Ice Network

Savchenko wills herself to reach mountaintop

German pairs skater named 2017-18 icenetwork Person of the Year
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For persevering through years of heartbreak before finally winning the coveted Olympic gold medal, Aliona Savchenko is the 2017-18 icenetwork Person of the Year. -Getty Images

Aliona Savchenko's story is like that of a Greek epic, one that reached its climax when its heroine finally fulfilled her destiny at the top of the Olympic mountain range Feb. 15 in Gangneung, South Korea.

As in all good epics, Savchenko's journey is marked by waves and revivals. She went through multiple partners before finding the one who could lift her to new heights. She had to endure years of heartbreak and frustration before she could taste victory on the sport's biggest stage. Even when she did achieve her ultimate goal, she did so in unlikely fashion -- when the odds were stacked against her and almost everyone had counted her out.

Everyone, that is, except Savchenko herself.

The Ukrainian-born skater must have known from the beginning that she would win one day. She managed to keep her flame intact from Day One. Her inborn confidence never seemed to fade away, year after year, title after title, injury after injury. How else would she have resisted two major breakups with excellent partners: Stanislav Morozov, with whom she won the world junior gold medal in 2000 for her native Ukraine, and then Robin Szolkowy, with whom she amassed five world titles for Germany? How otherwise would she have dared start yet another quadrennial at age 30, after four Olympics (2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014) and two Olympic bronze medals (in 2010 and 2014)? How else would she and her on-ice partner have dared cross borders to create a team for a country in which neither of its members was born?

Almost anyone else would have called it quits long ago. Not Savchenko. Finding a new partner is usually so difficult for a pairs skater. Only two years after her world junior title, she left Ukraine to train with Szolkowy. Twelve years later, in 2014, Szolkowy ended the partnership right after the team won its fifth world gold medal, in Saitama, Japan, walking away before they had a chance to go on tour and, thus, reap the benefits of their success. But Savchenko had someone in mind, someone she had trained alongside for the last few years: France's Bruno Massot. The Frenchman was then skating with Daria Popova, who shared the same coach as Savchenko, Ingo Steuer. Savchenko made the switch without hesitation. Destiny was calling her again. She didn't let it pass by.

Before they could set about turning their dream into a reality, though, the skaters were faced with several obstacles. The first was having to endure a nearly 18-month-long wait for the French federation to grant Massot his release.

Just three months after Massot was allowed to skate for Germany, he and Savchenko rejoined the competitive ranks at the 2016 European Championships in Bratislava, Slovak Republic, where they won their first continental medal together -- a silver. Not one time since have they missed an ISU podium. They ended third at 2016 worlds in Boston, second at 2017 Europeans in Ostrava, Czech Republic, and second at 2017 worlds in Helsinki.

"It's rather strange for me," Massot admitted then. "I usually competed to reach the top 10, and all of a sudden I have to fight for the podium each time."

The Frenchman, to say the least, was up to the task.

Savchenko and Massot won the Grand Prix Final in December 2017, their only victory on the global stage before the Olympics. They then skipped the 2018 Europeans because of Massot's recurring back problems. Could they still win in Korea? The route to the summit had become that much steeper.

What looks like the top of a mountain is often a mirage, hiding the real peak. In Gangneung, Massot doubled his salchow in the short program, and the duo advanced to the free skate in fourth place, some 5.80 points behind pre-event co-favorites Wenjing Sui and Cong Han of China. Mission impossible.

Except Savchenko knew that "nothing is over until everything is over," as she once put it. She may have had doubts, but, just as she had done so many times before, she swept them aside. "You can't go against one's destiny," she seemed to say.

And her destiny was to win these Olympics. At worlds the year before, during the pairs awards ceremony, a fan asked the three top teams (Sui and Han, Savchenko and Massot, and Russia's Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov) who would be the next Olympic champion. Massot did not hesitate for a second: He took his partner's arm and raised it in the air.

In Gangneung, magic transpired. Savchenko and Massot delivered not only a perfect program but also an anthological one; it was one of those performances that makes textbooks and remains as a paradigm for generations to come. There was none of the tricks they had been fighting for the last two seasons: no throw triple axel, no quad -- just perfection. Lightness. Poetry. Ethereality. Each and every movement bore meaning, a feat only the best ice dancers usually produce. Every eye movement and smile had a purpose.

"Perfection is not when you can't add anything more," French author and airplane hero Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who authored The Little Prince in 1943, used to say: "It's when you can't take anything away from it."

The best chefs never fill your plate when you visit their restaurant for a meal. "Always leave the table with a little bit of hunger," my grandma used to say wisely.

"This is my moment. Today, I wrote history," Savchenko offered right after she and Massot claimed the Olympic gold medal.

Some might take those words as boastful. Coming from Savchenko, they meant so much more: On Friday, Feb. 15, she met her kairos, as the ancient Greeks used to call it, her propitious moment, and her own history. Her path had to cross this moment sometime, and that time had come -- and it was eternal.

Do you need to keep going after you have met your destiny? Oedipus himself might have wondered. Would Savchenko and Massot feel the urge to go to the subsequent world championships, one month later in Milan, after winning the one medal they most coveted? They dared -- and they emerged as the only skaters to stand on top of both the Olympic and world podiums last season.

Savchenko's accomplishments with Szolkowy and Massot have made her one of the most decorated pairs skaters in history. In terms of most combined Olympic and world titles, she ranks third behind only legendary Soviets Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev (three Olympic and 10 world gold medals for the former, two and six for the latter).

Ask the journalists who covered her, and they will tell you that Savchenko was not the most accommodating skater in the past. But in recent years, her change in disposition has been so visible, both on and off the ice.

After winning the 2016 European silver medal, she told icenetwork, "The truth is that now I am living for good. I have a beautiful fiancé (Savchenko and painter Liam Cross married the following summer). I have a calm coach. He is like a saint! We have big support from the people around. We are working together with one common goal. I can live and do what I dream for. That's quite a change! Before, it was skating only. I had a lot of success, but I was really sad in my life. It was too much, and it was too closed. You need people around you to take positive energy. It changes everything."

The Savchenko of old would have been unwilling to start all over with a new partner and win less than gold. The new Aliona embraced the challenge.

"There are no words to say how happy I feel," she said at those Europeans in Bratislava. "It's just like flowers when they start to open and have all these beautiful things come out."

The flower had opened. Change proved to be what Savchenko needed. The change around her made her change inside. The audiences of the world must have felt the change as well. As soon as the team came back to competitive ice, they were warmly supported and loudly applauded. The one-time ice queen is now known for her kindness, openness and boundless generosity.

One thing had not changed, however -- Savchenko's willingness to expand the pairs' technical repertoire. In the remade version of herself, she remained the perfectionist and Stakhanovist she had always been.

"The only reason she doesn't try a (throw) triple axel is because the doctor has ordered her not to," Massot once explained. "But look how she rotates: She thinks only of it."

Just a few days ago, in Oberstdorf, a small Bavarian mountain town recognized as, among other things, a European skating capital, a special ceremony was organized by the city mayor to celebrate the Olympic victors who call the village home. Six hundred people rallied in the streets to welcome their heroes. The skaters gave their two coaches, Jean-François Ballester and Alexander König, a unique gift: a smaller version of their Olympic gold medal, which they had ordered from a jeweler.

Allow me a personal digression, if you will. Four years ago, I wrote a story about Lori Nichol, the choreographer who I thought could be the icenetwork Person of the Year. Then I suggested Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron. The following season, in 2016, I proposed the French team's coaches, Marie-France Dubreuil, Romain Haguenauer and Patrice Lauzon. Last year, I nominated Eteri Tutberidze and Sergei Dudakov. None of them earned the title.

If I miss it again, twice, three times, four, I'll think of how Savchenko finally succeeded. The time has come for me to present the 2017-18 icenetwork Person of the Year. It is my privilege now, and forever.

Icenetwork would like to thank Tatjana Flade for her book, Ein perfektes Paar ("A Perfect Pair," Chemnitzer Verlag, 2016), which provided some of the background information for this article.