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Kulik thrives on a balanced schedule

Nearly 12 years into his professional career, he sustains a high technical level

Ilia Kulik's jumps seemed to stay up in the air forever.
Ilia Kulik's jumps seemed to stay up in the air forever. (Laurie Asseo)

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By Lois Elfman, special to icenetwork.com
(11/25/2009) - As a competitor, Ilia Kulik's jumps were huge and when he was on those jumps seemed to stay up in the air forever. Nearly 12 years into his professional career, he sustains a high technical level.

"For me, it was never enough just to do the jumps," says Kulik, 1998 Olympic men's gold medalist, 1995 world junior champion, 1995 European champion and 1996 world silver medalist. "I was always trying to take it to the level where I could enjoy the jump, enjoy the feeling, enjoy hanging up in the air and do it effortlessly and do it stably all the time.

"I always want to do it so you really get a kick out of it," he adds. "I'd try to make the jump a with a little more speed and see what happens. I'll try to get a little more hang time and see what happens. Usually, it makes the jump feel easier and then I can really relax and enjoy."

With another Olympic Winter Games coming into view, it becomes a time of reflection regarding past champions. Although entering the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, Kulik had never won a world title and hadn't even been on the podium at '97 worlds, he skated with supreme confidence. He managed to shut off his emotions and focus on skating meticulously clean programs.

"The first feeling out of those couple of nights -- short program and free program -- was just compete satisfaction," Kulik says. "I couldn't have done it better than that. It was 100 percent performance, believing in technique, believing in training and just going and doing your best in the moment that counts."

He says his gold medal is somewhere in his California home, but he's not sure where.

When he performs on the professional circuit, other skaters often turn to him for advice on their jumps. Kulik, 32, says he's been doing that since he was 14 or 15, helping out the younger skaters in the group of his former coach, Victor Kudriavtsev.

"I really enjoy seeing somebody progress and seeing somebody fix that little problem and making that big jump for the first couple of times," he says. "Just seeing it in their eyes when they do the jump for the first time. That's the most incredible feeling."

Kulik gained a lot of insight from watching skaters like Brian Boitano, Brian Orser and Kurt Browning on television when he was a young skater and trying to emulate them. He says his fellow pros don't really need that much help -- just the occasional insight from a fresh pair of eyes. "When we go professional and when we are touring, everybody has difficulties with jumps," says Kulik. "I do have difficulty with my jumps once in a while. This is normal process. Sometimes you need some person from the outside to look at your jump and give you a little easy fix."

One of Kulik's skating idols, Scott Hamilton, recently started performing on ice again after a five-year break. Kulik and wife Ekaterina Gordeeva skated at the gala benefit for the Scott Hamilton CARES Initiative, where Hamilton made his return. "I'm looking up to him and seeing him do unbelievable things. Also, caring about something so much with his foundation," Kulik says. "This year for the show there were 8,000 people in the audience. It was completely sold out. It's a great feeling.... Scott got a standing ovation. He's the best in the business. I learn every time I watch him."

These days, Kulik has a very special student, his 8-year-old daughter Elizaveta, who he says has recently gotten all her double jumps. With two Olympic gold medalists for parents, she has the weight of expectation on her.

"We'll see how it goes," he says. "If she takes it serious. If she likes it enough, I'm pretty sure she can stand up for it. It's a matter of if she likes it. We're just now trying to pick up the full schedule of training. You really need that full training schedule to get really good. So next couple of years will show if she likes it or not. If she will, I'll be really happy we'll continue with it."

Last year, Kulik performed with Stars on Ice for 40 shows. This summer, he performed in sold out shows in Korea headlined by world champion Yu-Na Kim, which he says were magnificent. He is looking forward to more performances, but feels that pacing himself enables him to sustain his technical level.

"Not trying to take too much," he says. "If you pace it well, you can really enjoy it and have a long career and try to stay injury free, most importantly. The older you get it's easier to get the injury and it's harder to recover. It's really important to take care of your physical abilities and not get injured."

He mostly does his own choreography these days, but occasionally turns to others for suggestions. A suggestion to revive the baseball cap routine created by Christopher Dean, which showcased Kulik's ability to do tricky footwork, gets a positive reaction. He says he might do that.

Kulik plans to perform for another few years, but eventually may turn to coaching full-time.

"Right now, it's pretty difficult to combine because it takes dedication to keep yourself in shape," he notes. "Over the years, it gets a little more difficult. At this point, it's pretty difficult to combine full-time teaching and partially performing or vice versa. But later down the road when I perform and travel less, that would be a good way to go and take on teaching full-time and see where we can go with that."