By Hiro Yoshida
No-one in figure skating would have been surprised if Carolina Kostner had decided to hang up her skates following the 2014 Olympics. The much-admired Italian had fulfilled all the promise she had shown since competing in the junior ranks by winning a World Championship title in 2012, five European golds and claiming Olympic bronze in Sochi three years ago.
In the summer of 2014, Kostner announced that she was going to take a break for the post-Olympic season. This hiatus was further extended in a well-documented suspension due to her entanglement in the doping scandal of former boyfriend Alex Schwazer. At the end of lengthy legal proceedings that went all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, she was cleared to skate again from 1 January 2016. She would now be able to end her career on her own terms and at a press conference in February 2016 she confirmed her intention to resume competing the following season.
There had been a lot of time for her to consider her options. Coming from a close-knit northern Italian family, Kostner took the opportunity to reconnect with those nearest to her and also to take part more deeply in other artistic pursuits. In the end, she found that her time away had reinvigorated her love of skating.
“Until 2014 I had this dream that I wanted to one day stand on the podium of the Olympic Games,” Kostner explained. “I had a present example in my family because my dad’s cousin and my godmother (Isolde Kostner) won three Olympic medals. For me, it was something possible and I always believed that if I am patient enough, if I work hard and I put my heart into it, it can happen and it did.
“Since that moment, my body was very tired of so many years of a lot of training and a lot of discipline. My mind was also tired. I was looking forward to spending some time with my family and friends. When you reach a goal in your life, sometimes you feel lost. Sometimes it’s easier to follow your goal and your dream than when you reach it. I experienced a moment where I wanted to reset my goals. I needed to find what my next step in my life should be and it took a little while.
“The time away from skating I engaged to spend more time with my family because I’ve been gone since I was 14. I got to spend time with my brother. He plays ice hockey. He moved back home and he will join the Italian national team at Worlds this year. It’s very exciting.
“I studied art history at university and I took classical ballet. These are all things that I thought are connected to skating and could put new knowledge and new vision into my skating. I thought the best motivation is to compete. It pushes you a little bit further beyond your limits when you need it.”
A New Approach
Kostner decided that if she was going to compete again she needed to overhaul her technique. She approached legendary Russian coach Alexei Mishin who agreed to work with her.
“In order to compete, I said I wanted to improve my technique. That’s how I asked if Professor Mishin would help me to improve my jumps and my technique. The first time I had the idea I thought it would never be possible and then step by step it just developed into an amazing project with a fantastic group of people between physiotherapists and managers and my federation and my Olympic Committee and coaches and choreographers. It’s becoming a group that follows one project which is not just orientated on winning. It’s orientated on my feeling that I have a gift and it is fantastic to put it into action in the best way possible and then we will let the judges decide about the result. This is the approach to find the best I can be.”
The total revamp of her technique was not plain sailing. Kostner was taken back to basics, but she feels it was worth it in the long run.
“It’s difficult to explain, but Professor Mishin’s school has a very precise method of teaching. When he decided to accept to help me, we started from zero, from waltz jumps, from single jumps, from sit spins, from twizzles, from crossovers. I feel like I learned figure skating in a totally new way, but it took a very long time. Sometimes it was frustrating because I knew how I used to do it worked, but it was never totally stable. That’s what my goal is – to make my technique more stable so that I can engage much more in my choreography. This is the main collaboration with Mr. Mishin.”
Kostner had been planning to get back to skating in competitions early in the season, but in the end made her debut at Golden Spin in Zagreb, Croatia in December. This was down to her taking longer to adjust to resuming full-time training.
“Since I did not skate or skated very little for two years, my body was not able to handle the difficult elements and the combination of many difficult elements in one programme. It took me maybe longer than I expected to reorganise everything and I wanted to decide step by step with my coaches. We always planned two weeks ahead and then saw how it went. We always had to adjust until we found the right amount of training. That’s probably in the end why it was delayed for a little bit.”
Despite finishing third in the free skating, she comfortably won gold at Golden Spin. The week after that she notched up a record-equalling eighth Italian national title and was selected to represent Italy at the European Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic in January.
Ostrava has special significance for Kostner as she won bronze at the 2003 Junior World Championships in the city. Fourteen years later, she returned and once more wound up on the podium in exactly the same spot. She believes her previous experience of skating all those years ago aided her.
“Positive emotions and positive memories help you to maybe not listen to this voice is in your head that says you’re not good enough,” she explained. “It’s always there and if you can just make it shut up with memories saying, ‘No, I skated here. It was wonderful.’ This is the mind game you do in your own head while you skate, while you do triple Lutzes.”
Two months later, Kostner was at the World Championships in Helsinki, Finland. Skating in the second warm-up group of the short programme, she had a nervous outing of her routine to “God of Thunder” by Kitaro and “Bonzo’s Montreux” by Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. She had a low landing on a triple flip and struggled to earn Level 1 on a flying camel spin after she botched the entry. She found herself down in eighth place on 66.33 points at the halfway point of the competition.
Kostner took to the ice inside the Hartwall Arena two days after the short for the free. Apart from singling a planned triple loop, her programme to “Nisi Dominus (Cum Dederit)” by Antonio Vivaldi was more cohesive than her short and it was clear that she was pleased at the end of her skate. Her score of 130.50 was good enough for fifth place in the free and she moved up to a final placement of sixth with a total of 196.83.
“I was very happy. It was a very exciting moment because six months ago I had no idea if I would make it again to a World Championships. When I got here, it was not easy to not be distracted because I had not had the chance to get myself in the habit again to compete in big events and there is always so much going on beyond the moment when you are on the ice.
“I did it 12 times in a row and this was my 13th, but with a break in between so that takes a little while. That was difficult, so when I finished my routine of course you are always tending to want to reach that moment of perfection and it was not. But on the other side, I am very realistic and say this is a great step. I had no panic attack, no meltdown. I skated my programmes with a few mistakes that I know I could have avoided and there is so much still that I can improve. I cannot think that I want to say “Oh, I want to skate again (snaps fingers). I can do it” It’s not like this. It takes time to reorganise your body, reorganise the jumps, reorganise the whole skating, get used to a long programme again. It was a big challenge and so finishing in my ending pose it was all the joy coming from that I did it. The placement was totally in the back of my thoughts. It really didn’t matter. It was very, very exciting.”
Towards the Future
During Kostner’s break from skating, there has been a changing of the guard with a whole new generation of skaters from Russia and Japan upping the ante. Although they are separated by a considerable age gap, she believes they share common ground through their passion for the sport. They are a source of inspiration for her as much as she is a role model for them.
“I love to see those girls. I love to see how they improve. I love to see them because each of them has their own personality. They have their own challenges and it’s not easy for anyone. It hasn’t been easy for me. Sometimes it looks easy, but it’s not. It’s our job to make it seem easy. I love to share my time with them and when we compete, age doesn’t matter because it’s only about figure skating.
“Outside the ice I have spent some fun moments even with Evgenia (Medvedeva) at the European Championships in the show practice and also with Julia Lipnitskaia in Sochi. Or with Mao (Asada) when we do shows together in Japan. I love to share my time with skaters because I know they understand if you are frustrated sometimes because they know how difficult it is much more than people from the outside. I can understand. If I can be of help or an example I’d be very honoured.”
Kostner’s sights are now set on next season with the European Championships in Moscow, where she won her first World medal back in 2005, the Olympics in PyeongChang and the Worlds Championships in Milan to look forward to for her. This will be the third time for her competing on a global stage in her home country after skating at the 2006 Olympics and 2010 Worlds both in Turin. While some might see it as a perfect ending to a long and illustrious career, the Italian has made no decision as to when she will hang up her skates.
“My cousin the skier once told me that you will feel when it’s the moment to stop and I have not felt it yet. I’m not expecting it. I know the years will not be many, but it’s something I can only do now. I cannot do it when I am 45 or 50 and I want to use this time because I think at the end of our lives we will only regret the things that we did not do and not the things we did and tried and maybe failed. Otherwise you live with a question mark what if? And I don’t want that.”