By Hiro Yoshida
Daniel Samohin announced himself to the skating world when he cracked the top ten at his first European Championships in Stockholm, Sweden last year. He followed that up with a very impressive 8th place at the World Junior Championships in Tallinn, Estonia in March 2015 marking him out as the real deal. When I spoke to him at the Junior Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, Spain last month, the whole surreal nature of being an object of attention all of a sudden was still fresh in the mind of the 17 year old.
“Europeans was an amazing experience. It was crazy because I didn’t expect the placement or my skate to be that good. Not because I didn’t believe in myself, but because I was still on and off on my quad and my Axel was actually not very consistent. I got to the competition and for that week it was really consistent. Before that, all those months I was practicing I could not do Axel. I was stepping out or falling and every time I did it in the program it wasn’t consistent. So when I did the Axel in Europeans last year I got really excited and that’s why I stepped out of the Lutz! It was really great for me and really opened up a lot of doors mentally because I was able to push myself more. It motivated me to work even harder than I had been.”
With this season in mind, Samohin began preparing to up the ante in terms of technical difficulty with his eye on taking on more senior assignments. He unveiled an extra quadruple jump in both the short program and the free skating in September.
“After Junior Worlds, I had a little break. I think I took three weeks off. When I got back, I told my dad I wanted to do three quads in my long program this season and two in my short. At first my dad said, ‘We’ll see how it goes. Let’s not rush into things,” because I had two quads last season in the long and one in the short. The thing about that was I was still so inconsistent. I could land the first one, but the second one I could land or fall. It was never 100%. I told him I want to set my limits up so that I could train for that. So we did and I went to Salt Lake City for the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic and I landed all three quads in the long. I did both in the short, but I stepped out of the Salchow. I guess I didn’t count that because I wanted it to be good! It’s a great experience seeing myself rise with all the training and all the goals I set for myself.”
Figure skating runs in Samohin’s blood and his training environment is a family affair. His father Igor, who is also his coach, competed internationally in pairs for the Soviet Union. His older brother Stanislav has also skated internationally for Israel and his mother Irina is his choreographer. Although sometimes it can prove difficult, he feels the positives of working with those close to him outweigh the negatives.
“Everyone says it’s hard working with your parents. It’s true. It’s up and down and I can’t say it’s perfect every day. At the same time, it’s great sharing the experience with them because I get to travel with my dad and when I get to bring home a medal it’s not really about the medal. It’s mostly about us working, doing it, coming home and working some more. It’s learning different things and putting new moves into the program. We connect in the sport by motivating each other. I’ll motivate my dad to think of new ideas and then he will motivate me to try these new things. It’s a 50/50 thing because of course there are days where it’s hard and where he has to support me enough to get me back to my normal state. It’s tough, but you know what the outcome is great. He just wants me to worry about practice, like putting more programmes into a day or doing more spins. It’s all about polishing my programmes so when I go to Europeans, I won’t have any step outs or Level 3 spins when I have Level 4. I already have all my programmes set up because he doesn’t see any reason to change that right now. It’s mainly about understanding how to control my emotions when I skate because I am a very emotional person and I like to give it my all. Sometimes you’ve got to remember to tone it back when you go into those jumps.”
Due to the lack of rink facilities in Israel, his parents’ quest for the optimum training environment for the Tel Aviv native and his brother took them all the way to the west coast of the United States of America.
“I was born in Israel. I moved to the U.S. when I was about three or three and a half. My brother and my dad went to America first. They went because there were no more rinks in Israel. My dad made a decision. My brother was skating for Israel, but it was crazy because in Israel the rink was really small and they didn’t even have a Zamboni! They watered the ice with a hose. To think that you could come up from there and be an international skater was great. My brother started skating when he was a little bit older. He started skating when he was seven and a half or eight around the time I was born. When he started skating, they lived in Israel for three years and my dad realised that he was improving so why not keep going? Once they closed the rinks, we didn’t have anywhere else to go so that’s why he made the decision to go to America. That’s when I moved too.”
While being so far away from his relations across three continents is challenging, Samohin is more than aware of the need to make sacrifices so that he can fulfil his dreams.
“My grandpa lives in Russia and my grandma lives in Israel so I have a lot of family everywhere which is tough. At the same time, it was a pretty good decision to move because I think that without the resources that I have in America, like rinks here and there, I wouldn’t be where I am today. The rink in Israel is still small, but we’re trying to build it up. We want to get enough funding to make it an Olympic size rink so that we could have real competitions there. But that’s how it was back then when we moved, so we couldn’t do anything about it.”
To say that 2015/2016 has been a busy season for the young Israeli so far would be an understatement. He started out by winning the Philadelphia Summer International in July and then going to two Junior Grand Prix assignments in Colorado Springs and Logroño, Spain (where he finished with two silvers) with the trip to Salt Lake City (another win) sandwiched in between. Following that he travelled to Saransk, Russia for the ISU Challenger Series Mordovian Ornament event where he took home yet another silver. He had also been selected to skate at Cup of China, but International Skating Union rules prevented him from doing both the Junior and Senior Grand Prix Series.
“I had to pick one so I decided to try and focus on making it to the Junior Grand Prix Final. At my first event in Colorado, I was in 6th or 7th place after the short and I was upset about that thinking that would mean that I would have no shot at the final. You just have to blow it off and say you still have a long to do. When I did the long, I ended up in second place and then I knew I still had a chance to make it to the final. When I went to Logroño here in Spain, I was a little more confident because I felt ready having done a lot of competitions. Logroño was my fourth competition already in the season and I was already more confident with my skating and mentally. That’s how I made it to the final. We made that decision because I’m still young and have a lot of time. There’s no need to rush for seniors and I’m still doing Europeans and maybe Senior Worlds.”
Despite chopping and changing between senior and junior events this season, Samohin doesn’t feel it has hindered him. In fact, he relishes the challenge of testing himself and even finds that sometimes that it can be trickier to lower the difficulty of his elements rather than vice versa.
“It’s actually not that hard. My long is my long. The only thing that I change is my choreo step sequence. The short is a little bit harder because it is easier for me to do a short with two quads rather than a short programmes with a triple Axel, triple flip and triple Lutz/triple toe loop. When you go for a quad, it’s all about momentum so when I rotate it’s just easier to go for it. For triples, you have to control yourself and you have to understand your body to land correctly. You can overthink triples even though they shouldn’t be that hard. I think it’s mostly the short programmes from senior to junior that is the hardest one. Senior to junior longs are not too bad to go through. I talked with Nathan Chen about that. We both agreed that it is easier to do quads than triples again because of the control and the mentality of ‘Oh, it’s easy! It’s a triple.’ I’m going to go for quads at Europeans. It is a senior competition so I’m able to do that. If we were able to do quads in junior in the short, I would definitely go for it.”
While he did not have a great competition in Barcelona and only placed 5th overall, Samohin still sees it as an overwhelmingly positive experience.
“I made it to the final and that is amazing for me because it was one of my goals for the season. Placements are definitely a great thing to have, but not everything happens the way you expect it to. You just have to move on and work harder and keep going with your journey in skating. That’s how you have to look at it because if you just mope and you say ‘I didn’t do it! It’s the end!’ you’re not going to push yourself. You need to motivate yourself and say ‘It wasn’t my best. I’ve got to keep going’ and that’s how I think you achieve more goals.”
His next event is the European Championships in Bratislava, Slovakia this week where he will battle it out with compatriot Alexei Bychenko to see who will be selected to represent Israel at the World Championships in March. He has a keen, but healthy rivalry with his teammate.
“Of course, I want to go to Worlds pretty badly. Alexei is 27 now, but he’s still a great skater. I think it will all be decided at Europeans. We really want to get two spots at Worlds so that we can go next year together. I can’t say right now who is going, but whoever goes I am fine with that. I’m not fighting for it. As long as we represent our country that is all that really matters.”
Beyond Worlds, the pinnacle for any young skater is the Olympic Games and Samohin is no different in that respect.
“I definitely want to go to as many Olympics as I can. As long as I feel my body can do it, I think that I will. Skating for Israel, I have that opportunity right now. If we get more spots, then we’ll all go which would be great. I can’t really predict how many I want to go to, but hopefully a lot! Two, three times that would be cool, but first I want to go to Senior Worlds.”
Being a teenager on its own is stressful enough, but managing an elite sporting career and studying at the same time has meant that he has to a different approach than most 17 year olds.
“I’m in 11th grade still and I skate at a new rink in Poway in San Diego. My life is I could be home for two weeks and I could be gone for three. I want to build my ranking up so going to a competition is not a big deal for me, but it’s hard in terms of studying. If I was to go to school, I would never be there. So I am homeschooled. I went to school before. I went to elementary, I went to middle school and I went to one half of a year of high school so I have experienced school. Homeschool is hard because, even though I have it all on my computer. when I go to competitions I don’t focus on that. I have to focus on skating. When I come home, I usually end up doing at least six hours of homework so that I can catch up and when I leave again I’ll get a little behind and I’ll have to catch up again when I come back.”
Once he has completed his secondary education, Samohin does have ambitions to continue to third level, but possibly deferring until he has hung up his skates.
“After I am done with high school, I do want to go to college. Balancing those two out if I want to be a really high ranked athlete will be hard. I could take a half and half approach, but I’m still not going to take in everything because I am going to be training so much. I’m not going to be able to learn what I want to learn 100%. So I think I am going to wait until I’m done with skating to take on college.”
Besides skating, Samohin is a talented mimic. An Instagram video post where he imitated three-time World Champion Patrick Chan was uncanny and did the rounds among skating fans.
“I wasn’t making fun of Patrick and I hope he doesn’t get mad at me for doing that. I just hope he doesn’t think I was trying to make fun of him because it wasn’t about that. It was just funny because I was watching Worlds, I don’t remember what year it was. He won that year. I told my dad, ‘I’m going to be up there one day. I’m going to go to Worlds and I am going to place 1st.’ Then I stood up and tried to make an impression of Patrick Chan and I guess it was pretty good. So that’s how it happened and the legend was born.”
Aside from Chan, he has two skating idols who he looks up to– his brother Stanislav and Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu.
“Stanislav actually motivates me because he used to do these programmes as well. He had surgery this past season so he’s off the ice at the moment, but he’s going to compete next year. He was probably my primary role model. Not just because he is my brother, but because the way he trained and the way he worked pushed me. I wanted to be like that and I got to see that every day. I also admire Yuzu and not just because he is on top. It’s because he is consistent and it’s great to be able to do consistent programmes all the time.”
You would think that Samohin would have little room for anything outside of skating and studying as he prepares for Europeans, but he is also a budding fashion entrepreneur with ideas for a line of skating wear about which he is excited.
“I’m actually starting a clothing company for skating and I want people to be able to wear my clothes so they can practice in them. That’s another goal I have and make people be like ‘Oh Danny is wearing that. I want to wear that!’ It would be great to see someone like Yuzu wearing my clothes. It’s another thing I’m planning so hopefully it works out. By Europeans I want to have a couple of jackets to give out to some people. I want to give some out to people so they can see if they like them and if they are comfortable for skating and jumping. I have a lot of things going on.”