By Hiro Yoshida
After a few seasons of struggles and missed opportunities, things finally clicked for Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov this year.
Their Olympic season was cut short at Russian Nationals in December 2017 when the duo had to withdraw after the short dance due to Katsalapov’s injury. Although it was disappointing, the hiatus gave them time to prepare for this season and rediscover their passion for the sport.
“It meant a lot of changes in our lives, in our jobs and in our relationships together with our coaches because we didn’t want to give up,” Katsalapov said. “It would be really easy to give up. We never do that. We have a really great team of coaches right now and they believe in us and we trust them a lot.
“When my leg was starting to get better after the injury at nationals, immediately we went on the ice and started to think about our new programmes,” Katsalapov continued. “We started to learn the Tango Romantica. We found something new in our job. We fell in love again with what we do. It’s the thing that is moving us forward right now.”
As well as a tango themed rhythm dance, Sinitsina and Katsalapov worked on a new free dance to “Suite in D Air” by Johann Sebastian Bach and “Praeludium and Allegro (In the Style of Pugnani)” by Fritz Kreisler
“The free dance was ready before the vacation,” Katsalapov said. “We usually have vacation in June so before it we had the skeleton of the free dance.”
It was the second season in a row that they skated to classical music for their free. In 2017/2018 they used “Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 18” by Sergei Rachmaninoff and coach Alexander Zhulin decided that they would opt for a routine in a similar vein.
“He said he wanted us to breathe, to be calm during the programme,” Katsalapov said. “He wanted us to make it smooth through these four minutes with all the elements.”
“We like classical music,” Katsalapov added. “We put our souls in it when we skate.”
Their newfound motivation translated into results once the season began. Sinitsina and Katsalapov took silver at their Grand Prix events in Canada and France. They secured a berth to the Grand Prix Final for the first time as a team and they bagged second place in Vancouver, Canada. Two weeks later they won their first Russian national title and travelled to the European Championships in Minsk, Belarus as heavy favourites to come away with a medal. However, things did not go according to plan. During the twizzle sequence in the rhythm dance, first Katsalapov and then Sinitsina fell. It left them nine points adrift of the medals and, despite coming third in the free dance, they ended up in fourth overall.
“We won nationals this year for the first time,” Katsalapov said. “It’s not pressure, but an honour to represent your flag as the first couple of your country. We were really excited. We’d been working a lot even before Europeans. It was a stupid mistake. Of course, we wanted to skate better and cleaner and after that it motivated us even more. We were working day and night before Saitama.”
Their efforts bore fruit at the World Championships in Japan. By placing second in both the rhythm and free dances, they captured the silver medal. Despite stepping onto the World podium for the first time, the Russians have set their sights higher.
“In professional sports there is only one medal and that is gold,” Katsalapov said. “We are not going to be excited and happy for a long time because we want to do better and go on top.
“We are not that kind of athletes who are just satisfying with being at a huge competition like World Championships. We want more. We want to be on top. We want to feel power in ourselves and we know that we are good skaters. It’s not only about being here. We want to compete. We want to fight to the end. That’s what we are loving the most.”
Five years ago, at the end of the 2014 World Championships in the same arena, Sinitsina and Katsalapov had been in very different positions. They competed at those Worlds on separate teams – Sinitsina with Ruslan Zhiganshin and Katsalapov with Elena Ilinykh. Shortly before the competition began, teammates Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitry Soloviev were forced to withdraw due to injury. The pressure was first of all on the remaining two teams to keep three spots for Russia for the following year’s Worlds.
“I remember that it was pretty hard to know that we came as three couples and competed with only two,” Sinitsina recalled. “We had to try and get three spots for the next year and that’s all I remember. There were many emotions.”
There was additional expectation on Ilinykh and Katsalapov who had won bronze at the Sochi Olympics. With the gold and silver medallists absent, the title appeared to be theirs for the taking. However, disaster struck in the short dance and even though they rallied in the free they finished off the podium by less than one point.
“It was a pretty hard time I can say,” Katsalapov said. “I remember that me and Lena could win that Worlds. We had this mistake on the twizzles in the short dance. After that we had a pretty strong skate in the free dance.”
For Katsalapov, it was a turning point. He made the decision to end his partnership with Ilinykh after Worlds concluded.
“After that I realised my life is going to change soon because I want to,” Katsalapov said. “I wasn’t afraid of anything. I just was open to everything new. I only was afraid to hurt my partner’s feelings. I wanted to move forward on my own path. I could speak a lot, but I just don’t want to do it now. If you ask me in five years, I will tell you everything.”
With less than three years left until Beijing 2022, Sinitsina and Katsalapov will be building towards the next Olympics over the coming seasons.
“This is the first season of the Olympic cycle and we started it pretty good,” Katsalapov said “We ended this season pretty good. We feel really happy right now. We already started to think about what we will do next year, and our coach Alexander already was throwing out some ideas about the music for the free dance. We are already charged for next year. Of course, we are thinking for all of these four years. We are charging ourselves for the Olympic Games. Nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. We are just living the moment right now and doing our best day after day.
The Russians now find themselves in a good place after by far their most successful season together as a team.
“I’m the happiest man on the planet because we have been through a lot of things together and we made it together,” Katsalapov said. “I am really proud of what we do together and what Vika is doing by her own – how she looks at me, how she thinks. She is a very smart girl and she is very talented. She’s very motivated. She knows what she wants in sport and in life. This means a lot to me.”
Having finished almost 11 points adrift of this year’s world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, Sinitsina and Katsalapov will prepare for the upcoming season with a view to closing gap on their French rivals while also being aware that those who finished behind them in Saitama will be hot on their heels.
“We are going to work,” Katsalapov said. “I am not only talking about the French team. I am talking about everyone. You saw the points after the short programme. Everybody is really close, so this is really interesting right now. We will work a lot. We will do a lot of run throughs. We will try to plan everything we do before the season starts to be ready for everything.”