By Hiro Yoshida
Since winning the bronze medal at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Denis Ten has endured four years of highs and lows in competition and battled with injury. As he approaches his third Olympics in his ancestral homeland, the Kazakhstani skater has more on his mind than merely winning a medal.
The 2016/2017 season ended on a disappointing note for Ten with a 16th place at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki, Finland. This was his lowest ever placing at the event. He did, however, secure a spot for Kazakhstan at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. As the new season was about to kick off, calamity struck when he was in the Olympic host country for an ice show in August of last year. He badly injured ligaments in his right ankle. The injury was so severe that he could not fly back to his training base in Los Angeles, California and he remained in Korea for several weeks to concentrate on rehabilitation.
In the past several seasons, Ten had on many occasions been forced to withdraw from competitions during the first half of the season. This time he was determined not to let injury get in the way of him competing.
“That’s what has been happening for the past two years,” Ten said of his injury woes. “I would miss so many competitions because I wasn’t sure if I could handle so much impact on my body. This year I made the decision that no matter how things will go I want to stick to the plan that I made during the summer. I really wanted to compete because I felt like this injury that I got during the summer is the biggest one in my career yet. I thought to myself that this is life and I should just go and accept it. Try my best to stick to the plan and go through all the challenges life has given me.”
For Ten that means training smarter as his body can no longer withstand the rigours of the intense training that it used to undergo when he was younger. His focus this season has been to get out on the circuit and compete. He is less concerned about results as his main goal is to be ready for PyeongChang.
“I still go through recovery and I do a lot of physiotherapy,” he said. “I work a lot off-ice, trying to strengthen my ligaments. Every practice is a bit of a challenge. Every time I am on the ice and I know exactly what I should do. I have a very limited time on the ice. I can’t just go on as I used to when I was younger – just do things, go on and skate and jump and repeat programmes as many times as I can. Now I have a limited amount of time on the ice because it’s very hard on my body. I try to take it on a different level and through competitions I also try to learn. I feel like every time I compete I make progress not only physically, but also mentally. I feel good competing.”
“No matter what the results are I feel like I do enjoy what I am doing no matter how bad my foot is or how strong my jumps are. I think it’s great that I have this opportunity to compete because still my major goal is set to PyeongChang. Everything I do right now is still focused on my preparation. It’s all part of my plan to prepare myself for PyeongChang.
“I don’t set goals at this specific moment that, to be this good in PyeongChang, I must be this good right now. It’s all part of my career. It’s all part of my journey and certainly right now I’m not in a great shape to go on and do the best that I can on the technical side. I try to do well on my artistic side. By the time the games in PyeongChang arrive, I’ll most likely be ready with the technical part of my routine as well.”
The fact that the Olympics are being held in Korea is a major factor in why the two-time World medallist has continued skating. He is a member of the Korean ethnic minority in Kazakhstan and his great-great-grandfather Min Keung-ho was an esteemed general in Korea in the early 20th century. His participation in PyeongChang will be a special one for him.
“It’s really exciting because it’s one of the main reasons I stayed in the sport,” Ten explained. “I mentioned a few times before I wasn’t sure I was going to keep competing after Sochi. I stayed for one year and I set my goals to compete in Korea because Korea is not a foreign place for me. It’s a country that has a specific spiritual bond, a very touching connection with my heart and my family history. I really look forward to competing there. I know that a lot of my friends and a part of my family is going to be there. It’s basically my second hometown. I really want to go there and do my best.
“It’s funny because when I got this injury I was in Korea. I was stuck in the country for almost two months because I was not allowed to fly. The air pressure could damage my ligament. I honestly thought that maybe I will stay there until the Olympic Games because I wasn’t sure how the progress would go. We joked that maybe it would help me get used to the time difference or acclimatise myself for the Games. I had to use crutches. For the first week I was in a wheelchair. Now seeing the progress I achieved, I hope by the time I come back to Korea I will be 100 percent ready. I hope I will be able to deliver a good performance.”
For this season, the 2015 Four Continents champion has selected “Tu Sei” by Vittorio Grigolo as the music for his short programme and “SOS d’un Terrien en Detresse” by Michel Berger and performed by Kazakhstani singer Dimash Kudaibergen. Throughout his career Ten has worked with some of skating’s preeminent choreographers. He elected to collaborate with Canadian choreographer David Wilson for the first time on his competitive routines for this season.
“Looking back now I feel I was given a very precious opportunity to work with so many great choreographers, starting in Russia working with Tatiana Tarasova,” he said. “When I moved to the U.S., I worked with Lori Nichol for almost five years and she’s a fantastic person and a great master of choreography. I worked with Shae-Lynn (Bourne). I worked with Stéphane Lambiel. Now I had the chance to work with David Wilson and everyone gave me something. Everyone gave me perfume, some deeper comprehension of what I am doing on the ice.
“In the case of David, we have known each other for a while. It’s no surprise that I have followed his work and maybe he was following my skating for a while too. To me it was great to have this chance to work with him personally. Before I met him at some shows and this time I had an idea to make some competition programmes. It was very inspiring and a very fun experience. I’m so happy with the outcome, but most importantly I hope the audience enjoys our programmes.
“My long programme is performed by a Kazakh artist and it’s a very fascinating story how we all got together. In fact, it was David’s idea to create the programme, but it happened just a few days after I met with the singer himself at an event in Kazakhstan. We all got together at a very special time and I truly love what I am doing today.”
One person who has been a constant in Ten’s life over the past number of years is his coach Frank Carroll. While he worked primarily with Russian coach Nikolai Morosov during the 2016/2017 season, he was still in regular contact with Carroll. He has strong bond with and a great affection for the American coach.
“Frank has been my coach for I don’t know how many years,” Ten said. “After Vancouver, I moved to L.A. Last year even though I spent more time with Nikolai, which was in New Jersey, Moscow and everywhere – I would follow him wherever he goes – I still was in touch with Frank. He’s a very special person to me. He’s not just a skating coach, but I think he’s more a person I look up to. When I look back to my school times, all these teachers have a very tough job. They teach the kids at school. Once they are gone they never come back. In skating it’s very similar. The coaches spend so much time with athletes by the time the athlete retires and goes on a different journey most of the time they lose contact with each other. Frank is one of the people that I know that most of his students they keep connected with him despite all the challenges and all the changes in their lives. I think that describes him as a person. He’s a man that is my coach. He’s my mentor and just a human being that is very close to my heart and a person I dearly love.”
It is this connection with Carroll that has sustained Ten and brought him to his third Olympic Games, despite all the hardship he has had to endure. For him at this moment and time, skating is more than just winning medals.
“For the past few months it’s been really challenging for me to even train. I don’t have enough practice. Frank tells me all the time it only needs just two months of being healthy and two months of being totally devoted to training routine. That’s my goal – to become healthy and to focus fully on the skating, on the training. This year is very special, not just because of the Olympics. It’s special for everyone. For me, it’s because I had this chance to create great programmes, in the past to travel all over the world and to come back to L.A. I’m a different person today. I feel it’s fantastic that I have the chance to be where I am today and despite all the challenges I want to trust my instincts, trust my fate and go on and do the best I can.
“Certainly, in this condition, a medal is the last thing I should be thinking about and right now I want to bring more than just a medal. I was lucky because, in my career, the medals that I have won the performances were quite bright. Many people remember them, and I was lucky to have this ability to really pull myself together at the very important time. This is what I want to do in PyeongChang. I don’t want to just skate or win a medal or do a clean programme. I want to deliver a performance. Frank always taught all his students that skating and champions are not made of jumps or programmes or choreography. It’s all about the full package. I want to deliver a great show. All these fans, the audience, you and everyone they come to a competition and they want to have a good time. No matter how a skater skates they still want to enjoy what he is doing. My goal is to share more than just a programme itself or skating. This is what I am going to go and try. I don’t want to dwell on specific points or medals because I think it’s not my priority today.”