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Ten's ascent sparks skating boom in Kazakhstan

Thoughtful skater continues to delight fans with well-balanced programs
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The success that Denis Ten has achieved in the sport has caused the popularity of figure skating in Kazakhstan to skyrocket. -Getty Images

Olympic bronze medalist Denis Ten of Kazakhstan continues to surprise and delight his fans with his one-of-a-kind performances. Exactly one year after his success in Sochi, he won gold at the 2015 Four Continents Championships in Seoul, Korea, which, according to the skater, was his main goal for this season.

In Seoul, the 21-year-old set personal-best scores in both phases of the competition (97.61 for the short, 191.85 for the free) and won the gold medal with the total of 289.46, the third-highest score ever recorded under the international judging system.

Equally important is the fact that, thanks to this skater, figure skating is experiencing a real boom in Kazakhstan. More than 200,000 people have visited one of the country's largest public ice rinks in the past year, a record for the facility. Ice shows are held to crowded stands, and practically all of the skating clubs are filled with new students.

Icenetwork talked with the Kazakhstani about the significance of his victory at Four Continents, his growing popularity, his own creative approach toward his programs and the importance of having balance in one's performances.

Icenetwork: What were your impressions of your victory at Four Continents, taking into account that Korea has a special meaning to you?

Ten: I have only exceptional emotions. Indeed, this tournament had a special meaning for me, especially because I performed in the territory of my historical homeland. For me, it was a great joy and honor to return to Korea, to participate in this event. You can't believe how much I was looking forward to this tournament!

I literally was thinking about Four Continents all season; this was my "motor" after the last season, my third "Olympic Games." The fact is that after Sochi I had serious questions about the continuation of my career, and after such a resounding Olympic Games, as well as a very intense season in general, it was not easy to return to the previous "wave."

You know, after such a huge surge of emotions, your attitude changes dramatically. After the Olympics, each athlete's mind changes in some way; he is no longer like before.

Look at the history of figure skating: All the big changes in performance, progressiveness or even in moving from one team to another symbolically take place after the Olympics. Even if we take into account just the last year, it is clear that all the Olympic medalists from Sochi are experiencing serious difficulties this year. And I am no exception.

So this championships was my main inspiration, my target since the summer. And on my way to Korea, I had problems. For instance, I did not tell anyone, but on New Year's Day, I underwent two microsurgical interventions. However, the recovery process was very fast -- my "obsession" with regard to this tournament (Four Continents) played a role -- and I'm extremely happy to have reached my goal. This result was a positive response to the question of whether it was the right decision to compete this season.

Icenetwork: In Seoul, you won with a great total of 289.46. With these points, you would have won all the major tournaments last season, including the Olympics. What do you think about that?

Ten: I've never thought about it seriously, and I can tell you why. The last three years were filled with great events, but they were so different from one another that it would be improper to compare them. I think that the points have increased because I've grown up professionally. In the past year, I have not so much skated as overcome various difficulties; I missed some events and really could not train as I wanted. This pressed me psychologically, but especially unpleasant was the fact that all these nuances stunted my development.

Therefore, it is likely that if I could have performed in Sochi being in the condition that I am in now, maybe things would have turned out otherwise. But no one knows that, and I think it's pointless to talk about it. I'm happy with how my career has developed.

Icenetwork: On the other hand, this result sets, let's say, a new level for you and certain expectations for your fans. Does this factor help you or add an extra layer of pressure?

Ten: When it comes to points, I honestly never think about them too much. My goal is not to win the maximum amount of points. For me, it is more important to progress from year to year, to improve the quality of my skating and to perform better and "deeper."

Also, I'm used to the pressure. Ever since my early childhood, when I started to represent Kazakhstan -- at the time, a country unfamiliar to the world of figure skating -- in international competitions, people constantly told me that I was skating not just for myself but for all the people of my country, for the image of the whole Kazakhstan. And as many have the wrong opinion about the country, which is not only a young state but also a very successful and progressive one, I sincerely wanted to glorify it! Any victory, any event was dedicated primarily, of course, to my parents but also to the whole country.

Today, I have the support of people from various parts of the world, and this really means a lot to me. My sporting dreams have already come true and now I dedicate myself to the people behind me. This is not a pressure; this is a real inspiration.

Icenetwork: After such an emotional win at Four Continents, how is your preparation for worlds going?

Ten: This will be a new and interesting experience for me. So far, the preparation is going according to plan. You know, I have been strengthened by the trials I have endured, so this time things are different. And this (worlds) will be useful for my own development. I will try to do everything I can to reach my new peak sporting shape for Shanghai.

Icenetwork: In interviews, you repeatedly drew parallels between the Four Continents Championships and the European championships. If we compare the recent results of both competitions, the picture is not so rosy for European men's figure skating. Why do you think that is?

Ten: I would say that it's related to a change of generations. Some dominant skaters left the sport, and the younger generation is just arriving at the senior level. Another issue is that the other continents have been made a sharp jump in our sport over the last couple of years. Take, for example, the Asian countries, which have always had great potential. Now, I don't mean the giants with great skating histories like Japan or China -- look at Korea. Yu-Na Kim achieved the impossible: Not only did she make herself a legend starting from scratch, but she brought a whole sport to prominence in her country all on her own.

As for Europe, in any case, after a recession should come progress, so time will put everything in its place.

Icenetwork: In 2012, you told me that when you were a child, your mother tried to direct your energy into creative areas. So you were introduced not only to figure skating but also painting, dance and music. Do you still keep these interests and, if so, how do they help to bring new emotions and ideas to your programs?

Ten: I'm still a huge fan of music of all genres, but mostly of classics. My very good friend Renat [Gaisin] helps me a lot. He is a well-known music producer and composer in Kazakhstan who wrote music for such huge projects like the Asian Games and the Winter Universiade. His latest work is the soundtrack to the American film Hacker, in which the main role is played by Jack Nicholson's daughter, Lorraine. He and I have made several important sound and instrumental additions to my free skating program this year.

Perhaps no one noticed, but in Korea I performed with an updated version of my long program. We have changed the slow part of it and also added some extra percussion to the final chords. And if at first glance these changes are barely noticeable, they played a huge role in my perception of the program.

Icenetwork: Every year with your programs you present something not only original but also well thought-out, with a certain semantic structure. In your opinion, how will this part of the sport develop? Will the younger generation be more open to trying something new or will it still mostly prefer the old, well-tested pieces?

Ten: Thank you for noticing that. We really are very serious about the process of a program's creation. It is a great merit of my choreographer, Lori Nichol, with whom we have developed a wonderful mutual understanding during our five-year partnership. Nevertheless, programs and their ideas are a private matter to each athlete. I mean, each skater has a different philosophy on choreography, especially given the nuances of the judging system. It is hard work combining an interesting image with technical demands. It's because of the rapid development in the technical side of skating that few are willing to take risks with the artistic part.

I try to learn something new with every program. Usually, I look three years in advance. While working on a "non-typical" program, for example, like The Artist, the process of "absorbing" the idea as a whole is very important to me. Take "Caruso" -- it took me four years to achieve my present level of understanding of the lyrics.

The development in the creative sphere begins not on the ice but rather outside the arena. I always want to bring a kind of culture and depth to my performances. Unfortunately, it's something that can't be learned; it should come by itself. Therefore, every year I devote more time to educating myself and believing that there is a close connection between skating and mental development. And if we talk about the future, I think the more that athletes perform with a developed inner self, the more extraordinary their performances will be.

Icenetwork: In 2010, after the Olympic Games in Vancouver, your coach, Frank Carroll, responding to critics of his student, Evan Lysacek, said: "This is figure skating, not figure jumping." Does his phrase still hold true today, when sometimes skaters would rather struggle on the ice than show balanced performances?

Ten: You know, Frank constantly tells me about the importance of "full package" programs. He always says that the program can't consist of only one part -- artistic or technical -- but that the most important thing is to create a so-called "wow factor," when a skater can charge an entire crowded arena and create a powerful impression with just his energy.

I am sure that all skaters try to achieve success in both technique and components. Maybe there are some factors that do not allow them to achieve this, and it is something that can be learned over time. However, sometimes it can also be a conscious choice of a team.

Icenetwork: What result do you consider acceptable for yourself in Shanghai at the end of this month?

Ten: I would not like to make any predictions. My task is to skate again with dignity and have the right approach. If I do this, then I think the result will be appropriate. I have a limited amount of time in this sport, so I will try to give 100 percent there.

Icenetwork: Are you planning your ice show, "Denis Ten and Friends," again this year?

Ten: Yes, I am! The preparation for it is already underway. I will reveal more details about it at the end of the season.