By Marina Lee
The abundance of female figure skating talent that Russia has been blessed with in recent years has lead many to overlook Maria Sotskova. However, her consistent results over the past two seasons as a senior have proved that she is a fierce competitor. At the Russian National Figure Skating Championships in St. Petersburg this weekend, she will once more be searching for two performances to take her closer to a spot at next February’s Olympic Games.
Sotskova began this season in winning fashion when she captured the Finlandia Trophy in Espoo, Finland. She subsequently secured silver medals at both of her Grand Prix assignments in Canada and France to book her place in the Grand Prix Final. In Nagoya, she once more bagged a silver medal behind teammate Alina Zagitova. She puts these steady performances down to altering her mental approach around time of the open test skates for the Russian national team before the season started in earnest.
“I began to change my psychological preparation for competitions this season, and I think that it helped me. I was sure that the training process was correct because I trust my coaches and they told me that we were going in the right direction. It meant that all the problems were in my psychological approach. That’s why I decided to totally change it.
“I am pleased about it because finally I managed to get a grip of myself. At the beginning of the season before the open test skates, I psyched myself up the same way as I did last season, but I realised that I had grown up, that I had changed and therefore the approach should be changed too. You will always feel nervous and that’s okay.
“Sometimes it is difficult to focus, and some inner factors disturb you. You should always be able to arrange what is going on inside of your mind by yourself.”
Sotskova feels that her good showing so far, this season has been down to the quality of her preparations during the off-season. Given the importance of the season ahead, there was an extra incentive to work. Just do not mention the “O” word.
“The off-season was very productive. I was training hard. I was skating a lot, I began to do general physical conditioning with Leonid Moiseevich Raitsin and it helped a lot too. I feel more confident in myself; I feel it even in my jumps. We were in a training camp in Italy, in the mountains where it is harder to breathe. It’s very useful for sure because when you come back home you feel much easier. In general, we worked a lot because everyone understands that it is the Olympic season. Everyone wants to be better and to show it in competitions, to show that you are ready and what you have been working on. But we don’t discuss it with our coaches. Everyone understands what season it is, but nobody speaks about it aloud so as not to make anybody more nervous.”
Even during a brief respite from serious training, Sotskova still had her mind on being ready for the season ahead. She did not allow herself too much opportunity to slack off.
“I had only three weeks of vacation, but I tried to get from it as much as I could. Of course, I didn’t forget about practices and visited the gym because I must not lose shape. If I don’t practice for a couple of days – that’s all it takes: I don’t feel right in my jumps or anything. When I continue practicing, it definitely helps.”
There was also a chance to go abroad on holidays with a fellow skater.
“I was in Turkey with Polina Tsurskaya. We had a really great time there!”
Sotskova has two brand new competitive programmes for this season. Her short programme is to “Swan Lake” by Petr I. Tchaikovsky and her free skating to “Claire de Lune” by Claude Debussy. She explained how she has worked a great deal on connecting with the themes of both pieces and what worlds she wants to portray to those who come to see her skate.
“In the short programme, I am a young girl at a ball. It’s my first time there and I try to show all my emotions when I dance with one gentleman and then with another one. In the free programme, I try to show nature – air, water, fire, I want the audience to be transported to jungles, for example, to see a waterfall. I try to show it in my step sequence because the music there is appropriate to convey that. With my choreographer, we felt that it was like a waterfall and we wanted spectators to be taken away and immersed deeply in nature too.
“We discussed with my choreographer that, of course, every person will have his or her own image of nature. I see a waterfall, jungles, birds flying; I feel the air, the smell. Somebody will see a forest, a meadow; I want everybody to have their own image of it.”
The idea to harness her imagination in such a way came from choreographer Irina Tagaeva. Sotskova believes it has really aided her in connecting with the music.
“During one of my practices my choreographer, Irina Anvarovna said, “Show a waterfall in your sequence”. After that I began to think about it because the music “Moonlight” really flows. It’s not interesting to skate without any character or story because you will not feel anything. That’s why I painted some pictures in my mind. I remember them during my skating and it helps me.”
Initially, Sotskova had reservations about the music for her free and had to be talked round to skate to it.
“This year Petr Tchernyshev proposed the music for both programmes. I didn’t agree with the music for the free programme for quite a long time. It’s not that I didn’t like the music. I liked it. It just seemed to me that it would be the same character and style as always. But they managed to persuade me that it’s not the best time for experiments or for trying something new and more upbeat as I wanted. I need to show my strengths. We began to work on the programme and I fell in love with it. The music and me are like a unified whole now. I really like this programme and enjoy skating to it.”
At the end of last season, 2015 World bronze medallist Elena Radionova joined Sotskova in being coached by Elena Buianova. It was a welcome addition to the training group and Sotskova finds it stimulating to have a skater of a similar standard nearby.
“It’s normal when in one group there are some strong skaters who can compete against each other. The main thing is for this rivalry to be effective. That’s what we have because we are both grown-ups and we both understand what we want from this season, from this sport, and we don’t waste our efforts on any unhealthy competition. We are divided in practices by our coach: Lena trains during the first half of practice and I on the second one, so the coaches don’t make us to play off against each other. We have quite a calm atmosphere. Of course, we see what the other does, but it helps. When I trained with my previous coach, I was the oldest skater in that group and I always was alone on the rink. When I transferred to Elena Germanovna, Adelina (Sotnikova) had left and I was alone in the group again, so I was thinking, “Will I always be alone?” And then Lena came, and it really helps and motivates me.”
In the little time off that she has, Sotskova prioritises family and friends with some cultural pursuits thrown in for good measure.
“I don’t have a lot of free time, but when I do have it, I spend it with my mother or my dog. Of course, I try to meet with my friends most of whom are skaters too. All of us spend a lot of time at practices and that’s why on Saturdays or Sundays we try to go somewhere to relax and to have a good time. However, we do it quietly so as not to get tired by Monday. Sometimes we go to theatres or museums. But in the museums there are rarely interesting exhibitions. As for theatres, I just adore them.
Sotskova has drawn on her trips to the theatre as a source of inspiration for her skating throughout her career.
“Especially when I was younger, when I came to practice after the theatre, I was so inspired and was skating so well that my coaches were just shocked thinking what had happened to me. Now, of course, I became different and quieter. I still get inspired by theatres. I try to learn some things from the actors because to go to the theatre is like to going to an acting lesson. You feel this special energy, and, on the one hand, you get it from the actors, and on the other hand, actors get it from you. And it is very important for us too to get the energy from the audience.
“Before it was a big problem. I saw only the ice and nothing around. Now it’s not so difficult. I don’t feel as scared as I was before when I really was afraid to compete, I felt very nervous. Now I made some conclusions why I do it, what I should do and how, so now it’s much easier.”
This season Sotskova wants to build on what she accomplished last season while learning from her mistakes at major events.
“Before some certain competitions, the most important ones, I skated quite well and clean. Then I had a little breakdown. I failed at the European and Worlds Championships and it gave me some doubts about myself after that. This season I want to always skate clean no matter what. I don’t have any room for mistakes. I must skate clean and work to do everything right till the end. It’s the most important things for all skaters, I think. You can get high so quickly and then fall the same and it hurts much harder. I want to get higher and higher, step by step and not to be a one hit wonder. Of course, for me it is very important not only to do the elements in my programmes, but to make them become art, to show all my emotions, beautiful lines and movement. Anybody can jump, but what is most important is to show programmes which give people goose bumps and that will be remembered for years.”