Ioulia Chtchetinina, Márk Magyar - the perks of being a pair skater

June 22, 2020
By Titanilla Bőd
Photos © Joy, Mireille Geurts, Titanilla Bőd

What does it take to be a pair skater? Why is it so hard to find a suitable partner? What keeps skaters motivated despite so many struggles and unexpected or draining situations? What is the key to good communication? Those were the questions to which we tried to find answers with Ioulia Chtechinina and Márk Magyar.

The duo represents Hungary, trains in Russia in Dmitri Savin's and Fedor Klimov's group, and placed 10th at the Europeans in Graz. Right after their free skate they said they would have immediately agreed if someone told them they would take this place, however, they would have refused to earn it with the performance they actually delivered, because there were several mistakes in it. One of the perks of being a pair skater is that Ioulia did not realize Márk had popped a jump until the end of the program, because they are at an angle whe're she can't see him.

"I smiled at her just as if I had landed my jump, because I didn't want to put pressure on her,"
Márk explained in the mixed zone. Ioulia also missed a jump, and she apologized for it after the end of the program just to hear a response:

"Never mind, I missed the toeloop."

"And I was like: what do you mean by that?",
Ioulia said with a laugh, realizing that this question sounds just like a line from a sitcom.

Ioulia was born in Nizhnyi Novgorod but since her childhood has lived in Switzerland. She represented Switzerland previously, and after splitting up with her former partner she seriously considered quitting. Márk was also at a crossroads, after changing five partners and splitting up with all of them because of various reasons, he didn't want to jump into a new partnership again, but gave himself a deadline when he must find a partner. They both dream about the Olympics and believe that together can finally achieve this goal.
A day after the free skating in Graz they found time for an in-depth conversation with Absolute Skating.

Why did you decide on pair skating?

Ioulia: I decided really late. I just turned nineteen. I was a single skater in Switzerland, and I was quite good; I was in the extended junior national team. I had good jumps at Swiss level, but somehow I was never making it to big events. I was eight times first substitute for a junior Grand Prix. I always almost made it, but never could really make it. So at some point the federation asked me if I wanted to skate pairs with a guy who had some pair experience. He was skating with a French girl, but she didn't get the release. First, as I guess every single skater does, I thought: No! I'm good enough in singles! I think this is the first reaction of almost everybody, when they are asked if they want to switch. Then I had a quite disappointing Swiss Nationals. I was quite well prepared, but I messed up, so my season was over in December. I wanted to quit, and then I decided to give pairs a try, because they were asking again and again if I wanted to do pairs. There was a good coach, Jean-Francois Ballester, who also worked with Aljona and Bruno, he just moved to Switzerland. I was skating with Noah Scherer. So I tried it and I fell in love with it immediately. That's how I got into pairs.
Márk: For me it was different. My mum started suggesting it to me when I was younger. I did ice dance when I was really little, eight or nine, and I kind of had the feeling that I really didn't want to skate with someone else. If I mess up, I want to mess up all by myself! That stuck in my head for a really long time. Then of course I started to realize that I'm twice the size of all the other single skaters who are around me, not just in Hungary but when I competed internationally. I started technically falling behind, and I realized that with a lot of hard work maybe I could get to Europeans, or maybe Worlds, but I don't think I would ever be able to get to the free skating at a major event. And then I thought it's not really worth it. But multiple people were asking me why I was not trying pairs, because I was big enough, I was naturally strong already as a kid… And those people knew more about the sport, so they persuaded me. In my last junior year I was still competing singles, but started to learn pair elements at the same time. In that first year I was skating with maybe three girls, but we never got past doing a lift on the ice so you can hardly call those partnerships.

Why is it difficult for smaller countries like Hungary to find skaters for pairs?

Márk: I think the reason is that in these countries the skating community is small. There are not a lot of skaters in general. We can see it in the regular results from international competitions that these countries are not really at the top. If their best single skater can barely jump triples, how can you expect that there would be a second or third skater who would be good enough to do pairs? So it's quite hard to find someone. And maybe there are boys, but they are not built for pair skating and it's the same with girls - they have to be tiny. It's unfortunate, but if they get over a certain height, it's just not going to work in pairs. And I think it's quite rare that from a smaller country there are at the same time a boy and a girl who are suitable for pairs skating, or maybe more boys and girls, because it's almost impossible to stick with your first partner. It's not like in ice dance where you see couples that are together for fifteen years.

How long does it take to adjust to a new partner?

Ioulia: It depends on how much experience you have, but also it depends on how you match. With some people you will never find a good connection. That's why we have tryouts, when a partnership is built. Because you might have a totally different rhythm on the ice, and maybe you can do some things together, but it will always be much harder than with someone who has naturally the same rhythm as you. But I think the general rule is that it takes five years to really form a partnership. I heard that.
Márk: They say that when you can skate for four-five years together that's when you are a pair. But usually you need a year or a year and a half to become a pair that can not just work on elements but also perform them. Sometimes even the tryouts can be tricky. I had this feeling before in my career when I wished the tryout wouldn't be just a week, because there can be things that can come out months later and you realize that it's just not going to work. It might not be even related to skating. Lot of times it's about personality differences, which is also as important as the skating. So it's hard. Even if it's a perfect match straight away on the ice, it can be a terrible match off the ice.
Ioulia: Because at the beginning of course everyone is trying to be as nice as possible, but later you will see each other in every situation. You are going to be tired, you are going to pissed at each other, both of you will miss elements and make mistakes… And if you have lot of personality differences, it's going to be hard, because everyone reacts differently to things that are not easy. I experienced it with my previous partner. At the tryout everything was right and then we were just personally so different that it was a torture to work together every day. That's why we split up, because it was not fun for me, not fun for him, and we didn't have results because of that. If you are not a team and if you are not supporting each other, it's really hard to progress. It's so much more mentally draining if you have to work almost against each other, but still produce progress.
Márk: It can happen that in the heat of the moment people say things they normally wouldn't, or they just say it a way they normally wouldn't. Someone might think, "oh, he or she is super calm", but in the summer camp after the fourth hour of training if there is a stupid mistake, that's going to bring out screaming from even the calmest person. That's why it's really hard for coaches. They have to see our mistakes and fix them, but they have to stay calm. We had our differences also with Ioulia, but I think the difference between her previous partner and our current partnership is that we were able to get a point when we said: "Okay, this is stupid, it doesn't make sense like this. If we continue like this, okay, but there is going to be zero result and no fun." Of course, this level is not fun. The training is not fun. But we still love the sport and do it because we love something about it. But if it's a torture on a daily basis, you have to try to find a middle ground. If not, then it ends up as her previous partnership. For us, there were downs and there will be more – I think it also comes from both of us being super motivated, and we are not patient enough sometimes – but we manage to get back on track and start supporting each other and talk to each other. When I lost my head, she told me it can't be like this and we have to talk.
Ioulia: And I think the difference is that we are really able to talk to each other and also to listen to each other. Because with my previous partner I was also talking a lot… What I think is the real strength of us is that we are able to listen to each other.
Márk: We really had lows. Up to the point when we were screaming and were not able to do the easiest stuff. But we understood how we work individually and how we can work together better. There were some differences at the beginning that we thought they would disappear, but actually they are not going to disappear. I have to learn how she thinks about some things and she has to know how I approach certain elements, certain practices. We talked about this a lot. Now we can correct each other without getting offended. Usually coaches don't let teams correct each other, but it's not like I'm coaching her. I might feel her hand in a way that it makes it uncomfortable for me and the coach doesn't see it. Or maybe I think I'm following the usual rhythm in a throw but then she says it's too early, she is not ready. We managed to get to the point to know that it is productive and even if we are stressed and tired, we try to say things in a tone that we are not hurting or blaming each other, but we try to help each other and ourselves. It took a while, and I'm sure there are still going to be hard times. Sometimes it's going to be hurtful but it also happens in a partnership. And I think we are going to be able to get over it.
Ioulia: I also think it's completely normal not smiling the whole day, every day. But I think it's important that no matter what, we feel the support of each other and towards the project.

When you split with your previous partners, did you start to search for a new one or were you considering finishing your career?

Ioulia: I was almost sure that I was going to quit. I was training in Russia with my previous partner (Mikhail Akulov, pictured to the right), so I went back to Switzerland, I didn't skate for three weeks. I thought I would quit because I didn't see anyone with whom I could skate for Switzerland. For a moment I kind of lost motivation, because practice was not fun with my previous partner. I felt so mentally drained and there was no outcome. I felt I was working really hard, overcoming myself. There was a lot of physical work which was, as I see it now, not necessary. We trained a lot but the outcome was really small, that's why I was unmotivated. So I didn't skate for a few weeks and then I realized I really missed it. Márk contacted me, because we were friends before, we knew each other.
Márk: We had been talking about skating earlier, without even thinking about ever skating together. Already a year before we started skating together we talked multiple times about skating, about life and everything. I knew her situation and she knew mine.
Ioulia: When he asked me for a tryout I said I'm not really sure if I really want to skate. But my coach said: Try it, at least you will understand if you want to skate or not. That's how we decided to try it together.
Márk: I was totally open, because once my partnerships ended I knew that I didn't want to jump in quickly to a new partnership for another half season, like a "let's make it to Worlds, skate five minutes and then realize that something is not working" scenario… I was tired of just showing up at competition, making it to Worlds, but not actually competing. I said, okay, the season is gone, I will put energy into finding myself, take some time off from skating, and similarly as Ioulia, figure out if I want to skate or not. And I gave myself a deadline: if I find someone in that season with whom I can actually get somewhere, really compete and not just show up at competition, then I will give it everything, but if not, it's time to move on. That's why I contacted her. I knew that she is experienced, checks a lot of boxes that you need in a partner. I know it sounds stupid but in a way it's like business, you know what you need.
Ioulia: I remember that I was a bit scared because of my previous experience, because then I really jumped in. With my previous partner we tried in August and I was scared to miss a season, so I had to decide really quickly. And when I realized that there were differences, we had all the paperwork done so there was no way back. So that's why I was really careful this time: let's give it a month and see if it works.
Márk: We had our first tryout in November, it lasted a week. It was like how a basic tryout works. If we hadn't been so cautious about the situation, we would have probably jumped in right then.
Ioulia: But anyway, I had to sit a year out, so we couldn't have competed.
Márk: And it was actually good, because we didn't need to hurry. We were both 80-90 % sure that we wanted to do it, it looked like it made sense, so we gave it a try. We were training together two-three weeks a month, without coaches, just to see if could work together. We already understood that it is more than just checking the boxes of jumping, having a good weight, being the right height – it's about working together and about finding the same ways of working, goals and mindset. So we called this training a second tryout. And in the first two-three weeks we were asking all the coaches we were working with if they saw potential. We sent videos to everybody. We started to feel we wanted to skate together, but we were super cautious, because we didn't feel we had to jump in to a season, we could have pulled out, and if I wanted to search for a new partner, I still could have started to search in February. So we really started unconsciously: "Oh, look, I have found music for the short." "Oh, look, I have found music for the free." And after three or four weeks we asked: "So, are we actually skating together?" (laughs)
Ioulia: Because people also started asking and we always answered: "We're just having a tryout!!"

It sounds as if in a starting relationship: "Oh, we are just doing some things together" and then everyone else around is asking if you are going out…

Márk: Actually, there are a lot of similarities between a relationship and a partnership.

Márk, Ioulia is your sixth partner and you mentioned in one interview that if someone doesn't know your story, they might think you are the bad guy who is changing partners all the time. Do you feel this is your image?

Márk: I honestly don't think I have this image, but it can be, if people don't know the situation and they don't know the background of the story. And honestly, why would they know it? We show up for competition and I show up always with a different girl! So, they might think: "Okay, he is here, he is still skating for Hungary, but always with someone else, so he must be really picky!" When people don't know the story, I can smile as much as I want, I will still be the bad guy.

At the 2018 Worlds you competed with Elizaveta Kashitsyna, but after that summer she grew taller and her coordination changed. Before that you skated with Darya Beklemishcheva (in photo below) who broke her ankle and you missed the chance to compete in the Olympic qualification in Oberstdorf… Before that Anne Marie Pearce decided to concentrate only on her studies … You mentioned that this time with Ioulia you didn't want to jump into a new partnership, you were extra cautious. Does it mean that in the previous cases you decided quickly?

Márk: Yes, because I was really eager to compete and kind of prove a point to federation, to myself… Also I was kind of afraid of staying out, because I had been out for two seasons earlier in my career. One was planned because of a shoulder surgery, and the second was because I didn't find a partner. And when I realized how hard it is to find someone, I was like, okay, if this works, let's go. I didn't want to get into that hole of uncertainty of not having a partner and not being able to train. Because the problem is that if you are a pair skater and you are training alone, you are done in twenty minutes with your training. You do a couple of jumps, a couple of spins and then: what now? You can't do lifts, throws, death spirals… And without that it's useless, you can't really practice on your own. I didn't want to feel useless, that's why I went into some partnerships before.

It's very inspiring how you still keep on going, you never give up… Probably you two are very alike in this determination.

Márk: I also consider myself super lucky that I have an extremely supporting family, who don't mind that I'm over thirty soon and I'm still pursuing my dream. They don't say that it's time to start my "real life". That's a tremendous help. I've also found a girlfriend who used to be a skater and that's also tremendous support. And of course, I have my Olympic dream. I've always had it, I've always fought for it, so I don't feel like I could give that up if I still have the chance to continue.
Ioulia: I think I realized last year, after seriously considering quitting, that I really-really love figure skating. Not only the results or competitions, but I actually really love training, I love skating. Of course when the training is hard and the coach says now you run a full free, there are moments that I don't love. But in general I feel extremely grateful that my body lets me to continue. My mum is extremely supportive and she also understands I have this dream. She is not related to skating, but she also has big passion for alpinism and climbing, so she understands what it means to have a dream. I think for me the main point is that I really love the process, I love to skate, I love to improve… And as long as I can live this lifestyle, this dream, I wouldn't forgive myself if I hadn't taken this chance. I know it's going to be over quite soon, because I'm twenty-four. I know it's not going to last for another twenty years. So I'm really thankful to be here but also to be at the rink everyday. It's really what I like to do and what I want to do right now.
Márk: This is something you can't come back to later. It's not that you take five years off and realize at 35, oh, I would like to go to the Olympics, let's try it now. That's not possible. If I want to get a university degree, I can decide at 35 that I'm going to go for it, because it's not physically demanding. But as for skating, there is a deadline of how long we can physically do this. We are grateful that our bodies are more or less in one piece.

10th place at the Europeans is a good start for you as a new pair, isn't it?

Márk: It's a good start as a result, but we are not going to be satisfied with our performance.
Ioulia: We know that we can skate better at practice and also in competition, so we know we can make it better. But I think overall we are satisfied with the result, because the top 10 is something.
Márk: And it's not like there were 11 pairs in the starting list. It also means something that we were in the middle, not just being lucky with a small starting field. Knowing that we could have done more is motivating.
Ioulia: In a way it makes us motivated, also score-wise, because we got hundred points for a free skate which had a lot of mistakes. I think we did a great job until now, but we know we can do it better and it makes us want to work even harder, because we feel we can get higher scores.

I love the music choice for your free program, Legendary by Welshly Arms. The lyrics of the refrain says: "What we're doing here ain't just scary/ It's about to be legendary". Is it also kind of a message?

Márk: No, it was almost accidental that we chose it. We were looking for something with this rock style, not classical. There were a couple of ideas and Fedor [Klimov] has a playlist which goes on during the practices in the background, and this song was also there. We just started to listen to it and thought: what about this?
Ioulia: And then Dima [Savin] asked us to look for some slow music in the same style or from the same band. So we listened to several albums of this band and found the first part of the music. We tried to put it together and we just listened to it on the ice and it sounded good. So it was quite a spontaneous decision, but we really enjoy this program.
Márk: We had a concept in our minds but we were really struggling to find the music. I was listening to so many songs, but we didn't want to take something very well-known, like Nothing Else Matters by Metallica. That was the style we wanted to do, but of course we didn't want to take it after so many people used it. And if we found something that was great, it turned out that a few years ago somebody already skated to it. That's why it was hard.
Ioulia: Now we really like this program and we're thinking about keeping this program for next year. We are not sure yet, but it's in the mix.
Márk: We obviously have to upgrade it, but the music and the concept might stay. It fits our style.
Ioulia: We get a lot of feedback for this program that people enjoy it, they find it entertaining and cool, and they think it's really us.

We hope this program will really become legendary for Márk and Ioulia and we wish them all the best on their journey pursuing their dream!


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