Ice Network

Berton, Hotarek make for perfect European union

Rising Italian pairs team trains hard for Sochi on heels of recent success
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Ondrej Hotarek, skating here with partner Stefania Berton, has proudly joined Maxim Trankov in the brotherhood of the yellow pants. -Getty Images

If one combines the Eastern European phlegmatism with the passion from southern Europe, it can turn into a very strong union. A prime example of that is the Italian pairs team of Stefania Berton and Ondrej Hotarek.

It seems that in Berton, Hotarek -- who is of Czech origin -- found exactly the right and long-desired partner, which he was lacking before. He teamed up with Berton in early 2009 and they began to progress, climbing up the stairs of this challenging discipline.

Last season, they became the first Italian pairs skaters to medal at a European championships after taking the bronze in Zagreb, Croatia. This season, they continued to develop their success by winning the first Grand Prix event for Italy in pairs skating, at 2013 Skate Canada.

Icenetwork talked with the Italian team about their recent achievements, the differences in their characters and their preparation for the Sochi Olympics.

Icenetwork: Stefania, Ondrej, last season in Zagreb you became the first Italian pairs skaters to medal at a European championships. This season, you won the first pairs gold for your country at a Grand Prix event, in Canada. Share your latest thoughts.

Berton/Hotarek: We've been working very hard and seeing our work pay off with the results. It is always very satisfying.

Last year at Europeans, there was such a special atmosphere for us, it seemed like the audience was Italian! A lot of people from Italy came to watch the competition, and we felt at home. We skated to good performances, especially in the short program, and when we realized that we [captured] the bronze medal -- after everything we've been through before Euros the year before -- we were truly happy.

Berton: In Canada, it was a whole different story. We didn't expect the first place. In fact, after our free skate, while I was still in the kiss and cry, I said, "It's the first time that we get second at a Grand Prix!" but, obviously, the competition is never predictable.

We were so happy with our skating because we were coming from Skate America, where we were so ready to compete, but we didn't [skate] two good programs. I was very frustrated, but Ondrej wasn't. I thought that it was unfair being so ready and not showing it during competition time! So, after the free skate in Canada, I was finally satisfied with the skating.

We weren't watching Meagan [Duhamel] and Eric [Radford]'s skate because we were answering [questions from a] journalist, and when our coach told us we were first, that didn't change our happiness because the real goal we achieved was the good skating.

Icenetwork: What are your plans for improving in the future?

Berton/Hotarek: We will keep on working hard at home and preparing for each competition the same way we've done until now. We'll be ready if any chance will come around.

Icenetwork: Your closest rivals at Skate Canada were Canadians Duhamel and Radford. How would you describe your rivalry with them?

Berton/Hotarek: We [have known] Meagan and Eric for a long time; we've competed together since their first competition at Nebelhorn Trophy many years ago. We always have fun together; they are good people.

Our skating is not a lot about us but about how our skating is judged, so there is no reason for us to be rivals.

Icenetwork: And what are your general thoughts on the world's pairs teams so far this season?

Berton/Hotarek: The level is getting higher, and it's always interesting to take a look at competitions because there can always be a surprise or an unexpected result, which I think is making our discipline more and more interesting.

A lot of pairs are trying new things, different lifts and so on. It's hard to predict what's next. That's why it is getting so exciting!

Icenetwork: Reigning world champion Maxim Trankov congratulated you on your Skate Canada win in quite the original and humorous way, writing on Twitter that if someone wants to win, then the yellow pants are the key to this.

Berton/Hotarek: We didn't know he wrote that because neither of us has Twitter, but it's a very funny comment! Well, we guess he's right! (They smile.)

Icenetwork: Stefania, in January 2012 you became a member of the sports group of the Italian police, and it's you who gives commands during execution of side-by-side spins. Are you a natural leader or is it life circumstances that force you to be a strong woman?

Berton: We both became a part of the police, and I don't always give commands, but that is probably my nature. I like to be in control of what I do and take responsibility if I know I can make it. I expect a lot from myself and when I don't get what I want, I get nervous and frustrated. Thank you for calling me a strong woman (smiles).

Icenetwork: Ondrej, it seems that you are a naturally phlegmatic person. How do you deal with the passionate Italian temperament of your partner?

Hotarek: I think I used to be more phlegmatic in the past than I am right now. There is a part of me which was Italian ever since [I arrived], and many people tell me I adapted maybe even too much. For example, I'm late from time to time, which was unthinkable for me before I moved to Italy, but that's a part of everyday life. As we say, "There is always a traffic jam when you need an excuse" (smiles). So, I deal with my life and skating with a passion typical for Italians.

Icenetwork: Your team has a strong set of technical elements as well as constantly improving components. How do you plan to approach your preparation for the Sochi Olympics?

Berton/Hotarek: We realized that the way we've been preparing until now in the season is the right one, so we won't change much.

Working every day with Franca Bianconi on the ice and Gianni Perricelli off the ice, we will add more attention on the details of choreography with Corrado Giordani.

Icenetwork: As we see in the recent world records from Tatiana Volosozhar and Trankov, there are no limits in pairs skating. What aspects of your skating would you like to improve the most?

Berton/Hotarek: We always work on the speed and unexpected entrance in the elements, on higher levels, where we can't get Level 4 yet (backward outside death spiral) and higher GOEs (grades of execution). As for the components, we like to work on the story of the program and the musicality so that they will get higher, too.

Icenetwork: My traditional question for all skaters. As the Olympics will be held in a Russian city, could you tell us your five favorite Russian things?

Berton/Hotarek: St. Petersburg is definitely the first one. We've been there last year, and it's an amazing city.

Second thing is Russian hats! They are so warm.

Third is Russian ballet. It's always so perfect.

Fourth: Kalinka! So funny to hear.

And the last thing that we love about Russia is the skating fans! They always treat us so well and make us feel welcome.