Ice Network

Tutberidze, Dudakov lift students to top of sport

Russian coaches show innate ability to relate to skaters on personal level
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Eteri Tutberidze and Sergei Dudakov helped skaters like Evgenia Medvedeva reach new heights in 2016-17. -Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Icenetwork will announce its choice for 2016-17 Person of the Year later this month. Here's one of the nominations for that honor from icenetwork contributor Jean-Christophe Berlot.

Eteri Tutberidze has always made it clear that she dislikes pre-event interviews. That is especially true these last few years, as her most famous protégée, Evgenia Medvedeva, has been in the spotlight.

"I don't like it because people keep asking me, 'What are your plans for the competition?'" Tutberidze explained. "I have no plans. We just want to skate as well as we can. It's God's plans, maybe. We can cope, but we can't plan."

For several years, I had been intrigued by this tall and beautiful lady, standing as straight as an "I" behind the boards, carefully watching her pupils skate. With her long curly hair and childish smile and cheeks, she looked so young! And at the same time, she was already such a successful coach.

By her side was her colleague, Sergei Dudakov. Both could be seen along the boards at every European, world and Olympic meet for the last four seasons, for the last group of ladies -- the best.

I felt blessed when I finally met her, at the Grand Prix Final, in a place I soon learned that journalists were forbidden. Sometimes you need to defy the odds to favor human ties over human laws.

"I have 50 percent Georgian blood, 25 percent Russian and 25 percent Armenian," Tutberidze advised me right away. "That's a lot of different blood. You could call that cocktail a 'Bloody Eteri,' just like there is a 'bloody Mary' -- with lots of spices in it!"

We had a good laugh together then, but, as my mother used to say, beware of cocktails.

This one cocktail is "on the rocks," however. Dudakov is as calm as his associate can be explosive at times.

"She's a volcano," said a Russian coach who sometimes shares the ice with Tutberidze. "Sergei is emotionally more quiet."

The two of them are fire and ice, for the sake of their students.

Tutberidze and Dudakov have managed to bring their Moscow school to the forefront of the world. Last month, their star pupil, Medvedeva, won the world championship for the second year in a row, the first skater to achieve that feat since Michelle Kwan in 2000-01. She is undefeated in her last 10 competitions -- the last time she lost was at the 2015 Rostelecom Cup -- and owns the world records for short program score, free skate score and total score, marks she seemingly resets every time she takes the ice. In this 17-year-old wunderkind, the skating world may have finally found the new star it had been seeking for so many years.

"Show me the pupils, and I'll tell you the teacher," a French proverb goes. Medvedeva is not the only star in the stable. There is also Alina Zagitova, the 2016 Junior Grand Prix Final and 2017 world junior champion. And going back a few years, Julia Lipnitskaia, the 2014 European champion and world silver medalist, was at the top of the sport (she has since left the group). The duo also coaches boys, like Ilia Skirda, who made it to the Junior Grand Prix Final last December.

All of them share common features: They master each one of their programs, jump superbly, add an artistic flair to their skating -- and win.

Just like her pupils, Tutberidze herself is quite competitive -- as a coach.

"I am a fifth child, and the last one of my family," she explained once. "I suppose I always had to prove my place in my family!"

Tutberidze has definitely proven her place. And she holds onto it, season after season.

When the Russian school started to train little girls to do the most difficult tricks at a very young age, Tutberidze and Dudakov learned to cope with their pupils' evolving maturity. They found ways to develop technical skills that would outlast the puberty stage.

"I'm trying to teach jumps [in a] way [that] they will keep them after their body changes," Tutberidze explained. "That's the whole purpose of technique: It should work even after puberty, even though their body will gain weight here and there."

But technique isn't everything. Right from the start of her rise to stardom, when she was a junior, Medvedeva has always claimed that she owed a big part of her success to her coaches.

"My coaches know me more than I know myself, as they can look at me from so many different sides and understand me so well," the skater offered. "I just trust them. If my coach tells me, 'You can skate tango really well,' I may answer her, 'No, I can't, I'm sorry.' But then she'll tell me that I have to try it first. Well, when I try it, it will go well -- because I trust her!"

Trust is very important to Tutberidze, as is honesty.

"I don't lie, even if it may hurt," she said. "I tell [my students] it's better to hear it from me first rather than from anyone else. They will always hear the good things from others but none of the bad things -- those, I have to tell them. I think that's a building stone for trust. It shows them that I do care about them. They are my life. They are my kids on ice."

Tutberidze also admits that she follows her pupils' wishes.

"I try to always let them decide what they want. My job as a coach is to follow them," she said. "I try to explain to them and make sure that they always have a choice. You can't just push them. If you did, it would work once or maybe twice, but it would never work more than that. You would lose the person herself; she would not be with you anymore."

That's what she did when 14-year-old Lipnitskaia said she wanted to skate to the dramatic soundtrack of Schindler's List, back in 2013. Lipnitskaia managed to move the whole world when she portrayed "The Little Girl in the Red Dress" from the Steven Spielberg movie.

Would she let Medvedeva skate to the K-pop Korean music she loves so much?

"Of course!" she answered right away. "I always tell each one of my students, 'If you hear music you like, please bring it to me.' This helps me understand them better as well."

Having coached most of her "kids on ice" since they were children, Tutberidze is able to develop a strong connection with each of them.

"I talk with them a lot. I try to understand what's happening within them," she said.

That is something Medvedeva is quick to confirm.

"She wants to find different ways to open my inside world, and the different kinds of personalities and possibilities I have within myself," the skater offered when explaining her programs from this past season.

"I also tell them what we're working for," Tutberidze added. "I try to show them where they are going to get. They need to understand why we are sweating. When I was a skater myself, nobody showed me where to go, and I missed it. As a coach, you need to lead them to the light. We talk a lot with the skater about every jump: the way it should be, what it should look like."

The value of hard work is something Tutberidze and Dudakov pass on to their students.

"I work! That's the only thing I am able to do -- work!" Tutberidze once said. "You just have to work and see where it leads you. It may work, but it might not work as well. I think that if you really believe that things are going to happen, if you really do everything you can, then things will work."

I won't ever ask Tutberidze and Dudakov what their plans are, I promise. But their projects allow kids to grow and become the leaders the skating world needs. They are carrying out God's plan, and so far their school has been blessed. It is my honor to nominate them as icenetwork's People of the Year.