. And you can dance it man with man, girl with girl, you can dance in three, you can do whatever you want, as long as you are happy. People at such social dance classes or evenings are very friendly. And about travelling...

I know you've traveled a lot and can tell me a lot of stories, so let's narrow it down a bit. Name me one place you didn't visit but really want to, which is in your "bucket list". And one place which is an absolute "must" to visit in your opinion.

I'm pretty sure about the place that you should visit - it is my native town, Rome. Even though I know it's chaotic, it's just magical. If you forget during the day that there is traffic, people are driving crazy and the public transport is awful and the organization is really bad, if you forget about that and you just go there in the spring and take a walk during the night with somebody you love then you'll understand what I'm talking about.
Also, every time I see something very old, from 2000 years ago, I can feel how many people went through there and how much history that place has.
And one place I'm looking forward to go to... it is a trip that I always wanted to do - and I did it but it was a very short visit - it's Cuba. I would like to go back there. I've been there with Gabriela three years ago and I enjoyed it a lot, loved the style, but we just visited Havana and I would actually like to do a road trip through the country.

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