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Victor Nikiforov's Lessons on Coaching and Love

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Victor Nikiforov is taking another break.

He justifies it by saying that it will only last for a week, and that he’s been training non-stop since missing the gold by a slight margin at the European Championships. He still has plenty of time until the Worlds and he intends to make good use of it.

But only after this one quick week.

He says his coach has chewed his ear-off about acting like a “lovestruck teenager” yet again, although the 1980 Olympic gold medalist didn’t actually make any active attempts to stop him from boarding a flight to South Korea. Yakov Feltsman knows by now that there’s no point in lecturing his most decorated pupil.

The thing about his coach’s moniker for him—and the rumor mill and all the tweets about him that’s been trending worldwide—is that it's not completely wrong. None of them are completely right, of course. But then again, he wouldn’t be here in Gangneung for the Four Continents if they were completely off-base. Victor Nikiforov is well-aware of his reputation. He knows how the media likes to speculate, and he’s used to the memes and the jokes made by befuddled fans online.

“I guess that’s what you get after you initiate a kiss in the middle of an international competition.”

He grins wide for the second time since the start of our interview. The first was when I met him outside the a small neighborhood coffee shop that we're now in. It's five minutes away from the Gangneung Ice Arena, where the competitors of the Four Continents Championships will begin official practice on Valentine’s day tomorrow. The mid-afternoon sunlight spilling out of the window catches his ash gray hair, outlining his face with a silvery glow. Victor Nikiforov is not what you’d expect from figure skating’s biggest name. He loves a good cup of cappuccino, and gushes about the fluffy dog-shaped design that tops his drink because it reminds him of his poodle Makkachin. He blushes at the mention of his well-publicized romance with Japanese skater Yuuri Katsuki, but continues talking about it anyway.

“I just wanted to surprise him, and that was all I could think to do at that time.”

Last year’s Cup of China kiss has become part of figure skating lore. Fresh from his fifth consecutive World Championship gold, Victor took a season-long hiatus in order to coach Katsuki. After his pupil’s free skate at his first competition in the season’s Grand Prix series, Victor ran to meet Katsuki at the edge of the rink, quite literally knocking him off his feet with a swooping, straight-out-of-a-movie kiss.

Of course, anyone in the figure skating scene would have long been familiar with Victor’s propensity for causing a surprise. They’ve seen it in way he choreographs his own programs and how he constantly changes them throughout a season, adding jumps and spins and sometimes even changing huge chunks of the choreography as he sees fit. But the kiss? The kiss was something else. The kiss was confusing and left his fans demanding answers. Fans argued about what it meant, their speculation dizzying. On the day of the Cup of China free skate, both Victor’s and Yuuri’s names trended worldwide. The tweets mostly wondered—in various degrees of emotional distress—if the kiss meant that Victor was giving up skating for good.

Victor says he understands why everyone feels baffled.

“Things happened fast that year and I didn’t really have a plan beyond the season. I just knew that I wanted to help Yuuri win. Now that I’m back, the worst that’s been said is how I’m just putting all of this for show because I’m too scared to retire. And that’s hurtful for Yuuri. He works so hard and is so amazing on the ice. It hurts that he’s being overlooked by this.”

With Yuuri Katsuki favored to win the Four Continents, Victor’s words sound a tad bit melodramatic. But I learn in the course of our interview that this is just the way he is: dramatic, yes, but also sensitive and fiercely protective—his heart open to the world.


 

The story begins this way:

Victor ends the figure skating season by winning the World Championships for the fifth consecutive time. And for the first time since he started skating in the senior division at fifteen, he’s unsure of what to do next. He has choreography for programs in mind, but even as he spends five straight days running them through on the ice in his Saint Petersburg home rink, he can’t seem to feel satisfied. The choreography comes out vague, like intangible wisps leftover from a dream. He thinks about retirement, but he knows that his body still has a few good years of skating to go.

So he spends days of his off-season lazily lounging on his bed or living room couch, his large poodle curling beside him most of the time. He doesn’t want to think about skating. He doesn’t want to think about anything in particular. Prodigies like Victor dedicate their entire lives to a single idea. What do you do when that idea turns into a wall that won’t budge, leaving you stuck in one place?

Things change when one of his rink mates sends him a link to Yuuri Katsuki skating a near-perfect replica of his season-winning free skate to Stammi Vicino. Apparently, the video’s gone viral.

And with that, he’s managed to knock a brick off the impenetrable wall and see what’s on the other side.

The next day, Victor packs his stuff and takes his dog with him to Japan.


 

There are dozens of accounts on what Victor is like an athlete, but there are very few that discuss how he is as a coach. This lack of curiosity is surprising, considering that he managed a silver medal finish at the Grand Prix and a bronze at the Worlds for Katsuki, all on his first try.

“Oh, no! No! Don’t!”

He shakes his head furiously, his voice so emphatic with disagreement that he startles the waitress handing him his takeaway. I watch her pause, unsure of where she went wrong, lingering a little longer after she dips into a quick bow—whether she's deciding to say thank you or to apologize, I’m not quite sure.

Victor is flustered, realizing his mistake. He smiles at the waitress before turning back to me.

“Those are Yuuri’s accomplishments. I wasn’t even around to help him at his Nationals this year.”

Still, it’d be wrong to discount Victor’s contributions. Katsuki was already a star in his own right before Victor ever came into the picture, but his nerves always seemed to keep him out of the podium. The Grand Prix Final at Sochi comes to mind. Despite positive predictions, he finished last due to flubbed jumps. Katsuki himself acknowledges this, building last season’s repertoire on his love and gratitude for his new coach. Victor’s star pupil-slash-fiance has given many interviews talking about this very thing.

“I know,” Victor answers with a dramatic wave of a hand, the glint of a ring catching my eye. “But that’s how Yuuri is, that’s what he thinks. I really didn’t do much. Just helped him change perspectives, I guess.”

He digs around the paper bag that was handed to him earlier. He had ordered blueberry muffins for Katsuki, who is still asleep in their hotel room, jetlagged from their 11-hour flight from Saint Petersburg.

“He really wanted to meet you today,” Victor tells me, looking satisfied with his order. “He was being really stubborn about it, too. But I told him to sleep in. He needs to be well-rested for official practice tomorrow. Lots of eyes on him now.”

With Victor now competing and coaching at the same time, the stakes are high for Katsuki’s Four Continents performance, and there’s plenty of speculation to go around.

Victor has re-entered the skating arena with much fanfare, beating out both Yuuri Katsuki and Yuri Plisetski for gold at the Grand Prix Final. He’s also managed a silver at the European Championships, just a few decimals short of Plisetski’s gold medal. On Twitter, fans are anxious about how this may affect Katsuki.

Yuuri’s training time is compromised to give his coach time for his own training, and he’s moved away from his home rink in order to train with Victor at Saint Petersburg. After another successful turn in the Grand Prix series, Yuuri Katsuki has proven himself to be a name to watch out for in competitions. But with him bearing most of the brunt of all these adjustments made for Victor's career, Yuuri’s steady rise to the World Championships could be stalled unceremoniously.

This is figure skating’s definition of a conflict of interest, further complicated by a well-documented and mostly Internet-approved romance.

“Maybe I am being selfish,” Victor offers quietly as I walk with him back to his hotel. The wind is getting nippier now that the sun is about to set. Gangneung is breathtaking in the late afternoon. In the horizon, Victor and I can see the coast and how it has now been cast with an orange glow. He had been talking about his soft spot for coastal towns before launching back to the complications of his working relationship with Katsuki. “We’ve thought about that a lot—that maybe Yuuri should change coaches or that maybe this is the end for me, and I should just focus all my energy on him. But I honestly don’t want to settle on either options. He helps my skating as much as I help his.”

Here, Victor starts talking in a more subdued tone. All day, he's been full of excitement and earnestness—eager to tell me about his fiance, about the dog they left behind with a sitter in the Saint Petersburg apartment they share, about how he always seeks out a good cup of cappuccino in every country he visits. (He explains: “I can sleep during flights but not as much as I want to. So I always need a good shot of caffeine when I land in a new place.”) But he looks hesitant now, biting at his lower lip when I don’t answer immediately. I can almost hear his mind working, sifting through words like a baker sifts through flour.

“Yuuri is the most dedicated skater I know. He throws his entire body into this sport, spending more time on the ice than anyone else in our rink. I lost that level of dedication, and I gained it back after being with Yuuri and just watching him grow as a skater.”

There’s a slight flush in Victor’s cheeks as he continues talking.

“I really can’t tell you how much Yuuri means to me and my skating. I wish I can, but I’m not good with words. I’m 29, practically ancient for a skater. This will probably be my last season. But I’m not stopping until I have to. I’ve learned so many things from my relationship with Yuuri and skating is my only outlet to express that.”

It sounds impossible to make a comeback at the age when most skaters start to retire, but Victor Nikiforov is magic. When he took the ice at the Grand Prix Final, competing against his own student, he does it with his own choreography. That means he managed to choreograph at least 4 new programs for this season, for both Yuuri and himself. It was a close fight but his jumps were cleaner, his landings smoother. His body moved with an energy that mirrored what people saw from him almost 15 years ago, when he was still thin and lanky, back when his trademark ponytail followed him around the ice like a gymnast's ribbon. While the confidence of youth has now tempered with age, the magic is still there: Victor was all fire and flare, each movement a dare he was issuing the audience, "go ahead and try to look away."

The crowd cheered. Twitter went wild. He climbed to the top of the podium and wore his sixth GPF gold medal. It all leaves me wondering: what is it about love that unifies life into a single, comprehensible whole and allows us to do the impossible?


 

Yuuri Katsuki, quite appropriately, shows up on Valentine’s Day.

It’s the day of the first official practice and Victor invites me to watch when I meet him on his coffee run. He has ordered two cappuccinos and two blueberry muffins, topping it all off with a special request.

“Can you still do the designs for me? The dog in the milk? In the cappuccinos? My boyfriend will love it.” The barista blinks back at him once, twice, then gives him a curt nod. Victor beams and thanks her a little too loudly before turning to me.

“Yuuri misses Makkachin.”

To learn more about Victor, one must learn more about Yuuri Katsuki. So I let Victor ply me with stories of their domestic life.

They argue a lot about whose turn it is to walk the dog in the morning, as it seems that neither of them are too fond of waking up early. Yuuri likes to cook on their days-off and makes katsudon anytime either of them places at the podium. They like to have Yuri Plisetski over for dinner. One of the first fights they had while living together was on splitting household chores. Yuuri had been the one to propose, in Barcelona, during his first Grand Prix Final with Victor.

(I ask for an elaboration on the last point, and Victor laughs, the affection clear in his answer: “We went sightseeing the day before the short program. He bought matching rings and we exchanged them. I joked that I’d only marry him once he wins a gold medal. I’m hoping it happens by the end of the season.”)

When I finally meet Yuuri for myself, it’s when he takes a quick break from practice. He glides across the ice to where Victor and I are leaning against the boards from the other side of the rink. He greets me with a small bow and a good morning like a real gentleman. It’s all too fast and I don’t manage to get a word in because Victor has already launched into reciting a series of pointers. I watch Yuuri nod, eyebrows slightly knitted together. They speak in an odd mixture of English, Russian, and Japanese. In Japanese, Victor’s accent sound stilted and awkward, as if certain syllables get stuck in his tongue somehow. In Russian, Yuuri sounds the same. They seem to understand each other perfectly, however, since Yuuri launches back out in the ice with clear determination in his eyes.

This season, Yuuri Katsuki’s programs are about transitions. This includes the smooth artistic transition between jumps that he’s come to be known for, but also the transition he’s had to make since his coach’s unprecedented comeback to the competitive scene. His short program is to a song called “Home” and Victor tells me that the choreography was inspired by the many difficult conversations they had about leaving Japan and training together in Russia. The music is quiet, longing and frustration subdued in drawn out notes from strings and sparse drum beats. An odd choice for a song to skate to, but it works with Victor’s choreography.

It starts simple enough, with a spread eagle followed by a step sequence that seems natural to Katsuki at this point. And then he launches into a quad loop before cleanly transitioning into a layback spin. There are more jumps in the second half of the program, with at least two of them done in combination. The whole thing is a study on trepidation, with movements that teeter on the edge of being too deliberate or too fast. The program ends with a combination spin, where Yuuri moves with incredible speed, moving from one edge to another and coming up to a quick Biellman before winding down for his final pose.

The crowd that came to watch the official practice goes wild, but no one seems more excited than Victor. He throws his arms in the air and shouts so loudly that the other coaches can’t help but watch with wide, amused eyes.

“That’s my Yuuri!” 


 

After the male skaters finish their practice for the morning, Victor and Yuuri invite me to join them for lunch. We eat at the arena cafeteria, our trays each holding a bowl of steamed rice, a plate of bulgogi or grilled marinated beef, another plate of stir fried noodles, and platters of an assortment of side dishes (which, of course, includes kimchi). They do that thing that most couples do when they eat meals together: pick out bits they don’t want to eat and put it on each other’s plates. Yuuri gets rid of the carrots and Victor swaps it for his serving of kimchi.

This time, it’s Yuuri’s turn to talk about Victor:

He snores in his sleep sometimes. (“I do not! Don’t tell her that!”) He hates doing the dishes and always tries to get out of it when it’s his turn. (“It’s because you cheat and do most of the cooking.”) He also hates it when Yuuri doesn’t wait for him to get home to start a new episode of the TV show they’re currently watching. (“Fine, so it isn’t always realistic to wait for me. It’s still annoying.”) His programs this season revolve around life and love, inspired by the big step they’ve taken as a couple. (“He cried the first time he saw it.") He likes to buy Yuuri flowers whenever he can, and cries easily over movies that feature pets.

“Oh, right!”

This reminds Victor of the cappuccino that Yuuri didn’t get to touch before practice. He hands him the paper cup, grinning and clearly excited. So Yuuri takes off the lid and sees not the fluffy face of a dog but... well, nothing really.

“There was a dog,” Victor explains, “because you said you miss Makkachin.”

Yuuri laughs and drinks the cold and dog-less cappuccino, anyway.


 

I leave South Korea before the competition really starts, and I only get to see Yuuri skate through a livestream on my laptop. In the Kiss and Cry after the free skate, they do things quite literally. Victor drapes an arm over his pupil, gives him a kiss on the cheek, and Yuuri wipes his eyes with the back of his hand after he sees that he’s managed a new personal best. In the end, he beats Kazakhstan's Otabek Altin for the gold, with home talent Seung-gil Lee finishing third. I imagine there’ll be a wedding soon, and that katsudon will be served in the reception.

 

 

Mara Staedler Lee is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.