Ice Network

Agafonova, Uçar show resolve in trying season

Turkish duo finds new home in U.S. after being forced to leave Moscow
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Turkey's Alisa Agafonova and Alper Uçar have been welcomed into Anjelika Krylova and Pasquale Camerlengo's camp in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. -Klaus-Reinhold Kany

To say that Alisa Agafonova and Alper Uçar's journey this past season was difficult would be an understatement.

Turkey's first-ever Olympic ice dance team had its training routine unexpectedly impacted by world politics while working in Moscow under coach Alexander Zhulin. On Nov. 24, 2015, a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian aircraft because of a boarder violation. In response, the Russian government imposed sanctions against Turkey and its citizens. As a result, Agafonova and Uçar were forced to leave Moscow.

When the couple was invited to join Anjelika Krylova and Pasquale Camerlengo's group in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, they jumped at the opportuntiy to begin a new chapter in their career.

Agafonova and Uçar spoke to icenetwork about their challenges during the 2015-16 season and their new training envirconment.

Icenetwork: Was this past season the most difficult of each of your careers?

Alisa Agafonova and Alper Uçar: Well, we can say it was one of the hardest seasons for us. It was stressful and really unexpected for everyone. We had similar kinds of experiences before we moved to train with Alexander Zhulin, but those were not as fast and unexpected. In the middle of the season, we moved (training locations) just one month before the European championships. We tried to get ready with new coaches in a new country with a new group. It was really scary for us.

Icenetwork: The most dramatic moment of your season was when you were forced to leave Russia and Alexander Zhulin in December. What really happened?

Agafonova and Uçar: Everything got mixed up in the media. We are just athletes who want to continue our careers in this sport. We love Russia, and love Alexander Zhulin and the team that worked with us there. He is the coach who brought us to the Olympics, the first time ever for a Turkish ice dance team.

The truth is that we couldn't stay in Russia any longer because of visa issues. We stayed there with working visas, which gave us the opportunity to stay and work for three months in the country. After the tragic event happened, political tension escalated and the Russian government took new regulations against Turkey. They said that starting from Jan. 1, 2016, almost all working visas would be canceled (for Turkish citizens).

Also, another problem was that there are no long-term visas in Russia like an athlete visa, so our federation was under a lot of stress trying to solve the whole issue. While this was happening, we had to fly back to Turkey for our nationals and come back to prepare for the European championships. Nobody knew if we would be allowed to re-enter Russia or how long we would be able to stay. It meant we had one month before Europeans began and no place to skate.

In this emergency situation, our sports ministry and skating federation needed to make an accurate and fast decision. They decided to move us as soon as possible to a place where we could prepare under the best conditions, to remove any doubts in our minds. We couldn't take any risk of missing the European championships, and we ended up working in the United States for just one week. That's how everything developed. We deeply appreciated our federation and our president for reacting as fast as they could.

Icenetwork: Alisa, as a native of Ukraine, can you please give your perspective of the worsening of Russian-Ukrainian relations over the past two years and how it has affected you?

Agafonova: Yes, I am a native Ukrainian, but I also have a Turkish passport, so you can call me Turkish as well. I will never forget my roots and my career skating for Ukraine. It was a big part of my life; my family and my friends live in Ukraine now. I love that country with all of my heart. For me, it is difficult to watch the war in Ukraine and hard to see people suffering. People in both countries are interconnected and share the same history, so I can't understand the bad relationship between the two. What I can say is that, as an athlete, sports have to unite all nations, and I think politics shouldn't be involved in sports in any way.

Icenetwork: How have these events influenced your performances at major figure skating events?

Agafonova: It was a really big wake-up call for us, and we wanted to prove that we are strong and will never give up despite any obstacles along the way.

We always help each other, and it's so important in ice dance to have a partner who always supports and motivates you. I'm thankful to Alper for being with me and helping me during all six years of our skating. This situation showed how strong we are together.

The 2016 European Championships were stressful, but we did our job and took our place. Finishing 12th overall and 10th in the free dance, we were really happy with how we performed. At the world championships, we didn't expect to not to pass qualification (for the free dance). … Obviously, it was surprising to us and our coaches. We did our job and are really thankful for all the support from our fans, who were also upset. We are very thankful for all the kind messages and words. The rest is out of our hands.

Uçar: I totally agree with Alisa, and also want to say thank God we didn't fall during any competition so far. What I'm trying to emphasize is that during the entirety of our career, we have been very stable and have consistently performed well. I think it is very important for a team to always try its best and give a strong performance.

I felt very disappointed in worlds, not only because we are an Olympic couple but also because we are performing different, exciting and unique programs that all of the audience enjoyed. We did it in front of judges and there was still a question of passing qualification. … I don't know how many times we need to prove ourselves to a panel that we are elite athletes that can show interesting, lovely programs that inspire everyone. It is very difficult for us to create a unique program with the current strict rules, but we always want to show a different approach despite those limits.

Icenetwork: How do you manage to maintain your passion for figure skating despite these obstacles?

Agafonova and Uçar: We always have a passion for this sport and, most importantly, strongly believe in each other no matter what. We always say to each other before taking the ice: "Whatever happens, we are here for each other, so just enjoy it!" It gives us an enormous boost and confidence.

We have a strong motivation to prove to the world that even a country developing its skating program like Turkey can be strong in ice dance. Being the first Olympic ice dancers from Turkey gives us a lot of motivation and pushes us to work harder. At the end the day, we know that we are role models for the younger generation watching our performances. We feel proud of what we have already accomplished through extremely hard work.

Icenetwork: Your fans describe you as a team highlighted by unique style and taste, which is an attribute that can be a challenge to maintain in modern ice dance.

Agafonova: We really happy to hear it, and it is good to know we create and give a different perspective to those watching. When I first met Alper, I was shocked at how artistic he was for a singles skater and how he loves to create new movements. It's just inside of him, so it's never hard with Alper. We are showing just who we are inside and trying to tell our story on the ice. Sometimes we choose Turkish music that maybe nobody has ever heard before, but we feel this music and try to show the audience a story behind it so that they can feel the music with us. We're doing everything with an open heart, and that is probably the key.

Uçar: We always try to reflect our emotions and ideas in order to give the true sense of art in our skating.

Icenetwork: Tell us about moving to the United States to work with Anjelika Krylova and Pasquale Camerlengo in Bloomfield Hills.

Agafonova and Uçar: It was a really fast decision to move to the U.S., but Anjelika Krylova and Pasquale Camerlengo did everything they could to make the move comfortable and less stressful for us. They helped us a lot. We lived in a hotel just a couple of days before they found an apartment for us, and they made sure that everything was fine.

We chose them just by intuition. We always liked the style they gave to their couples, and when we called them, they were happy to bring us on board, so all we had to do was pack our stuff.

They did a really amazing job with us and after one month of work, we realized that it was a perfect choice for our team. The Detroit Skating Club is truly like a family; they welcomed us warmly and everybody helped us, so it was very easy to settle in. Now we are proudly a part of this big family.

Icenetwork: What are you working on this offseason?

Agafonova and Uçar: We really like our approach from last season, which aimed to show how smooth and flawlessly we can skate. We would like to add more to that, with improved details, and to focus on skating in harmony and unison. We always want to show our feelings inside the choreography with the magic of movement. The coaches want to show new, different sides of us that judges have never seen before. In general, we think the next season will be very interesting.

Icenetwork: How do you see the future of ice dance in Turkey? Are there up-and-coming couples following your example?

Agafonova and Uçar: We think ice dance is developing very fast in the different cities of Turkey like Istanbul, Ankara and İzmir. We know that we are the first Olympic ice dance couple from Turkey, and we have a responsibility to not only represent ourselves but also a whole country during international competitions. We are aware that our actions are important to young skaters. We did many national and two international seminars for skaters and coaches for the Turkish Ice Skating Federation. There are new novice and junior couples coming to the international stage. We really hope that small kids really take inspiration from us when they watch our performances. We want them to think that everything is possible with passion, desire and hard work.

Icenetwork: Tell us about your goals for next season.

Agafonova and Uçar: A hard and competitive season awaits us, and our minimum goal is to be among the top 16 at the 2017 World Championships. Our main goal for the future is to qualify for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. Finally, we will try to do our best in all competitions, to make our country proud and our fans happy.