By Hiro Yoshida
It’s the morning after the night before in Bratislava, Slovakia at the European Championships and Michal Brezina is coming to terms with having had one of the worst skates of his career the day before. From being 3rd after the short programme, he plummeted down the rankings when not a single jump in his free skating routine went according to plan. He ended up in 10th place overall.
“I feel a lot better. I needed some time to be alone and really think about what happened,” Brezina said. “I had a drink with my coach and my dad. That helped me sleep a little bit, but not for too long.”
The three-time Czech champion had drawn to skate last in front of a very supportive crowd inside the Ondrej Nepela arena and was coming off a solid showing in the short. Things started to unravel for him immediately.
“After the triple Axel, I thought ‘Oh well, it happens.’ It’s not the first time I stepped out of an Axel. The programme goes on. It is the first jump and I can just go the way I always do in practice. But then the second jump was already a little bit shaky. The third jump ended up being a fall. The fourth jump ended up being a fall and then it fell apart. By the fourth jump, I think I lost mostly all of the confidence I had in my body. After the second quad Salchow that I fell on, my body just subconsciously gave up and I need to learn how to overcome that. That’s something I need to work on till Worlds.
“I don’t remember anything. It was like a black hole. I don’t know what happened at the beginning and I don’t know what happened at the end. I don’t remember anything from that programme. I just remember that I skated really, really badly. It was definitely the worst skate of my career.”
What really stung for Brezina was that this moment happen in what was once part of the country where he had been born and in front of so many of his fans.
“If it would happen anywhere else to skate like this, I probably wouldn’t be so down. But since it happened here in front of a lot of people I know, in front of a lot of people that believe in me, in front of a lot of people that know what I am capable of, that is what I think makes me feel sad even more because I know all those people are my fans. Not only they are my fans, but they are my supporters. But it’s life. You learn from it. If you go up, up, up and then you have one fall, it either destroys you or it makes you stronger. I hope that it’s not the first option. This year I hope that it will only make me stronger.
“I know I have everything in my legs to be able to compete with all the guys that were today or yesterday on the podium. I compete with all of them and the only thing is that when I get there on the ice it somehow changes and I need to figure out why that feeling comes to my body that shuts me down a little bit.”
It has been a busy season so far for Brezina with at least one competition a month since September. This was a conscious decision made by him with his coaching team this season to prepare him to be ready for Europeans and Worlds. However, there is now some doubt in his mind as to whether that was the right strategy.
“At the beginning of the season I believed that what we were doing is right, but now I don’t see it that way. I didn’t have that much time to practice. Every month I had one competition so I pretty much had three weeks in each month to train which is not enough. Plus the fact that I was injured in the summer and I couldn’t skate for a month. Then I had to skate the national test which was at the end of the four weeks that I was not allowed to skate. I think that already put a little sign into what might happen, but I thought it was just because I didn’t skate well. But then every competition it was not getting better. I thought at nationals I turned things around because it was a really good competition. I skated really well and I felt really good. Even in the short programme here, I felt great. I felt ready for the competition and it just all fell apart. All the hard work I am putting in all those years, it’s moments like this that you really don’t want to remember.”
Despite his traumatic experience in the free in Bratislava, there is no question of him quitting. It is also very clear that he carries with him a sense of the tradition he is continuing and a deep national pride.
“I think where I am right now there is no option – either go forward or stop,” Brezina said. “There is nobody pressuring me or forcing me to skate. I do skating because I love the sport. I grew up around people that are passionate about figure skating. I grew up in a country that has a very rich history of skating. That makes it even more special for me to actually keep going because I actually want to put my name on that list of all the skaters that made history. All those skaters made history in this town, in Bratislava, or in Prague. There are so many European champions and World medallists from the Czech Republic and the former Czechoslovakia and that is something that is always inside me and I want to be part of that. I want to be one of the people that make history for the Czech Republic and I hope I can still achieve that. That’s the main reason why I keep going because everybody around me believes that I am able to do it. I think I have to start believing in myself that I can do it.
“I think a lot of people remember what I did before and I remember that too. I just feel I need to remind myself because in the long programme I did not believe in what I can do and I think you could see that in the skate. All the work that I did in the last 15 years that I put into skating it all just fell apart in four and a half minutes. I think that’s the worst feeling that any person can have. There’s absolutely no way that you can stop something from happening if it’s meant to happen. I think I just have to learn from that as many other people did. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who went through a phase like this. I’m not going to be the last either and I have to find a way to get out.”
There’s a lot of soul searching for Brezina to do in the two months between the end of Europeans and the start of Worlds. So what does he need to do to get himself back on track?
“That’s the question that I need to answer to myself,” he replied. “I need to find that thing that is going to bring me up again. If I use a metaphor, it’s like if you have an old car. The engine is stuck and rusty and you want it to work again because you know it is a great car. You find what’s wrong with it and you make it go again. That’s what I think I have to find out. I would love to do that before Worlds.”
While he will not look back fondly at this year’s edition, it’s clear that Europeans as a competition holds a particular place in his heart.
“I think the special thing about the European Championships is that it’s the oldest championships and it’s always a prestigious thing to be a European medallist. Anyone from Europe always wants to have a medal from Europeans. If you look at the history, Europeans was always one of the hardest competitions because most European champions were always World champions. I think that is what makes this competition so unique in that sense.”
Since the retirement of Tomas Verner after the 2014 World Championships, Brezina has been flying the flag for his country in figure skating. However, he doesn’t believe it has affected his approach to competing.
“It didn’t change that much for me. I always try to do my best. I always think of it as representing my country. I never go to a competition to gain something for myself. Of course, I want to skate my best, but I want to skate the best for my country and that is what I always did and I will always do.
“Since I was smaller I always felt like a team player. I always wanted to skate together as a team and I was always supporting all my teammates. I never came to a competition thinking ‘I’m here. I’m skating and my name is all that matters.’ I always come to a competition thinking ‘I’m Czech and I skate for the Czech Republic.’ I need to find a way to make the people that I skate for proud again that I’m representing my country.”
When he’s skating for the Czech Republic, Brezina is not only skating as part of a team, but as more of a family and most of the time it’s literally with family as his sister Eliska is Czech national champion too. There was heartbreak for her and her brother when she narrowly failed to make the cut for the Sochi Olympics.
“She was very close. She won nationals in the Olympic year and she skated very well at Europeans and Worlds, but she didn’t qualify. But I really do feel like our team is one family. Not only because my sister is skating there, but we’re all very close. We all support each other at competitions and we not only talk to each other at competitions, we are connected all year long. We talk to each other pretty much on a daily basis. That’s why I think every time we come here it’s like skating together as one big family and trying to make the best result for our country, not as singles, but as a team.
“I’m pretty sure that the dance team that their main goal to make it to the Olympics. I’m pretty sure it’s my sister’s goal to make it to the Olympics. Of course, it is my goal to make it to the Olympics. I already went twice, so it might seem likes it a little easier for me, but I think I make it harder for myself than I need to sometimes, like yesterday. It’s always nice to go to the Olympics with people you know and you care about and be there with them.”
Being the sole high profile skater representing his country does bring some pressure to bear down on his shoulders and it also gives Brezina pause to recall what it was like for him starting out on his senior international career.
“I think now it is harder because I’m the only one from my country that is able to pull off Top 10 finishes at championships. I’m not saying that we don’t have good skaters growing up, but they are not there yet. They are very young. There’s about three or four junior guys and one of them is here in Bratislava. They still need to work a lot on their competitions, just like I did.
“When I came for the first time to Europeans, I fell apart because I didn’t know what to expect. Everything was so big. There were people like Evgeni Plushenko, Stephane Lambiel and Brian Joubert, those people that I saw only on TV. There were all around me and I was skating on the same ice as them. So I know what it feels like and what it takes to overcome that period of being starstruck. It takes time. It took me three years to get to the Top 6 at Europeans. I did a lot of competitions in between and it doesn’t happen overnight. Not only I surprised everybody else that was there, but I surprised myself because I came to my first Worlds and I was 4th. I was not even 20 years old then. I was standing in the small medals ceremony because I had a bronze medal from the long programme in Turin and there was Patrick Chan, Daisuke Takahashi, Brian Joubert and me. I felt like I didn’t belong there, but it was amazing. It actually showed me what it is to be at that level and I learned a lot from all these competitions. But then at some point of an athlete’s career, something goes wrong and sadly that is what is happening to me now. I have to figure out what it is and I have to overcome whatever is holding me back at this moment.”
There may not be a lot going right with his skating at the moment, but Brezina’s personal life is, on the other hand, going exceedingly well. He got engaged to Danielle Montalbano, a former singles and pairs skater who represented Israel, in May 2015 and the couple are now based in Oberstdorf, Germany where Brezina trains and Montalbano works as a coach. She was not able to travel to Bratislava due to work commitments.
“My fiancée Dani had to stay in Oberstdorf and take care of all the kids that coaches here left behind,” Brezina said. “She works with Mari Vartmann and Ruben Blommaert a lot as an off-ice coach and she actually was appointed as national off-ice trainer for Germany. I think you can see that what she is doing is really paying off because today they skated amazingly. I’m pretty sure she is going to learn a lot from being able to work with world-class skaters. Wherever we end up when I’m done with skating, I’m pretty sure we’re going to be able to put together a pretty good team with her having all the experience of working with the kids off and on the ice and with me being able to teach kids technique.
“I might not be the best one to work with them as a mental coach, but I’m pretty sure I have a lot to offer to younger kids regarding technique. I don’t want to sound like I am bragging about myself, but I think when I jump, I jump the right way. The way things are done throughout the history. If you look at all the great skaters, like Brian Boitano, Brian Orser and Joszef Sabovchik, everybody has a different style because everybody needs to get used to it the way they want, but if you look at the basis of the jumps it’s all the same. So I think in that way, Dani and I can put together a pretty good coaching team.
“Of course, it’s two different worlds. You are trying to help another person to get better, but then when you are at a competition like this there is nothing you can do. It can go two ways – either everything goes wrong or everything goes great. There is no in between, I think. That’s the beauty of any sport. I know what it felt like to be one of the best and today I feel what the bottom of skating tastes like.”
There’s a lot for Brezina to look forward in the coming years with another home European Championships in Ostrava, a marriage and the 2018 Olympics on the horizon.
“We have our wedding in 2017 in the summer on Long Island. Where her family is from. There is going to be a lot of people. It’s going to be fun and I’m really looking forward to it.
“I’ve been to Korea for a show only one time. I think Korean fans, as are Japanese, are amazing. I’m pretty sure those Olympics will be one of a kind. We’ll see how it ends, but if that’s going to be the ending post for me I’m pretty sure that’s where I want to skate my best and I’m going to do my best to actually do that.
Life after PyeongChang seems like a long way away yet and Brezina believes firmly in living in the here and now.
“I don’t know where we’re going to end up yet. I don’t like to think too much into the future. I like to live from moment to moment because life is too short to plan too far ahead. I think it is always nice to focus on the present and enjoy everything the present has to offer because if you only plan ahead and forget about what is happening now you don’t live the full life that everybody wants.”