Ice Network

For Kostner, skating about more than just medals

Olympic bronze medalist wants to continue to infuse sport with artistry
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After spending her whole adult life in the glare of the spotlight, Carolina Kostner said she has enjoyed being able to be a regular person during her time away from the sport. -Getty Images

Carolina Kostner's career has been filled with as many twists and turns as the roads that wind through the Alps in the northern part of her native Italy. The most recent came Tuesday in Milan, and it was quite a hairpin.

After nearly a year of fighting various governing bodies in Italy and abroad, the 28-year-old Olympic bronze medalist got the green light to skate again when it was announced that her ineligibility period was to end Jan. 1, 2016 -- five months earlier than the ban initially called for.

Less than 24 hours later, Kostner was busy drawing up a playbook of sorts: She still has the desire to skate competitively after what has been perhaps the most bizarre and frustrating stage of her professional and personal life. Her final Hail Mary? The PyeongChang Olympics in 2018, when she'll be 31.

In May of this year, while in the midst of her ban and doused in uncertainty, Kostner met with icenetwork on the outskirts of Rome for an hour-long interview. As expressive as anyone on the ice, Kostner opened up about her artistic style of skating, what the doping ban meant to her, her dating life and a whole lot more.

Icenetwork: The last few months could be described as a nightmare for you. Is there any small part of you that has enjoyed this time away from the sport?

Kostner: Well, I don't have to [wake] up and go train every day. It's hard, it's tiring! It's time consuming. My friends, for the past 20 years, they have always heard a "No" from me. "Will you come with us to the movies?" "No, I have to train." "Will you go out with us?" "No." "Do you actually celebrate your birthday?" "No, I need to sleep." It's just been like this forever. I felt like I wanted to get something back. I've gotten so much from life. I've felt so fortunate to live like that. I wanted to give something back to my family and friends. And a little to myself, to see what else there is in life. How do I feel if I actually have a social life and I can go out in the neighborhoods of Rome and dive into the crowd and park my car and forget about everything else? That desire to be normal is great.

Icenetwork: Will we see you in PyeongChang? Is that on your mind? You would be days into age 31… [Editor's note: Kostner announced Tuesday that she will return to competitive skating, with an eye on the 2018 Olympics.]

Kostner: It's so far away and so many things can happen in between. (laughs) In Sochi, I competed on my birthday. I remember finishing the team event and going back to the huge athlete lounge, and they had this Italian cook and he had a cake waiting for me. I had a huge piece!

It's a hard question. In general, the Olympics to me have been very special, an event full of honor. It's not just another competition. I would not consider talking about it with no purpose. Maybe in a year or two I can call you and say, "Hey, Nick! Now I know." It's a conversation I'm having with myself. There are a lot of discussions in my head. (laughs)

Icenetwork: Has this period taught you something different about yourself, about who Carolina is?

Kostner: Usually those periods in your life, they push you to another level, another great thing. In Italy we say, "One door closes and a lot of others open." Sometimes you need to accept and go with the flow. The more you accept, the more you can see what else there is. If you always concentrate on one direction, you're going to miss the amazing sunset, for example, or the amazing friends you can meet, or opportunities. I feel very lucky to have had the parents that had the courage and the vision to take the opportunities that I have. I'm so thankful for them. And I'm thankful for the people that I work with now. They have the patience to wait for my timing.

Maybe I'm an athlete that's been like a diesel car that is strong but takes a while to go. But when I go, I go strong.

Icenetwork: Do you wish more skaters would prolong their careers? Ashley Wagner is doing it in the U.S.; now Mao Asada and Patrick Chan are activating comebacks. So are Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov. Is this a sport where people walk away too fast, too often?

Kostner: As a 15-year-old, you may do all the amazing tricks, but you skate in a whole different way, in a whole different deepness from your soul -- from your interior -- compared to a 25-year-old, who has had so many highs and lows. That adds to your experience, and you can bring it to the ice. That makes your presence much stronger.

I hope that young skaters don't give up so early. What if a Tara Lipinski added to her experience more and more and more? She would have grown. Of course, you cannot enter into someone's mind; life comes with other interests, and you cannot know what other people think and feel. In theory, though, I believe after the ages of 15, 16, 17, you can still grow so much and add to your experience.

Icenetwork: It's what you're doing, Carolina. You're in your late 20s.

Kostner: For me, I've had highs and lows in skating and in life, and it's almost like I can tell my stories through my skating, and that's amazing. With new technologies and injury prevention, it can make an athlete's career longer. Look at Kurt Browning, or let's take a look at the most famous ballerinas; they only get better and better and better over time, like Italian cheese. (smiles) Some parts make it more difficult because your body gets tired earlier. But I've started to take dance lessons and talking with the ballerinas at the opera house, they say, "Yes, it's a challenge," but just hearing their stories and how disciplined they are in their work, they are very, very motivated.

For the four years leading up to Sochi, I heard from others: "Isn't it time to stop?" "Aren't you getting old?" I remember as a 16-year-old in Washington[, D.C.] (at the 2003 World Championships) thinking, "Oh, I don't know, they are SO old!" But "they" were only 23 or 24! As a teenager, you see it in a completely different way. There are so many things you learn by having the patience to wait. You learn to love your talent and know how it works and how to be fully aware of what you do. The more you appreciate, the more you can give the value to it when you experience these other things.

Icenetwork: Take us back to that day in 2012. Alex [Schwazer] (Kostner's then boyfriend and a 2008 Olympic champion in race walking) was at your house. What do you remember?

Kostner: When the bell rang and he said to me, "If it's the doping control, I've put my whereabouts at home. Would you please tell them that I'm not here? Then I'll go home." For me, there was no reason to doubt (him). He was the person I loved and trusted. I would have never thought that he would use me for other reasons. How do I say it? Now, of course, I've gone through this whole difficult time and I know better, but in that moment, if I would find myself in the same position again with the same knowledge, I don't know if I would act differently than I did that day. I had no reason to think differently. In fact, he went home and did the test that night. And he called me saying, "I've done the test." It was another reason for me not to believe anything else. Yes, of course, I try so much not to think back for sure, but now I think, how do I say it…it's something I cannot change.

Icenetwork: Do you think the ban is unfair?

Kostner: I know that the Italian anti-doping have to do their job and it's important that they do their job well. But I really hope that they focus on the facts. I strongly hope that they focus on the facts. The sentence that came out in January says that, in fact, I did not know [that Schwazer was doping]. It said [that] in the sentence against me. I just strongly hope that they…that they focus on what happened.

Icenetwork: Do you feel like you are being used as an example, as a warning to the rest of the sporting world?

Kostner: I don't know. I don't even want to think that direction.

Icenetwork: So, if Alex is out of your life completely, I must ask: Is Carolina Kostner dating anyone?

Kostner: Right now, I try to stay away from men! (laughs) Especially Italians! (laughs harder) No, sorting through life and trying to figure out where your life is going, there is not so much space for that kind of thought. I go with the flow. As I say, life surprises you most when you least expect it. So, [dating is] not a very big issue. If it comes, it comes. That's not a very big issue for me.

Icenetwork: When we talk about "artistry" in figure skating today, your name is one of the first to come up. Are you worried that future generations won't have skaters who skate like you do?

Kostner: Well, it's a big honor. It's almost like I took a silent promise with myself that I would never turn [skating] into mathematics. On the other side, I hope I'm not the only one because that's what makes it so amazing. When I speak to people I don't know and tell them I'm a figure skater, their responses are, "Oh, Katarina Witt!" Or "Michelle Kwan!" But that was so long ago. There have been so many other fabulous skaters. I think their artistry is what stays with fans.

And I'm not immortal, nor do I want to be, but it's because everyone puts the importance where they think the importance is, and for me, it's [artistry]. It gives reason and sense to what I do. I love it. I love what I do. It has never been about just the counting and the medals. For me, it's just amazing to take the ice.

Icenetwork: Is it hard to get on the ice with all of the doping ban stuff happening, the meetings with lawyers and the like?

Kostner: Sometimes skating is very de-motivating; it reminds me of the whole situation. I prefer to take dance classes. I just don't want [the ban] to determine my skating. I can't let that happen. I know as a skater that if I do want to continue, I cannot stop (training). I take classical ballet. I've done some contemporary dance as well, but I love the classical ballet. I like the strict mathematics. I love the classical movements the dancers make. I love spending time with them and seeing how they move and how they think. It's very inspiring. They have such determination on every little detail. They work on their head or fingertip. I think that could add a lot of quality to my skating, if I can bring a little bit of that to the ice. My dream would be able to one day be able to work with Jiří Kylián (the chief choreographer for the Netherlands Dance Theatre). He has done a ballet called Petite Mort, which inspired my Mozart program. One day, I might become enough of a contemporary dancer that he would say yes. (laughs) I'm crossing my fingers.

Icenetwork: Speaking of another choreographer, tell me why it's so special to work with Lori Nichol.

Kostner: She has taught me so much in the last years, and I thank her so much for having the patience to keep on telling me the same things over and over and over again until I was ready to hear what she was saying. Now when we work together, there is just an energy that is there. Such creativity.

When I go to Lori, we spend two weeks together, usually one week on each program. Sometimes we get lost in details and we really have to keep going to stay on schedule. But I think, for example, on "Bolero," I could work with her forever. There is always something to work on. It's just a never-ending process. We had so much fun working on it. When you skate a long program, you know that your legs are going to be tired and you're going to hurt; even if you are trained, it will always be like that. But if you have a program where you stand in the beginning position and you know that you are going to be tired but you know you are going to have fun, it makes a huge difference when you start thinking, "The triple lutz is coming and then the triple-triple and then all the spins and my head will turn and my legs are going to be tired and when am I going to breathe… and I need to smile!"

The last programs that I created with Lori -- the Mozart, "Bolero," the "Ave Maria" -- they were just such a joy just to go out there and think, "What's going to happen today?" It was like my own little experiment.

Icenetwork: Who in the skating world has been most supportive of you in this difficult time?

Kostner: I've created an amazing friendship with Joannie Rochette, and she also had an amazing success, as well as this time of great sadness and pain. Tessa [Virtue] has been in touch; Denis [Ten] has been amazing. Denis and I have taken from Lori and sometimes are there at the same time, and I just love his energy. There was no one who wasn't open to talk. In moments of difficult times, you need that, and I'm lucky to have that.

Icenetwork: There is at least one advantage to all of this: You're living the life you never got to before.

Kostner: I try to use the time the best that I can. Rome gives me the opportunities to have a bit of that social life I've missed out on. To be able to go out at night -- I'm not a huge partier -- but I enjoy sitting with friends, and here you just go to a restaurant and the chef comes out and says, "Today I have fresh whatever." I love it. You go out of Italy and it's not like that; you have to order what's on the menu. There are so many things I love about this country. I have spent the whole of my career outside of Italy. I love my country so much. I would love to be able to bring a little bit of our great spirit and creativity, and the sense of elegance and fashion, and bring it to the other countries and share it around the world.

Icenetwork: It seems like you want to be a name that is remembered, like Katarina Witt or Michelle Kwan.

Kostner: I don't dare compare myself to Katarina or Michelle, but I love what I do and I do it without [hesitation], and hopefully, in the future, people will remember me or know me on the street. I have my own difficulties to accept; I have to find my way. I have my own fears and shames. I've been living them out in public since I was 16 or 17, since I was the flag bearer for Italy here in Torino (at the 2006 Winter Olympics). It's been hard sometimes to (She pauses, and her publicist interjects: "It's like you have to compete with yourself. Your image is so public.") … Yes! And you're always trying to catch up with yourself. (Publicist: "Sometimes you need silence.") There are always two sides of the medal: On the one hand, I feel like I'm in a very fortunate position. If I can inspire even one little kid to believe in their dreams, I would be more than happy. If I can inspire another future star, that would be amazing.