By Hiro Yoshida
Russian ladies have dominated on the European stage in recent times with very few skaters on the continent able to challenge them. However, Alexia Paganini (17) might be the one to give them a run for their money.
Paganini, who was born in Greenwich, Connecticut, briefly competed for the United States before switching in 2017 to Switzerland, the country of her father’s birth. She promptly picked up an Olympic berth for PyeongChang 2018 by coming third at the 2017 Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany. Later in the season she claimed her first Swiss national title and was selected to represent Switzerland at the European Championships in Moscow, Russia in January 2018. Her initial experience of competing on such a large stage was daunting, but it helped her to cope with the pressure of the Olympics and World Championships that followed.
“Europeans for me was a wake up call,” Paganini said. “My first practices on the big rink were very scary for me. At Europeans you have a lot of practice days before so after a while I got more and more used to it.
“Once I was comfortable at Europeans, I was comfortable also in other competitions.”
Paganini finished a creditable seventh in Moscow, the highest finish for a Swiss skater at Europeans since Sarah Meier won gold in 2011. The following month she travelled as part of the Swiss Olympic team to PyeongChang where she came 21st overall. The Olympics brought her to another level.
“I learned how to prepare myself the best way I could. That was what I had to work on because when I was preparing myself for competitions before – how do you prepare yourself for the Olympics? Who knows? That was the biggest thing that I learned – how to control my emotions mentally. I think that also comes with experience. I had to do so many competitions to be able to learn that.”
The build-up to the Olympics saw her focus on her training and continue her schooling through online courses.
“I honestly lost a lot of friends before the Olympics because I was only talking to my friends at the rink,” Paganini said. “A couple of people from my old school said, ‘I see why you’re not in school now. That’s why you left.’ Other than that, not so much changed. I thought more would change.”
She completed her season with a 21st place at Worlds in Milan, Italy. During the off-season, she worked on two new programmes for this season with choreographer Nikolai Morozov. Her short programme is to “Yo Soy Maria” by Astor Piazzolla which was chosen for her by Morozov.
“For the short, we just wanted a strong piece of music. We were looking at a bunch of songs and we thought this was the best.”
Paganini opted for the “La La Land” film soundtrack for her free skating. It was a choice she had been considering for a while.
“I was skating to it a lot and I already knew I wanted to skate to it. After the season was over around May probably, we just decided to use ‘La La Land’ for the free.”
She made her Grand Prix debut this season at the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow, Russia and surprised a number of people with how she skated, including herself.
“This will sound bad, but I was preparing myself for last place,” Paganini admitted. “It worked out better for me because I didn’t care how many points I got. It was just a case of doing the best I can.”
She came third in the short with a score of 63.43 and fifth in the free with 119.07 to give herself a total of 182.50 points and three new personal bests for fourth place overall. Even though she finished off the podium, the result was beyond her wildest dreams.
“I think everyone was asking why is she so happy right now? She’s in fourth and she could have gotten third. I actually realised afterwards that it was three points, a couple of levels and one under rotation and I could have been third. But honestly why should I be upset? I got a personal best by so many points. I can’t really ask for much more.
“You feel it when people are supporting you. You get an adrenalin rush off it. It’s more fun than when not so many people really pay attention to what you do. You kind of skate for yourself. In Russia in the second warm-up I really felt that this was a competition. This is it.”
After the withdrawal of Carolina Kostner, she picked up a second assignment at Internationaux de France in Grenoble, France. Her own expectations and everyone else’s were slightly higher than before Rostelecom Cup which put pressure on her that she had not felt before.
“I think going into Russia was easier for me because no one really expected much from me,” she said. “I think people started to know me. That’s where I started feeling responsibility a little bit towards the public. Before this I didn’t really feel so much from the public.”
Paganini became serious about skating around the time of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Unsurprisingly, she was inspired by the two main protagonists of the ladies competition – Yuna Kim and Mao Asada. And her favourite programme by her idols?
“Yuna’s James Bond short. I really liked that one. For Mao, it would be her short programme from Worlds in Japan (2014).”
After adding a second Swiss title already this season, she will next compete at Europeans in Minsk, Belarus and then Worlds in Saitama, Japan. Her objectives for the events are modest.
“For Europeans and Worlds, it’s mostly to earn world ranking points and to earn Grand Prixs for next season. That’s the main goal. Hopefully top 10 at Europeans again and then Worlds I hadn’t really though that much about. Probably do better in the free skate than last year. I’m not really focused on Worlds that much yet.”
She also wants to keep upping the technical ante to make herself as competitive as she can. She has targeted key areas that she needs to work on.
“I need to build consistency. I need to make sure I get Level 4s on everything. I need to get harder triples. I need to do two triple-triples.
“I guess just to do everything possible to get the most amount of points.”
Beyond this season, the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, China are on her mind with a view to improving on her placement in PyeongChang.
“Hopefully I make it there,” Paganini said. “I want to be more competitive with the other girls, so I can end up higher. I guess just me being more competitive than last time.
“Next time I compete there I really want to make an impact.”