By Hiro Yoshida
Exactly five years have passed since Aljona Savchenko crowned a spectacular career with an Olympic pairs gold medal with partner Bruno Massot It was her fifth attempt to win a long-cherished gold medal. She made her Olympic debut at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. At the time, she was just 18 years old and teamed with Stanislav Morozov representing Ukraine. They finished 15th.
In 2003, she began her partnership with Robin Szolkowy when she moved to her training base to Chemnitz, Germany. Right before the 2006 Torino Olympics, Savchenko acquired German citizenship which allowed her to compete at her second Games for Germany. The following year she won her first World medal and in 2008 she finally stood on the top step of the World podium. She won four more World titles with Szolkowy, but they were not so fortunate at the Olympics coming third at both Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi in 2014.
After Szolkowy’s retirement from competition, Savchenko formed a new partnership with Massot. With elements such as a high and dynamic twist lift in their arsenal, they immediately announced themselves as candidates for victory in PyeongChang 2018 which was to be Savchenko’s fifth Olympic appearance. Despite placing fourth in the short programme, they came back strong in the free to earn that much sought after Olympic gold medal. They capped their career with a World title one month later, Savchenko’s sixth.
Savchenko was 34 when she won gold in PyeongChang five years ago and she sees it as a positive development that longevity is becoming more common in skating. She is glad to see an old contemporary of hers Deanna Stellato-Dudek still competing at the highest level. Stellato-Dudek won silver in singles at 2000 Junior Worlds the same year that Savchenko won the pairs title.
“If you prepare your body and treat your body well then you can skate a long time and I really am happy for Deanna because she had already given up,” she said.
“I say that everything good takes time like good wine,” she continued. “Even now, when I go on the ice, I feel much better than I was feeling when I was 18 or 19. With all this experience, your body can connect feel, ‘Okay, now you just need to do that and that.’ I actually enjoyed the best time when I was competing in the last four years because I felt like now, I know everything. I didn’t need to be stressed when it wasn’t going well.
“If you have a good base and good mentality then you can do as much as you can, as much as your body allows. Other sports are also not quitting at 20 or 18. Good tennis players are playing also until a later age. For soccer players it’s the same.”
As mentioned above Savchenko is the same age as Stellato-Dudek. She had initially explored returning to competitive skating in 2021, but in the end decided against it. Would she try another comeback?
“If it’s a good partner,” she joked. “I don’t know. I don’t think anything can be better than what I had. Bruno was the best partner for me in the end. Of course, if it’s someone like this partner will come along, then maybe, but it’s a lot (to ask). I follow the signs. I guess already I tried, and the signs were not going well. So I was thinking, ‘Okay, maybe I should stop. Maybe I should take a different direction.’
“Of course, I can go and do the job that I did five years ago, or even maybe better. But I have a little daughter for who I want to give everything and she wants to follow her dreams.”
Just like the years leading up to PyeongChang in 2018 the years following it have seen highs and lows as she tries to navigate through a new phase in her life.
It is the end of January 2023 and Savchenko is in Espoo, Finland for the European Championships on the other side of the boards. In April 2022, she moved from Oberstdorf, Germany to Heerenveen, Netherlands to take up a position as a national figure skating coach. It has been an adjustment for her both in terms of moving to a new country and her new role.
“Different,” she said. “Difficult, but interesting.”
At Europeans, Savchenko accompanied two teams rinkside – Greta Crafoord and John Crafoord from Sweden and Nika Osipova and Dmitry Epstein from the Netherlands.
“Greta and John, they moved last year to Oberstdorf, but then she got injured,” she explained. “I was coaching just John, helping and skating with him. Then they also moved to Holland at the end of August. They’re there all the time now. Nika and Dima, I did their programmes and work with them. I help them sometimes, but they don’t live there (Heerenveen). They’re just coming and go.”
There were contrasting fortunes for the two pairs at Europeans. The Swedes who are still on the road to recovery after Greta’s injury finished 13th, last in the field, while the Dutch ended up eighth in the standings.
In addition to pairs, Savchenko has also been working with singles skaters both in Germany and after she moved to the Netherlands. Her most successful student so far has been Aya Hatakawa who became German national champion in 2021. Hatakawa has struggled with injury and has not competed this season. Savchenko is currently not coaching her.
“She’s in Japan,” Savchenko said. “She had stress fracture, but they didn’t find out until a couple of months ago. Before that, she always had pain and we didn’t know why. We sent her to the doctor but she didn’t want to go. She was really fighting with herself when she went to German nationals (in 2022).
“For her, it was difficult to keep her motivation. It’s really a shame because I really like her and I love to work with her. I think she was one of my best athletes so far, how she works. She was like a machine, doing all the stuff that I asked and this kind of work is fun.”
Her job in the Netherlands is just one of many changes in circumstances that Savchenko has dealt with in the past five years since her Olympic victory. The sudden death of coach Jean-François Ballester in December 2018. The birth of her daughter Amilia in 2019. The Covid-19 pandemic. Trying to decide whether to call time on competing. War in her homeland.
“So many things happened,” she reflected. “Bad things happened. Good things happened. First, our second coach died and for us it was catastrophic. We were trying to build ourselves a new life after that. It took some time. Good things happened when I got pregnant and my baby came. But then it was the pandemic. Because of all that we couldn’t move anywhere. It was a really difficult time. When we wanted to continue to do something with what we love, like shows, we couldn’t because everything was closed. We needed to find a different direction in our lives. For me to accept that it was really difficult because I really love to practice and I like to compete. For me, it maybe is still difficult. I like to give my experience but of course, it’s not the same.
“It’s a long process, and I want to give the kids all the knowledge that I know and all the best things that maybe I didn’t have when I was competing. This is my biggest next dream to build something special for the kids.”
Just as she thought there was light at the end of the tunnel as the pandemic ran its course, an even bigger tragedy struck her homeland Ukraine.
“Then war in Ukraine, of course, because my family’s from there. The time is crazy, to be honest. We try to go up and then get hit down. We are always thinking positive, but life is too negative.”
This month marks one year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. For Savchenko who was born, raised and got her start in skating representing Ukraine naturally the war is never far from her thoughts these days. While what began on 24 February 2022 was a shock to many, Savchenko had a premonition about the war.
“I was home at Christmas for the first time since 2014,” she recalled. “I was a long time not at home, almost eight years. I was going there to see everyone because I have a big family and not everyone can travel. I was really enjoying and life was going well. I was really happy. The night of Christmas I dreamt that war starts. Nobody was speaking about it, but I was dreaming and I woke up in shock. I told my parents we needed to leave. It was really strange. I had this feeling something was coming and nobody believed me of course. They said, ‘It’s just a dream. Forget about it.’ I said, ‘No, it’s real.’ It was real. I could see that it would be.
“My dad went with me to Germany with my baby and we were in Germany and then three times the flight was cancelled. I said, ‘I think it’s a sign not to go back’ and he said, ‘No I need to pay things. I need to do this and this.’ I just felt that something was not letting him go there. My mum came to Germany and he flew (back to Ukraine) after three tries. He got there in February and the next day the war started. We didn’t sleep. I got a call from my brother’s wife. She called me to say it was happening and she was scared and screaming. We all were not sleeping. It was for us really tragic. I couldn’t believe it, but I knew it. For me, it was not that big a shock because I already knew before it started and I was telling people to get out. I was really scared for my family, of course.”
Savchenko’s prime concern became getting her father to safety as the Russian invading forces moved deeper into Ukraine.
“My mom was in Germany, so she was safe, but my dad was there and as well as all my brothers,” she said. “We tried to get my dad out. He didn’t want to in the beginning, but then I felt every call he was in the bathroom or hiding underneath something. I said, ‘You cannot make me that stressed so come.’ He didn’t want to. He said, ‘No, I need to protect and help your brothers.’ I said, ‘What can you help with? You cannot actually help.’
“I had a friend who was in the army, and they drove him to the station. He was on the train with of course, a lot of people staying all the way through Poland. When he got here, I was a little bit more calm. When my dad is here and my mom is here it was already better.”
After twelve months of brutal warfare, Savchenko does not see an end in sight and peace for her country any time soon.
“I think it will be even much longer. I think for 10 years.
“I don’t think it will stop.”
With family still in Ukraine, Savchenko has conflicting feelings about the situation.
“My brothers are there. Of course, we are scared and trying our best to help, but in the end, we cannot do anything. They don’t want to go out from there. They say, ‘It’s our country, and it’s our home and we will fight for that. If everyone leaves, nobody will be here.’ From that point it is true, but of course from the other point because it’s my family it’s painful. Every call we say, ‘I don’t know if I see you next time.’ And every day is like that.”
As Savchenko focuses on her new path in skating, hopefully peace will come sooner to her country than she expects.