Ice Network

Bychenko fights pressure every step of the way

Skater makes history by winning first European singles medal for Israel
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Being the European silver medalist is a hard thing for Alexei Bychenko to comprehend. -Getty Images

In winning the silver Thursday night in Bratislava, Slovakia, Alexei Bychenko made history, becoming the first singles skater for Israel to win a medal at a European championships. The morning after his momentous achievement, he graciously took the time to answer icenetwork's questions at the competitors' hotel.

Icenetwork: Winning that silver medal left you speechless last night. How are you today?

Bychenko: You know, it's funny: Everybody is celebrating and congratulating me, everybody is so happy for me, but I still don't understand! I understand that I got a medal. I understand that I made it to the podium. I understand that I came in second. But maybe I felt so much pressure through the event that it gave me no time to be able to understand. This morning I woke up and I saw that medal at my side and I realized, "Oh yes, I got the silver medal…"

Icenetwork: Did you celebrate with your family afterward?

Bychenko: I came back to the hotel around 12:30 a.m. last night. It was already 1:30 a.m. in Kiev, where my mom lives. The Internet was too slow for me to connect with her, so I had to wait for this morning. She was almost crying. My brother was also very excited; I could hear that they were dancing and jumping at home! That was nice.

Icenetwork: What does this medal mean to you?

Bychenko: Getting a medal at Europeans was a big goal for me. During my career, I have not had much chance to improve as a skater. I'm not a child anymore; I will turn 28 on February 5th. I realized that if I did not try really hard now, I was going to lose the opportunity. That's when I decided to represent Israel. I started working really hard. My dream from then on was to stand on the podium.

Icenetwork: Could you really enjoy the time you stood up there?

Bychenko: It was most important for me to be there. I enjoyed this moment tremendously. My legs were shaking; my whole body was shaking. I tried to relax, but I still felt (like I was) under pressure. I felt as if I was going to explode from inside. I still couldn't believe it. I thought that I had finally (arrived at) my dream, that I had improved to myself, and it was certainly not the time to give up!

Icenetwork: You said that something changed within you that forced you to commit to skating more. What was that?

Bychenko: I don't know. You know, I was born in the Ukraine, and I skated for that country for several years. I think that the biggest change was the people around me, in fact. My federation, the president, my coaches -- I feel real support from them. They try to help me and push me to be better, more than ever before. Israel did it. It means a lot to me. I think their support is a key to my medal.

Icenetwork: You are training in Hackensack, New Jersey, right?

Bychenko: Yes. Galit Chait is my coach. She, herself, was a great skater who represented Israel in ice dance. I have started to work with Roman Serov this season. That's a good start for him! (laughs) Nikoli Morozov made my programs, and Galit makes them look perfect.

At this moment of the interview, Ari Zakarian, the renowned skating producer and agent, came to Bychenko to give him big news that left him…speechless again.

Bychenko: He invited me at a big ice show in Israel next March, "Kings' Ice." I like shows. They're something I can enjoy. You're doing the same job, but you can enjoy it as a showman, not as an athlete, and leave that pressure away.

Icenetwork: What does it mean to represent Israel?

Bychenko: It would be impossible to represent Israel if you didn't have some roots. You need to be Jewish. All of us are Jewish, even though we all come from different countries. Where you were born and where you come from doesn't matter.

Israel is a really small country. We don't have much chance to find skating talent there -- it's too small. Plus, it's a warm country, so skating is not nearly as big a sport as basketball or football (soccer). To the Israelis, skating may mean something like chilling somewhere! So we, the athletes, are trying to make the sport as famous as possible. Already, I saw many kids come to the rink in Tel Aviv. 

Icenetwork: That's consistent with the roots of the country itself, which was founded to welcome Jews from all over the world. How then is it in the Israeli team, with skaters from such different origins?

Bychenko: Excellent! We're all very friendly together. Danny (Daniel Samohin, who finished seventh in the men's event after landing three quads in his free skate) pushes me, but he is really nice. We have never competed against each other, and we never will. We are fighting together for the same goals: to go to worlds and to the Olympics, and build a strong team.

Icenetwork: How did you get the taste for skating?

Bychenko (laughs): When I was 4 years old, my mom put some skating on television, and I complained each time someone changed the channel while skating was on! That's how it started. From that moment, I suppose, I became a skater. My mom then sent me to the skating school in Kiev.

I couldn't imagine myself in any other sport. People tend to think that skating is a soft sport, something that is easy and doesn't require much energy. Come on, people, try it! In many other sports, you don't spend nearly as much power or need so much preparation. Not many people can do skating!

Icenetwork: How do you see your future?

Bychenko: When I turned 14 or 15, I decided to become a coach. I like coaching. That's what I will do after I'm done with competitive skating. Right now, I could not imagine my life without skating. First, I want to learn as much as I can as an athlete. Then I will transmit my experience to young skaters. I hope one day I can have strong girls and boys. I'm sure that my own kids will also be skaters themselves! Every year I feel that connection with skating more and more.

Icenetwork: What do you like, besides skating?

Bychenko: I like traveling a lot, seeing pretty places. Not only city downtowns but also the mountains, oceans, wild places. ... Every time I go somewhere, I like it.

Something I also like is the nightlife, discos, places to dance…

Icenetwork: In New Jersey as well?

Bychenko: The nightlife is very good in New Jersey, but I don't go there. That's the place I live and work. I wouldn't mix work and fun in the same place!

Icenetwork: When you skate, you seem to be extremely focused and concentrated, as if your brain were as active as your legs.

Bychenko: The moment you get on the ice before starting a program is the worst moment of any performance. You have prepared for months, and you have all that pressure that comes upon you...it's just terrible. I can't explain it properly, but I'm sure that any athlete experiences the same thing.

Then you have a choice: Either you compete against that pressure, or it will break you.

When the music starts to play, I start to turn my brain off to that pressure and focus on each element. Pressure remains throughout the program, but you really need to think about what you are doing. You must not let your mind break you down.

Everything you've done comes back during your program. Everything you failed in the warmup or during practice, a missed preparation, a popped jump, one missed element -- everything falls on you, and you need to step over it. Our official practices last only 40 minutes. It's far less than at home. So you make mistakes, and everything you did wrong comes back. You really need to block all that out and focus on what you have to do.

It's like a fighting game, you know. The first level is the basic work you do during practice at home. Competition is the final fight, where everything you've learned and experienced is there. You're fighting with yourself. Beating yourself is a real competition!

Icenetwork: How do you work with your emotions during your programs?

Bychenko: At start of the program, the most important thing is to focus on the harder jumps. After they are completed, I can go on to the emotions.

Icenetwork: How do you enjoy skating to Les Misérables?

Bychenko: I enjoy that program a lot. I knew the story way before Nikoli created the program. He had me watch the Broadway show, see the musical, read the book, so that I understood what I was doing. My goal is to give life to the character I'm portraying. In fact, it's several distinct characters, even if it's only one single person. I start by being a prisoner, then a revolutionary person. I try to focus on the elements and transitions, but between them I try to enjoy it, get into the character and express emotion. But I never let go completely. Even when everything is good, I feel pressure all the time.

Hopefully, the coming days and weeks will allow Bychenko to relieve some of that pressure and realize that he wrote a page of history.