Deniss Vasiljevs: "I see my future with quads"
April 2, 2023
By Reut Golinsky
Photo © International Skating Union (ISU), Reut Golinsky
Deniss Vasiljevs' season has been a rollercoaster ride with ups as high as his exhilarating performance of the free skate in Sheffield and lows like tenth place finish at Skate Canada or a subpar performance at the Tallink Hotels Cup. We talked in the virtual mixed zone of both Euros and Worlds, and it was interesting to compare his attitude, his mood and his thoughts.
Deniss was going to Espoo as a bronze medalist of the Euros 2022 and, of course, there were expectations. I even remember parting ways with his team in Bellinzona - where the show "Music on Ice" was held at the beginning of January - and saying I hoped to hear good news soon. Although he himself denied any pressure from or importance of his previous results. "I wasn't defending anything. I was skating for my own joy. I was skating for myself, first and foremost, to surpass myself as an athlete and as a performer. I was skating for the crowd, for the people, for the judges, for everyone who was watching it online. I wasn't fighting, defending, or doing anything of that sort," he clarified after his short program.
The team decided to play it safe and not to include a quad in his short program, a strategy which paid off as Deniss finished third in that segment. But he was not happy with this path: "We made this decision yesterday. As I became much better with the quad in practice I do feel a bit displeased with myself that I couldn't 'prove' I'm capable of doing it well. I still did two quads during the warm up and I was very satisfied with them. Of course, in a way it almost hurts to know that you can do it and you miss this opportunity because of personal 'greed,' as I do wish to get more points very much."
Even though it was a very good skate and a very good score - his season's best for the short program to the date - reactions in the K&C felt a bit off. "I was indeed a little bit cold," he confirmed in the mixed zone afterwards. "The music is so lively and easygoing and I often skated it in a silly way, so this time I tried to be a bit lighter and... not detached but to have the ease. And maybe because of this self-awareness the feeling [in K&C] was more 'inside' and it looked like I was not so happy."
At Worlds, despite many failed or not fully rotated attempts during practices, they still decided to include the quad in the short program. The overall emotion after Deniss finished his - far from flawless - performance couldn't be more different. He was bursting with happiness, overflooded with the love from the audience that gave him a standing ovation, getting all in.
And so, we started from that, trying to analyse and explain what made him so incredibly happy.
"I feel I'm taking a step forward in the level of my courage," he started his thoughtful answer. "I try to be honest in my preparation work because I love what I do, and my life depends on it. Looking in retrospect, while going for quad Salchow this season I often felt this hesitation: 'Should I go cautiously, or should I stupidly go full in?' It really became this big uncertainty. But today I finally managed to relax a little bit and just go for it. I don't yet have the confidence to say: 'Yes, I can do it every single time I try it.' I still make a lot of mistakes. Yes, I've done many more [successful ones] in practice but I've done none in competition so far, in the short program. So, knowing that the short program is exactly the one that needs to be clean - because you can't win with it, but you can lose - it really brings this heaviness in thought when you prepare. During the whole day you're feeling like you're carrying a backpack. And that's what I don't like! Figure skating is also about performance, we work so hard towards the competition, and when we come to the competition, it's like a celebration, it's our 'festival', it's our fun time, for me it's like a holiday, I almost don't work here. And I don't want to have this heavy feeling in my head! It might work, it might not work, I just want to go for it. Like the same drive I have with other things I'm enjoying when I'm just shooting, going ahead. And that's what made me so happy [today], that I managed to relax in a way and trust my training. And I enjoyed this moment, because then I could be completely with the audience; while my body did what I trained it to do, my mind was present in the moment, I was enjoying what I saw, people clapping, I was living the moment, I wasn't in my own bubble, I exited it and was in this satisfying, fulfilling communication with people. This is the [feeling of] presence that I really enjoy and deeply appreciate, when you prepare something, refine, and refine and refine it to the point that you can randomly keep adding things and it still works perfectly. It's kind of snowballing, the momentum of big joy. And I experienced it today! And then to see people appreciate it and stand up was so joyful, too."
Deniss also confirmed that there were no doubts or thoughts about repeating the "Euros scenario"; he wanted to go for the quad this time. "The thing is, I see my future with quads. I really need to feel that I'm going for it. I cannot lower the bar just because I'm at Worlds. It's a huge challenge but it is also part of this competition drive I appreciate: 'Go! there is no time to cautiously execute - enjoy, and have this game!' In the end, it's a game, it's not a gladiator battle. I don't want to keep it safe, I want to take on a challenge, to be an athlete who pushes out of his comfort zone, even though the competitions are supposed to be the 'safe zone' for your preparations... It's also something I really want to understand by the time I come to Milano-Cortina 2026."
A sudden problem was encountered in Espoo during the free skate: Deniss' choreographic sequence was invalidated. The rule ("Rule 612, Free Skating Singles", p.112 in "Special Regulations & Technical Rules Single & Pair Skating and Ice Dance 2022") states: "A Choreographic Sequence consists of at least two different movements like spirals, arabesques, spread eagles, Ina Bauers, hydroblading, any jumps with maximum of two revolutions, spins, etc. The pattern is not restricted, but the sequence must be clearly visible." In his sequence Deniss initially had a Y-spiral, followed by the glide with leg in attitude position (when free leg is lifted behind the body, with the knee bent at an angle, and held behind at a 90-degree angle to the skating foot), while judges in Espoo didn't count attitude as a second movement. It appears that the rule is overly ambiguous. Either the addition of "etc." does not provide any meaningful information, or there is no clear criteria for what constitutes "movement." Therefore, one could conclude that only explicitly listed elements are considered valid. It cost Deniss over four points (he got 4.5 for this element in Sheffield and 4.45 at Worlds). While this would not have been enough to bring him to the podium in Espoo, the team was not willing to leave these points on the table: leading up to his next competition in Tallinn, the attitude was replaced with an arabesque, and some more changes were made in preparation for Saitama.
Although the changes were rather minor and didn't disrupt the continuity of the choreography, Deniss, like always, tried to get to the bottom of it: "For me it questions a little bit the whole element structure. I still need to really understand what it [rule] is, because I don't think it just means: ok, do an arabesque and then spread eagle. It represents something, and this idea of 'beautifying the program' is good. You know, being steady on one leg with a beautiful posture but not [necessarily] in an arabesque is still a great move and is super hard to do. Again, it's a musical choice, if you're doing something very short and very light then make it beautiful, elegant, aesthetic, that should be the defining factor, not the fact that I did this or that move."
Considering that the whole idea of introducing the choreographic sequence was to encourage originality and give more freedom in one of the step sequences, Deniss definitely has a point there.
The last question was something I noticed during my recent visit to the Skating School and mentioned in my report. I asked Deniss about his unusual approach to the off ice warm up session he held for the kids. "What I saw in a lot of training sessions with kids is that everyone is trying to play, everyone wants to make them feel happy. And I don't mind that! But I also understand that if you want to go serious, to succeed you have to learn to watch, to listen, to work with your senses, on your own. You have to figure out the necessity of being mindful. And that's why I didn't want to talk, to distract them, I wanted them to be focused by using their senses. When we were working, I wanted them to start finding this flow that is not distracting, but rather settling in, when they just do what they feel like doing. Probably not many tried that with kids, but I think the sooner you start to acquire that skill and improve those abilities to absorb the information and then reproduce it, the better."
As ISU commentator Belinda Noonan said about Deniss during his group's warm up: "He thinks about things deeply, maybe sometimes too deeply but that's who he is." And that's what we love about him.
I just wanted to wish Deniss not to overthink it next season, to leave his "backpack" of heavy thoughts in the hotel and enjoy every single moment of his performances. It's always so much fun - for everyone - when he does that. And, of course, we all are sorry to say goodbye to his exquisite programs but at the same time excited to see what he'll prepare next.