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Korobeynikova engulfed in 'Russian new wave'

Mature 16-year-old discusses emergence of young ladies, pressure of Russian championships

Russia's Polina Korobeynikova is a girl with "an iron will into a velvet glove."
Russia's Polina Korobeynikova is a girl with "an iron will into a velvet glove." (AFP)

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By Jean-Christophe Berlot, special to icenetwork.com
(11/19/2012) - The Russian ladies field has never been as powerful and rich as it is currently.

In the old days, everyone wondered: How could such a big nation rule the world in pairs and ice dancing and be so powerful with its men, but be so weak in the ladies categories? Elena Vodorezova took a world bronze medal, Maria Butyrskaia took the gold once, then Irina Slutskaya succeeded her, but they were still quite unique at their times.

For the last two seasons, a new crop of young champions from Russia has taken the world ladies category by Siberian storm. When asked about the reasons of such a phenomenon, a Russian official answered: "We don't know! Maybe that's a statistical law: For a number of years, we had nothing and all of a sudden we have plenty."

Last year, Elizaveta Tuktamisheva won both her Grand Prixs (Skate Canada and Trophée Eric Bompard) and she was so strong then that many wondered what would have happened at the subsequent worlds had she been of eligible age.

This year's Trophée Eric Bompard brought three from the up-and-coming generation of ladies skating in Russia to Paris. Tuktamisheva (16 next December) and the diminutive Julia Lipnitskaia (14) "only" took the silver and the bronze medals, respectively, while Polina Korobeynikova (16 years old) settled for seventh place after two rather rough programs.

After the competition was over, Korobeynikova and her coach, former world competitor and European medalist Viktoria Volchkova, took some time to explain how -- in their view -- that new wave had appeared and what it meant in Russian skating today.

"I started skating when I was 3 and a half," Korobeynikova explained. "I had some repetitive health problems, so the doctor suggested that my mom take me to an ice rink. I loved it right away."

The age at which girls used to start figure skating in Russia may be one of the reasons why there was a lack of champions in the ladies ranks.

"Russia has always been a grand nation of skating," Korobeynikova said. "Until about 10 years ago, however, no real training was organized for younger girls. Girls were starting to practice in their teenage, or maybe just before then."

Training younger girls has finally started to emerge. By contrast, Volchkova has been coaching Korobeynikova for more than six years now.

"Also, the training practice itself has changed," Korobeynikova added. "Training is now far stricter, more serious and at a much higher level than it used to be in the past. The level of world skating has improved, but the level of skating in Russia has increased tremendously as well, especially for girls."

The big challenge for Russian ladies skating now may be to accommodate such a large number of girls reaching the highest level: Who can be sent to international competitions, and how to decide who is the best at one given time, given the depth of Russian skating?

"Russian nationals are the main competition for that," Korobeynikova explained. "They are the absolute entry point for all of us. To us skaters, Russian nationals are just as competitive as the Olympics or worlds can be. Either you manage to qualify or you don't. Competition is extraordinary at nationals."

"To be complete," Volchkova added, "There is also an additional pressure that is put on these girls -- maybe too much. Before any competition, a meeting is organized between coaches and the Russian federation to insist on what is at stake. That adds a lot of pressure upon the frail shoulders of those girls.

"The fact is that competition is present (and it is fierce). But we should pay attention not to penalize success because of such pressure."

Korobeynikova does feel that pressure, although she does not want to talk about the merits of her skating mates. After taking the bronze medal at the 2011 Junior Grand Prix Final, she just won the Cup of Nice a few weeks ago.

"What I would really like for next season," she said, "Is that I can qualify for two Grand Prixs and for the Final. Achieving such results would give me a lot of experience and a new stature. That would be an ideal jumping board for me, especially in comparison with other teams from our country."

On the ice, Korobeynikova's image is soft and romantic. Off the ice, she radiates a similar feeling. Yet, inside her you can feel a real determination, "an iron will into a velvet glove," as the expression goes. She undoubtedly needs both to succeed.

At only 16, Korobeynikova has reached a new level in her maturity. Unlike Tuktamisheva, who has been confronted by it this year, Korobeynikova's transitional age is over now, although she still needs to adjust to her newly formed body. She elected to skate to Swan Lake this season.

"I did skate to that same music about five years ago," she said. "This year, my coach told me that I had matured enough to be able to skate to it again. I have always skated to classical music, but in the future I would like to explore new territories with more modern musical styles and different choreographical expressions."

Korobeynikova loves skating.

"Frankly, I love every part of it: training as well as competition, short program as well as free program, exhibitions," she said. "Also, I love the travel skating allows for. I love discovering new places. I am very proud to represent Russia in Paris. It's my first time here. With my coach, we could see the Louvre and the Champs Elysées. Maybe also she will take me to the Lido on Sunday night."

Korobeynikova may be an accomplished sports lady, she may be a growing artist. She also -- and above all -- is a young lady, just like her teammates are.

"I have little time for hobbies," she admitted. "But when I have, I love to go to theatre or the movies. And I love taking care of my little sister."

The next Russian championships promise to be a fascinating battle for the titles, between more senior skaters like Ksenia Makarova and Alena Leonova, and that new generation. If the training of skating ladies is now more structured and fruitful in Russia -- the "Russian new wave," as it is now being called -- there might be a whole tide, with one winner for all: figure skating itself.

Sophie Desmergers contributed to this article.