By Hiro Yoshida
With his final Olympics under way, Michal Březina reflects on his career, the fulfilment of a family dream and the legacy he has left for Czech skating.
After fourteen European Championships, eleven World Championships and four Olympic Games, Březina is hanging up his competitive skates at the end of this season whatever his result this week in Beijing. Last month at the European Championships in Tallinn, Estonia, he cleanly performed his final free skating at the event to finish tenth overall.
“I knew from the beginning that this is going to be the last season that I’m going to skate,” Březina said. “I don’t think that there’s anymore that I can achieve. I’ve done a lot in my career.
“I proved to myself and I think I proved to everyone else that I belong at the top in Europe and I think I’ve proven it, year after year, over the fourteen years that I’ve done Europeans. That’s a pretty big satisfaction for me. Also, the fact that on my last one, I was able to pull together the long programme that I did, after a basically disastrous short. I didn’t start the competition in a very good way, but I think that I ended it on a better note than I actually expected.
“Emotionally and performance wise, I think this definitely must be the best long programme I’ve done in a long time. It kind of goes along with the long programme I did in Japan at (2019) Worlds. There was a mistake at the end of that programme, but I still felt like that was a great performance and this one was very similar. There was no quad, but there were no mistakes. I skated well. I performed everything the way that I wanted. I think that it was also a smart move to not do the quad, because I didn’t feel confident enough that I was going to land it. I was still only one point away from my personal best, even without a quad.
“I’m definitely happy with the way that I finished my long, long European Championship journey.”
Out of fourteen attempts, the five-time Czech champion stood on the European podium just once in his career when he won bronze in 2013 when thin Zagreb, Croatia. He recalls it fondly as one of the highlights of his career.
“The fact that all the skaters that I skated with my whole career, and I’ve competed with my whole career, like Florent (Amodio) and Javier (Fernandez), were both on the podium with me means it’s definitely going to be one of the competitions I’ll remember.”
Březina will be making more memories at this month’s Beijing Olympics in his fourth and final Games, but the first at which he will joined by younger sister Eliška Březinová on the Czech Republic team. Their father Rudolf, a former figure skater and Březinová’s coach, has had a firm guiding hand in his children’s skating careers and this year sees his lifetime wish for both of them to compete together at the Olympics come true.
“He was always invested into both of us skating, especially once he realised that the sport could take us somewhere where he’s never been able to go to,” Březina said. “That’s probably where that strictness came from because he always knew what you had to do if you want to be the best or if you want to be in it for the long haul and not finish after just three or four years of doing big international competitions.
“He was always making sure that we stayed up to date to what was happening in skating. He was always one of those people that would research how people are doing things and what people were doing in the past, and how has it changed to today’s skating.
“I think that also helped me a little bit to be able to compete and stay in the sport, because I was not defined to just a space that, sadly, to this day is being taught in the Czech Republic. There’s just one way of teaching kids how to skate and it seems like nobody wants to change that. My dad was one of the people that didn’t want to go that way. He knew that figure skating has evolved from the time that he was being taught, and when he was skating. He always wanted to find what it is that the other people are doing that takes them to the top.
“That’s how he operated my whole career and he always had an influence on what I was doing and what I was training, how I was preparing for competitions. Regardless of what coach I was with, he always had an input into what we were doing. It was 99% of the time a positive input. It was something that he found somewhere that I didn’t see or that my coach didn’t see and we always figured out a way to put it into my training.”
While his father was always very involved in his skating career, Březina never felt pressured to stay in the sport. On the contrary, he believes that having a parent who was a former skater themselves can in fact take a lot of the pressure away. The Březina siblings, Japan’s Yuma Kagiyama coached by father Masakazu Kagiyama, American Ilia Malinin coached by mother and father Tatiana Malinina and Roman Skorniakov and Estonia’s Arlet Levandi coached by mother Anna Levandi (née Kondrashova) are just some of the second-generation skaters currently competing on the international stage trained by a parent who was a former figure skater themselves.
“I don’t think the parents actually put any pressure on the kids being better than what they did,” Březina said. “I think the parents want to make sure that their kid has everything they need to succeed the way they did.
“I think the parents of these kids, especially when they coach them, feel sometimes more pressure than the kids do because you want to make sure that you help them achieve their dreams. It might be your dream as a parent and as a coach to get your kids and your skaters somewhere, but you always have to remember it has to be their dream in the first place. Because if it’s only your dream, and your kids’ dreams are different, it’s never going to work. In my opinion, I think it’s nice to see that you have all these kids are competing, being coached by their parents and drawing energy and inspiration from their parents’ success.”
As well as supportive family, Březina credits having 2008 European champion Tomáš Verner as a teammate and rival to aspire towards and chase as instrumental in his success.
“I was always so happy and so fortunate that I was able to go and train in Oberstdorf with Tommy,” Březina said. That was one of the reasons why I ended up where I ended up.
“It was a little bit harder for him. He never had someone before him that had those results, and that was able to push him to get there. He had to get there himself. It was a little bit easier for me, because I was younger.
“I was hungry to get where he was because I saw him doing all these things and getting results at competitions and starting to get bigger as a skater.
“It was definitely also a little bit of his achievement, because without him, it would be a lot harder. Probably not impossible, but a lot harder to get where I was. He opened the door for me to step in and I was hoping that I was doing the same thing for the younger generation. I opened the door, but nobody walked in.”
He is critical of the current generation of Czech skaters who he believes have not stepped up to the plate to challenge him and themselves.
“That’s one thing that the generation right now that we have is missing,” Březina said. “Maybe I’m wrong, but maybe not. I feel like they’re comfortable where they are.
“I feel like they want to be where they are because they’re the best where they are. They don’t feel the need for a better training environment, a harder training environment that will push them to do more than they already know.”
Following the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, the lack of potential successors in the Czech Republic factored in his resolve to compete for another four years.
“I’ve said many times to the Czech media that I’ll stop skating when one of these younger kids beat me, whether it was nationally or internationally”, Březina said. “Sadly, that didn’t ever happen. I really do hope that someone from those kids that are skating now is going to realise what it takes and what it means to represent on a certain level.
“You always skate for yourself, but you are also representing a country.
“Everybody knows the Czech Republic has a great history of skating, especially in the men’s category. Starting already in the early 1950s, with Karol Divín and going all the way now to me. Every name that I can think of from the history of our skating was a medallist at Europeans, and Worlds and Olympics, and countless other competitions.
“To me, it was always a pride. I was always proud to come to a competition and represent my country.
“It’s hard for me to say because I’m also not there. I don’t live in the Czech Republic anymore. I live in California. I train in California and I see how people work, how other skaters work.
“When I have time and I can watch either practice or competition of the skaters that I see from Czech Republic. There is something that I’m missing.
“There’s no drive. There’s no hunger. I don’t feel that they’re hungry to push their way to the top.”
In 2017, Březina married former figure skater Danielle Montalbano with whom he had a daughter in early 2020. Since her birth, the life of a full-time athlete has not had quite the same allure.
“I wanted to spend as much time as I could with her. Especially the last two years, it was really hard leaving always for competitions.”
What kept him motivated the last four years was the opportunity to experience a fourth Olympics. Březina made his first Olympic appearance twelve years ago in Vancouver, Canada as a 19-year-old.
“My favourite competition was my short at the Olympics in Vancouver because I skated last out of the entire competition. I skated clean, and I got a standing ovation at the Olympics. To this day, that’s one of the main memories that I have. Just standing in the middle of the Olympic rink in Vancouver, looking into the stands and people standing and clapping. I think that’s everybody’s dream.
“That’s something that I’ll never forget.”
2010 was one of the Czech skater’s most successful years. As well as that standout performance in the short programme at the Olympics, he also finished fourth at both Europeans and Worlds coming third in the free skating at the latter.
“It was kind of a weird situation at the small medal ceremony because there were four of us there – Daisuke (Takahashi), Patrick (Chan), me and Brian Joubert,” Březina recalled. “I had to be there because I got the small medal, but they were also doing the watch awards.
“It was a little funny because I was there for the medal, but he was there because he ended up fourth, third overall.
“The other competition that I think I’ll remember is (2012) Worlds in Nice and my short programme. Because number one, it was my birthday and number two, I brought home a silver medal from the short programme.”
Throughout his career Březina has explored different music choices from classical to musical to Japanese taiko drumming to rock and roll. He maintains that skating to diverse genres of music is essential for a skater’s development.
“A lot of the times, it was not my decision to do a certain type of music, but I’m certainly glad that people chose it for me.
“There’s definitely programmes that I didn’t feel I belonged in, but I was still able to do them. It’s good for your skating career if you’re able to do anything, because it shows to the judges that you’re evolving as a skater and that you’re capable of doing other things. If you stick to the same genre, your whole skating career doesn’t really show your potential as a skater. It just shows that you’re comfortable in only one thing, and you can only perform one thing.”
While Beijing will definitely be his last Olympics, he is still not sure if he will compete one last time at Worlds in Montpellier, France next month.
“I hope that one of the (Czech) guys have points, that they’ve reached the technical minimums that are needed for Worlds. If they make it right before Worlds, I’ll gladly give them the gift of going and experiencing the World Championship for the first time.
“But if nobody’s going to get the points and if the Federation will ask me to go then you’ll probably see me in France. It’s not in my vision right now. Right now, I have Olympics and I want to end my Olympic journey in a good way.
“My focus is on Beijing and we’ll see what happens after that.”
Wherever his career ends, Březina will look back with a sense of satisfaction.
“I’m happy,” he said. “There definitely are things I wish I could have done differently or things that I would have thought of earlier in my career.
“But I’m definitely happy that the journey took me where it took me. It gave me a life lesson. I just hope that I’m going to be able to take what I learned and move it on to the next generation of skaters and help somebody possibly not make the mistakes I did if I’m lucky enough to get a skater to the level where I am.
“I would definitely love to help somebody reach their potential and I think the fact that my career took me in the direction it did definitely helped me to be able to help someone else.”