Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, which kick off on Feb. 7.
Tatiana Tarasova knows a gold medalist when she sees one.
The 66-year-old Russian has coached many of her proteges to figure skating Olympic gold, including Japan’s Shizuka Arakawa at the 2006 Turin Winter Games.
Tarasova also once coached Mao Asada, and says the two-time world champion is one of the favorites to strike gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics that get under way in Russia in February.
“My dream is to have an athlete reach the pinnacle at the Olympics by performing a perfect routine to the great music of Rachmaninoff,” Tarasova says. “I’m confident that Mao is the only one who will be able to allow me to realize my dream.”
Although no longer Asada’s coach, Tarasova handled the choreography for her free routine and chose “Piano Concerto No. 2” for piano and orchestra by Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff as the music to which Asada will skate.
This will be the first time the Winter Games will be held in Russia, and Tarasova said Sochi is a well-suited host because it is extremely popular among her compatriots as a resort area.
“It faces the beautiful Black Sea and the weather is mild,” she says. “One gets the feeling of being in the center of a large, beautiful backyard. I fell in love with Sochi ever since I first visited when I was 7. I have since returned there a countless number of times over the past 60 years. I cannot wait for the Winter Games to be held in Sochi.”
Tarasova started out as a figure skater before injury ended her career. She became a coach at the young age of 19. Her late father, Anatoli Tarasov, coached the Soviet Union ice hockey team to three gold medals.
The skating venues at Sochi will be concentrated in the Olympic Park that has been constructed along the coast of the Black Sea. The skiing and sledding events will be held in the mountainous area of Krasnaya Polyana.
“The skating venues are all new and very beautiful, so I believe the skaters and audience will really enjoy them,” Tarasova says. “From the mountain near the biathlon venue, one can look over the Black Sea and Olympic Park, and by turning around, they will also have a good view of the Caucasus Mountains in the distance. Very special scenery can be viewed from there.”
Even though Russia is a neighbor of Japan, it cannot be considered a nation that many Japanese are familiar with. Russia is often referred to as a nearby nation that is very far away.
“In addition to being a multi-ethnic nation with boundless talent, Russia has also experienced a very difficult history,” Tarasova says. “I’m glad that the world will now focus on such a Russia, and I hope the Japanese people will feel closer to it. I think it will be an unforgettable Olympics for everyone.”
Among the gold medalists Tarasova has coached are Ilia Kulik, who won the men’s gold medal at the Nagano Games in 1998, and Alexei Yagudin, who took gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
“There is no secret method,” she says. “It is a product of talent and practice, meaning athletes have to go through harsh practices so they can fully develop their talents in order to conduct a perfect performance during the actual competition. A coach must guide the athlete to reach that stage.”
With a Russian Winter Olympics looming the past several years, a number of young homegrown figure skaters have also emerged, especially among the women. They include Adelina Sotnikova, 17, and 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia.
Tarasova was asked how those young skaters would fare against such veterans as Asada and reigning Olympic champion Kim Yu-na of South Korea.
“I cannot predict what will happen,” Tarasova says. “While I do not know who the goddess of victory will smile upon, I believe Mao, Yu-na, the Russian women as well as Carolina Kostner of Italy all have an equal chance as long as they perform their programs flawlessly.”
Tarasova coached Asada when she took the silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games. For her free routine, Asada skated to music by Rachmaninoff. Tarasova watched with expressions of encouragement and an occasional smile as Asada landed two triple axels to the solemn music.
Tarasova expressed satisfaction at how Asada has skated the free routine this season, which includes winning the Grand Prix final.
“I am grateful that Mao has been skating wonderfully to the free routine that I put together,” Tarasova says. “The theme is Mao’s life and the image is of her overcoming many difficulties, giving her life over to figure skating through many hours of practice and finally climbing straight to the top.”
Although Tarasova will be in Sochi as coach with the Russian team, she says, “I am both Mao’s teacher and a big fan of hers.”
In addition to Asada and Arakawa, Tarasova has also worked with Daisuke Takahashi, one of the three Japanese men in the figure skating competition at Sochi.
The first Japanese skater to practice under Tarasova was the ice dancer Nakako Tsuzuki. In 1999, Tarasova received a telephone call asking her to coach Tsuzuki and her Russian male partner.
For two seasons from 2003, Tarasova choreographed the skating of Takahashi. Even he faced difficulties meeting the tough demands made by Tarasova for the steps in his routine.
She began coaching Arakawa in February 2004. Tarasova taught her how to capture the attention of the judges and crowd. Even though she had only been Arakawa’s coach for a short period, Tarasova helped Arakawa win the gold medal at the world championships that year. Although Tarasova parted ways with Arakawa shortly before the Turin Games, her work set the foundation for Arakawa’s Olympic gold medal.
Tarasova first worked with Asada in 2007. Since then, Tarasova has choreographed some part of Asada’s routine, either the short or free program, or occasionally both. She served as Asada’s coach from 2008 until the 2010 season that included the Vancouver Games.
Her first Japanese disciple, Tsuzuki, is now retired as an active skater and has herself become a coach.
“She does not differentiate among skaters based on what nation they are from,” Tsuzuki says of her former coach. “But she also understands the finer points of the cultures of other nations.”
Arakawa, who has become a professional skater, says of Tarasova, “I learned from her the importance of putting in several times more the effort made by others, to never give up on victory and the toughness needed to survive.”
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