Ice Network

High altitude: Mishin and Co. get to work in Alps

Tuktamisheva, Plushenko among skaters at Courchevel training camp
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Elizaveta Tuktamisheva, seen here with coach Alexei Mishin at the 2015 European Championships, said she enjoys being involved in the creative process of crafting a program. -Getty Images

A special figure skating training camp recently descended on Courchevel, France: Coach Alexei Mishin of Russia brought his entire team -- including 2015 world champion Elizaveta Tuktamisheva and 2006 Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko -- to practice in the high-altitude resort town in the French Alps. Italian Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner also joined for a few days.

Courchevel is a singular place for the sport of figure skating. The famous Alpine ski resort, which stands at 1,850 meters (6,000 feet) above sea level, hosted some events of the 1992 Olympic Winter Games. It has also played host to Junior Grand Prix (JGP) events on and off since 2002. Team USA's Ashley Wagner, and Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani have golden memories from their outings in Courchevel.

Mishin has often brought his team to summer training camps in Italy. This was his first camp in Courchevel.

"Everything surprised me -- not only the mountains but also the typical, maybe not French but German order. Everything here is working, and everything is clean: the dressing rooms and the rink, spa, sauna. Everything is perfect for figure skating work!"  

"I love the mountains, and I love this country," Tuktamisheva said. "Courchevel is a really beautiful place, and we enjoy everything here. Courchevel is really the perfect place to practice at a high level. I could enjoy the quality of the ice rink, the fitness center, ballet (facility), sauna."

Courchevel normally entices its visitors to go hiking, dancing or dining in one of France's best restaurants. The summer camp, however, was quite intense.

"I don't balance between fun and work," Mishin said with his usual poise. "I do work, work, work. This is my fun, and the fun of my best skaters.

"Sessions like this should not move into one single direction," he said. "It should have multi-aimed sessions, like off-ice warmups and special off-ice exercises, on-ice training, physical fitness. If skaters want to move in only one direction, they will not come to the top of the mountains! Multi-purpose training is the right way to reach success."

The unusually high altitude of Courchevel plays a key role in improving conditioning and generating red blood cells.

"Skating at such a high altitude can be really hard," Kostner admitted.

She took some advice from Mishin but, unfortunately, had to leave in the middle of camp for family reasons.

All generations of skaters took the ice at the same time. An 8-year-old skater would land a jump, and Tuktamisheva and Kostner would warmly applaud. Mishin, as usual, was joking with his protégés. He coached even the smaller ones of his team, wearing shoes on the ice but showing body postures as if he were wearing skates.

Plushenko did not jump much in Courchevel. Instead, he worked on choreography with the two choreographers Mishin brought along: Emanuel Sandhu, the 2003 Grand Prix Final champion (ahead of Plushenko himself!), and Benoît Richaud, a former French ice dancer who skated with France's Élodie Brouiller and Canada's Terra Findlay.

Plushenko maintains that he will try to compete at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in hopes of trying to win one more medal. He would become the only skater in history to win medals in five different Olympics. (He currently shares the record of four medals in four Olympics with Sweden's Gillis Grafström, who took gold in 1920, '24 and '28, and silver in '32.) If he doesn't, the Plushenko name may nonetheless remain on the ice: He took his 3-1/2-year-old son, Alexander, to the ice nearly every day.

After winning European and world gold medals skating to an Arabian theme two seasons ago, Tuktamisheva disclosed that her next free skate would have an Egyptian flavor

"I don't know why, but I just feel this music, and I really love that kind of style," Tuktamisheva said.

She worked on her choreography with both Sandhu and Richaud.

"Because of Alexei Mishin's team, I have a big chance to work with so many different choreographers." she said. "It's always very interesting to work with different people, with different cultures and different tastes."

Tuktamisheva enjoys being involved in the creative process.

"I like to find the idea and the music. It's always very exciting, with all the possibilities we can use, to find the right piece which will follow you all season long," she said. "I love choreography. I love to understand the meaning of the choreography we are doing and to make people understand the feeling we want to make them feel.

"I really enjoy working with Benoît. This is the second season now that we have been working together, so we have started to know each other much more and have created a relationship. I like Benoît's way of moving and seeing things in a different way -- much more modern and new in terms of style. I also see that he loves what he is doing, and I really like that!"

Richaud spent his time choreographing for each team member, the younger ones as well as the more experienced ones.

"Some people seem to believe that all these athletes look alike. In fact, I can tell you that each one of them has a specific personality and a unique way to express oneself," Richaud said. "My role, as a choreographer, is to value each one of them. All skaters now were educated in the new system, so I can maximize the transitions, choreography, movement and musicality. I am impressed by how open these young athletes are, and how willing to innovate they are. Mr. Mishin's skaters are always very enthusiastic when I teach them new ways to express themselves or to move on the ice.

"I am astounded to see their determination to improve and succeed, and the consistency they show during practice. I was never able to find any limit to their potential. I suppose it's due to their on- and off-ice education.

"I must also say that the biggest reason for their success is their coach, Alexei Mishin himself. I am convinced that Russia's success comes from their coaches and their coaching methods. They know where to go, for sure."

Tuktamisheva is looking to regain the form that saw her take the skating world by storm in 2014-15.

"This year, I tried to do some new programs on different styles, like a program on Anthony Hopkins' waltz, 'And the Waltz Goes On,'" Tuktamisheva explained. "I worked a lot on spins and, also, I did a lot preparation off ice with my personal trainer, Egor."

What about the season to come?

"I have no particular plan for this season," she concluded. "My biggest hope is always to enjoy every minute of my passion, enjoy what I do every day. But, of course, I hope to do better than the last one."

Benoît Richaud and Olivier Brajon contributed to this story.