By Hiro Yoshida
While the fortunes of German pairs skating have risen and fallen constantly over the past few decades, it looks like things are on the upswing again with Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot taking bronze at the 2016 World Championships after a long and hard fought battle to be granted permission to skate internationally. While Savchenko and Massot made the headlines, another new German pair quietly made a promising international debut last season.
Mari Vartmann and Ruben Blommaert have been competing in pairs for years already, just with different partners. Vartmann skated with Florian Just for five years from 2004 to 2009 and Aaron van Cleave from 2010 to 2015. Originally from Belgium, Blommaert moved to Germany in 2011 to team up with Annabelle Proelss. That partnership ended in the 2014/2015 season. Blommaert found himself at a loose end with Vartmann also at the point of searching for someone more compatible.
“I really started to think there is something not going right in my life just before German nationals,” Vartmann recalled. “I also left my old coach just before nationals and then I really had to start over and think what I wanted to do with my life.
“I heard Ruben had split with his old partner so I decided to write to him. He lived near to my home town and at Christmas, I was there and he was too. We decided to do a try-out in Belgium during winter.”
The two immediately clicked and formally starting skating together in Spring 2015. Due to commitments with the German armed forces (their sponsor), it took them a little while before they were able to train in earnest.
“We knew we were going to skate together when she finished Worlds, but then we had to go to the army,” Blommaert revealed. “She had to go for two months and I had to go for six weeks. We started training in June really more hours a day.
“We had less hours to skate and it was just on weekends, so you can’t learn,” Vartmann said. “It’s hard to learn if you just skate two times a week. We started really in June 2015.”
With their first season as a partnership rapidly approaching, the race was on to get ready. The Germans were thrown in at the deep end with a punishing schedule of events between their international debut at Nebelhorn Trophy in late September and Tallinn Trophy in November.
“It was a really busy schedule for us,” Blommaert reflected. “We had two weeks to start with elements and after two weeks our choreographer worked with us to make the programs and everything went so quickly. I think we did five competitions in seven weeks. We did so much in a row – Nebelhorn, Nice, Graz, Tallinn, Cup of China.”
The lack of preparation was challenging for Vartmann and Blommaert, especially with their technical elements. At the 2016 European Championships in Bratislava, Slovakia, they started out with a clean short program, but in the free skating they struggled with several elements and placed eighth overall.
“We haven’t had so much time to really find each other as a pair,” Blommaert said. “We just did the elements.”
“Especially I think in the throws it is a big deal for every pairs skater,” Vartmann added. “It’s always difficult because everyone does it in a different way. The timing is different and we needed some time for this. But now I think it is getting better.”
“Timing elements like the twist and throws is the most work, but everything else is not so different,” Blommaert said.
Many pairs find the most challenging element in the beginning of a partnership the throw twist, but this was not the case for the Germans.
“We started from the beginning with double,” Blommaert said. “We tried with single because normally you do single, double, triple, but she cannot do single. So we did double, triple.
“We started in June and in summer I think we already did it. We took our time. When the double was good, we tried it and it was actually fine.”
There have been changes all round since Vartmann and Blommaert started skating with each other. The pair find themselves in the unusual situation of now being coached by former competitors and two-time German champions Maylin and Daniel Wende. There doesn’t seem to have been any difficulties for either parties in making the transition from rivals to coaches and students. The Wendes pipped Vartmann and her former partner van Cleave for selection to German Olympic team in Sochi 2014.
“It all started when I decided to leave my old coach,” Vartmann explained. “The federation said we couldn’t skate at nationals without a coach. You need someone who is watching you at the boards.
“I remembered that Daniel was a coach now and I used to be in the same practice group as him for years, so I had a good connection with him. I called him and told him what our problem was and he told me it would not be a problem as they would be at nationals anyway.
“I liked how he and Maylin worked with us. We decided to prepare for Europeans with them and that’s how everything started.”
“Mari knows Daniel for a long time and I know both of them for a long time,” Blommaert added. “What we like is that they are young and they are starting out as coaches and they are doing everything possible to start a good career. We are happy with them and I think they are happy with us.
“They have so much energy to practice every day with us and it’s good that there is a woman watching who knows pairs and there is a male coach who knows pairs. They can both see different things that helps both of us. They are young and we are friends so we have a good connection. We can say everything to them.”
Working with the Wendes entailed making a move to the sleepy Alpine town of Oberstdorf where the coaching team is based. It was quite an adjustment for Vartmann and Blommaert who were not used to the pace of rural life. However, they now see the merits in training in a location where they can concentrate solely on their sport.
“When I was living in Berlin and we had competitions in Oberstdorf, I really felt sorry for my friends or for the people who were living in Oberstdorf,” Vartmann confessed. “I was saying that I could never ever live there and that’s not really what I want to have in my life.
“But now I really enjoy to live in Oberstdorf because you have no stress. Everything is so relaxed. It’s just the simple things. If you need an appointment at the garage for your car, they say come tomorrow or come tonight. In Berlin, you have to wait two weeks for an appointment because it’s so full. I really like that.”
“You can really focus on skating in Oberstdorf,” Blommaert continued. “There is nothing else. Life is easy. There are no traffic lights. There’s just snow.”
“I also really love the atmosphere in the ice rink,” Vartmann said. “There are really great people skating there who go to Worlds and Europeans.”
The Oberstdorf rink is also the training base for Savchenko and Massot and, while the teams are not close, it is clear that there is mutual respect for each other. Vartmann and Blommaert also find it stimulating practicing alongside another high calibre pair.
“We get along like normal people, but we’re not friends,” Vartmann stated. “I think that’s kind of normal.”
“Everybody is nice to each other,” Blommaert added. “Not best friends, but in a good way. It’s nice to practice with them. They make everything look so easy and for us it’s our goal to try the same.”
Though they have only skated together for a very short time, Vartmann and Blommaert have clearly gelled as a unit and found something in each other that they lacked in their previous partnerships.
“I’m really happy she is light and small, a real pair girl, and I am happy I have a partner who does the triple jumps because for me I always had the triples inside, but I could never show them,” Blommaert said. “She’s really professional. She’s a woman who knows what she wants and for me this is the big different with skating with a child or skating with someone who it’s her job, like me. We are both in the army and we are working professionals and I like the atmosphere much better.”
“I like that when he comes into the rink he is always happy,” Vartmann said. “We are always having fun. He’s also very professional and he knows what to do for his goals.”
Vartmann and Blommaert were unable to compete at the World Championships in Boston due to Germany only having one spot in the pairs event. This season they will be seeking to fill one of the two places Germany will have in Helsinki next March. Having missed out in 2010 and 2014, Vartmann is also looking forward to fulfilling her dream of competing at the Olympics in 2018.
“The goal is to make it to the Olympics in 2018 and just not to be a competitor but also to skate good. I can’t say anything about placement because we never competed at Worlds so far so it’s hard to tell where we are in the world.”
Vartmann and Blommaert make their international season debut this week at Nebelhorn Trophy.