Ice Network

Fast success has Marchei, Hotárek dreaming big

Former Italian singles champion has had to quickly learn intricacies of pairs
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While having to perform new elements, like a death spiral, hasn't been easy, Valentina Marchei says the hardest part about switching to pairs was learning to make compromises. -Getty Images

Italy's Valentina Marchei and Ondřej Hotárek caused a sensation Friday evening at the 2015 European Championships, as they were skating in their fourth competition together, only five months after they had teamed up. Not only did they put out a flawless program, but they also delivered a strong and emotional performance, and they enter Sunday's free skate in fourth place. Thus, they will be skating in the last group, a feat that seemed unfeasible to many. They talked to icenetwork about their partnership and their plans for what looks to be a bright future.

Icenetwork: How do you feel, skating here as a pair?

Hotárek: It's hard to think about it and compare things. The way Valentina is learning pairs skating is amazing. This is only our fourth competition together, and we feel like we've been skating together for years. In fact, it's only been five months! You know, I find myself at the same spot as [I have] all these last years -- competing with the same people, skating even in the same group -- as if things had never stopped!

Marchei: This is exactly what I have dreamt of skating throughout all my life. This is the skating I just wanted for a long time: skating for a passion. If you had told me that we would be standing where we are now a few months ago, I would have signed [up] right away. It came as a gift, and I feel like a kid in a candy store! You know, my dad almost died in Sochi, he was so stressed. Here, he told me that he had no stress at all. You know why? Because, he said, there is someone behind me. Sharing with someone else is so much bigger than sharing with only yourself!

Icenetwork: Your individual jumps are incredible. How are your pair jumps coming?

Marchei: Ondřej is such a strong singles skater. At our club, after we finish our practice, we organize a kind of jumping contest with the younger skaters. There is never a time when I can win such a jumping session with Ondřej -- he wins all the time! These sessions help us keep our singles jumps solid. He still does triple-triple combinations on the spot, and triple Lutz as well.

Hotárek: Of course, it's easy to see the potential when you put two strong singles skaters together. But having the potential and actually going there as a pair and doing it is a completely different story.

The triple Lutz is actually a little more challenging for me. The last time I did it as a singles skater was 2002. So I feel some pressure when I am preparing for it in the program. But I never lost it, and I am really grateful to be able to perform it in competition.

Marchei: Our twist is still a double at the moment, but it's becoming bigger, higher and quicker. I've started to understand how it works, so I can take the time I need for turning. Including a triple in our program is definitely one of our goals for worlds.

As far as the throws are concerned, it's a totally different feeling for me: When I turn in the air now, I can see the crowd all around as he launches me!

Icenetwork: Your throw flip was so wide in your short program!

Marchei: That's because he is so strong. His strength, combined with mine, makes for that (distance). That's the thing with pairs: You combine things. Every day in pairs skating there is something new. Now I have a partner to challenge me.

Hotárek: The possibilities we have now, as a pair, are just so many. We have the triple-triple, we have the throws. ... Because Valentina's triple loop is not so good (as a singles skater), we can work on the throw loop so she can see how to land it properly. We can invent new lifts. When you are two, you can invent a lot more!

Marchei: Oh yes! Ondřej is very creative, and I am also. From time to time, we're going way too high and we need to say, OK, this is not possible, let's regroup now! (She laughs.)

Icenetwork: How did you learn about being partners on the ice?

Marchei: We knew each other, but not that well. We started to work together in July, and Franca [Bianconi] (their coach) sent us to Richard Gauthier and Bruno Marcotte (who coach Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, among others) in Montréal. She wanted them to determine if our partnership was possible, if this could become real. We had just skated two weeks together, and they were shocked. They told us that yes, definitely, if we worked like this, it would be possible. Richard really helped us with becoming partners.

For instance, at the beginning, Ondřej was saying, "Go, Vale, go!" all the time, in order to motivate me. That would add to the pressure I was already putting on myself, and that was too much for me.

Hotárek: So one day Richard put us in a room; it was very dark, I remember, and there was only the light of a restroom nearby. He said to us that this would be our partnership, and [he told] what we needed to do as partners. He made it very clear that if we wanted to succeed as a pair, some things had be part of work, and some other things had to stay out of work. He had us work without saying a word for a whole day, just practicing without talking.

Marchei: You can always learn the technical elements. But it is not easy to learn to make compromises, especially after you have spent 20 years of your life compromising with only yourself. This was the hardest thing [for me]. On the ice, for instance, I had to learn not to check that he was behind me. I have to fully trust him and, as a matter of fact, he has never "not been there." I still think of too many things, but I am working on it.

Also, we are very clear with each other. We tell [each other] what excites us. If you don't say things, then you have to talk more at practice the next day. We are close friends, but not best friends. This keeps things fresh. Practices mean work, but they can be fun, too.

He is a good chef, too! It's good to have dinner at their house. (Again, she laughs.)

I must say also that Anna [Cappellini] (Hotárek's fiancée) never stepped in before we made the decision, but she has helped me a lot with the partnership. She keeps telling me how a pair works, how to communicate. Even here, during this competition, as we are roommates, she has a good influence. I feel safe. You know, if I was a tiger yesterday in our short program, that's because I had Anna inside.

Hotárek: Similarly, I room with Luca [Lanotte]. He has taught me how to approach a competition: with pride, how to perform for an audience and also for myself, not to feel scared or anything. Seeing them perform here the way they did, after the tough start to the season they had, was deeply impressive. It motivated me. They are great role models for us.

Icenetwork: How did you adjust to skating pairs together?

Marchei: At the start of the summer, I was jumping like a goddess. I could do all my triple-triple combinations; it was perfect. Three weeks later we were back in Italy, skating at a camp, and I injured myself practicing a throw Salchow. Then we understood that we couldn't do everything. My body was not prepared for pairs skating, and it needed to be. So I had to force myself to go on vacation. (Can you believe that? I usually never go on vacation!) I could not skate at all, since I had a brace on my knee. I was missing it so much!

Hotárek: She kept texting all the time! She wanted so badly to come back and go into the season. For me, it was a stop and it was really hard, of course.

Marchei: We even started questioning our whole project. He kept me alive; he kept me going and motivated. I spent five weeks in physiotherapy and that built [up] my body. I came back physiologically much stronger after that, and my landings were more solid.

Icenetwork: How did you manage to create your programs in such a short time?

Marchei: We did our short program in Detroit last summer, on our way from Italy to Montréal. I had to go to Detroit to pack all my stuff there, and we asked Massimo [Scali] (the former Italian ice dancer who is now a choreographer and coach in Detroit) if he could help us out. We created the short program with him in a few days.

When we came back to Italy, we had no funding anymore, nothing. So we created our long program directly with Franca, with a big help from Corrado Giordani, a choreographer who also works with us. We started working on it in October. You have to realize that when we started to build our programs, I did not even know how to do some of the elements. I couldn't do a lasso lift! Richard had told us that for our first free program, we should just do what we could. And that's just what we are doing, actually: the best with what we have now. We want people to see where we are, and also where we can be.

Hotárek: In a way, I have to say that our long program is also our own story. It's us! If you've seen Federico Fellini's great movie La Strada, Zampano is teaching Gelsomina, but he is mean to her. Sometimes it's difficult for me to teach Valentina what she needs to do as a pairs skater, and I need to go over [it over] and over again. Then we make fun of it and I go, "If you're like this, I'll treat you like if I were Zampano!"

Icenetwork: What has changed about your habits when you are on the ice?

Marchei: As a singles skater, I have always talked to myself a lot while on the ice. I did the same when I started in pairs. Ondřej told me, "No, you can't talk in this discipline!" Well, now he does. I changed him!

Hotárek: It feels good, actually. At nationals, during a step sequence, Valentina's skate was caught in a rut at the moment she threw herself into a cartwheel. Then she started to laugh aloud! You can take a lot of the pressure away by talking during the program.

Icenetwork: You're the one who calls the position changes in your spins, Valentina?

Marchei: Yes, because I am the weaker [one] in spins, as I used to accelerate. What I have to learn, however, is to keep the same way for my calls. Sometimes if I say "Good job," he will think that's the call!

Hotárek: In fact, I am the weaker in spins, as I've never been able to see spins. I can see how many revolutions she makes in a jump but not in spins. I need to get used to her rhythm and revolutions.

Talking during the program actually enhances our connection. During the steps of our short program to "Malagueña" yesterday, we motivated each other -- not to give orders or anything, but just for motivating ourselves and to share some energy.

Icenetwork: Are the difficulties you experienced at the end of last season coming to an end?

Hotárek: I will always be thankful for what I did with Stefania [Berton] (his previous partner). We had different ideas of where we wanted to go, so it couldn't go any further. I was lucky to find other ways to keep doing what I love.

Marchei: At first, when we started with this project, we had many people against us -- or, rather, who did not accept us at first. They wanted to keep things as they were, that is: Ondrej had to skate with Stefania, and I had to skate on my own. Even on the Internet they were not too nice. But maybe the same people will cheer for us again now. Now it's easier to believe in us, when we are skating in the last group at Europeans!

Hotárek: Social networks can be very hurtful about insulting skaters. We're more used to it, and these are things I don't want to see and actually don't read. But younger skaters spend their life on Facebook, and they read all this mean stuff -- that is not good for the sport. You may say negative things that express your feelings, as those can be understood, but you shouldn't publish insults. Insults do not belong in sport.

Icenetwork: How do you see your future?

Marchei: At this point, it's easy to dream. Our key is that we both dream big. What we've realized is that the limit is in the eyes of the people we have in front of us, not in ours.