Portraits of Russian Ladies: Tatiana Rachkova

Photo Credit: Tatiana Rachkova.

Competitive highlights: 1992 Olympic Games (16th), 1992 Worlds (13th), 1992 European Championship (14th), 1992 Vienna Cup Winner, Russian National Championships (1992 – 2nd place, 1993 – 3rd place)

Tatiana Rachkova hailed from the same generation of Russian ladies singles skaters as 1999 World champion Mariya Butyrskaya but is not as widely known to figure skating fans today. She made a quick, very promising splash in 1992 by participating at every major event (including the Olympics) but sadly disappeared from the world scene quickly after. Her style merged athleticism, powerful jumps and strong technique with unconventional eye-catching choreography, turning her into a predecessor of a new generation of talented, original Russian skaters like Olga Markova (covered in my previous post) and Butyrskaya herself.

She first emerged in the early 90s in a diluted competitive field, at the background of the disbanding Soviet Union, amidst growing uncertainty in the political and sports arena alike. According to Russian blogger Yury Vishkin, women singles’ skating at the time had taken a step back in the USSR due to the higher popularity of pairs and ice dance, combined with decreased political support on the side of the federation and lack of attention on the coaches’ side.

Tatiana’s figure skating journey first began when she was 5 years old. Like many young Soviet children at the time, she was enrolled in outdoor group lessons by her parents. Instantly, she fell in love with the sport, and her group coach quickly recommended her to try out for a skating club. Recognition came instantly and soon coaches started paying a lot of attention to the talented skater.

“When I was a child, I used to tell my mother: I love skating so much, let’s go to the rink!” Tatiana recalls. “Even though you never know what you want to be at such a young age, from the very beginning  I enjoyed skating so much and there was no question that this was the sport I wanted to do.”

Tatiana as a child.Photo Credit: Tatiana Rachkova.

As she advanced during her childhood and early teenage years, she had the chance to work with coaches like Sergei Volkov (1975 World Champion), Igor Rusakov (previously covered in detail in my article about Ilia Klimkin) and Elena Scheglova (1968 Olympics competitor).

“I was very lucky to train with them and learned a lot from them. Each of my coaches was very different in their own way. Sergei Volkov, for instance, was a very technical coach and everything I know about jumps, I have learned from him. Igor Rusakoff, on the other hand, had a very artistic approach to training, and he gave me a totally different perspective on skating. I learned a lot about presentation from him, he taught so many cool stuff that I see many skaters do even today. Elena Scheglova was my last coach – she gave me the finishing touches and was pretty much my biggest fan and best friend,” Tatiana admits.

The young athlete made her senior debut in 1990 and gained some moderate international recognition by finishing 7th at Skate Canada and 6th at the 1990 Goodwill Games. A 5th place finish at the Soviet nationals did not allow her to participate in the big competitions. The year she appeared on the international scene was marked by increasing political instability and uncertainty lying ahead, as the Soviet Union had just disbanded. At the background of the ensuing turmoil, figure skating, like all sports, was undergoing a transition period.

Even though Tatiana emerged alongside a few other promising singles skaters, she confirms the notion that there was little federation support for the ladies. In the late 80s and early 90s, the discipline remained largely overlooked domestically and internationally in favor of the more successful pairs and ice dancing teams. It wasn’t until the mid-90s with the appearance of skaters like then 15-year-old Irina Slutskaya and Olga Markova that the sporting authorities started to reconsider their position.

“As a competitor, you don’t put much thought into it – I was just trying to focus on my skating. But looking back now, I do realize the ladies were left a bit too much in the shadows compared to other disciplines,” she comments. “I do not know what the reason for the federation’s position was. It would definitely have been nice if they could have provided more moral support, more trust, and encouragement, as we did have the talent and we did have the resources, like ice time. We had some very promising, technically strong skaters coming – for example, Mariya (Butyrskaya), Julia (Vorobieva)…”.

Despite lacking political support, Tatiana holds no grudges and still remains positive about her career: “I am not angry at all the federation. With time, I just accepted that this is how it was. Plus, I got so many great competitive opportunities that many skaters dream of. So I just tried to make the best out of my situation.”

And a wonderful opportunity came along for the skater in 1992 indeed – at the last Soviet Union national championship, the then 19-year-old Tatiana edged Mariya Butyrskaya for second place on the team. This guaranteed her a spot for the Olympics as well as the 1992 European and World Championship where she was to compete under the umbrella of the “Unified Team”, together with other athletes from former Soviet Republics. Tatiana remembers the Nationals that year with great fondness: “Finishing second was unbelievable! The whole season back then went amazingly well. My coach, Elena, was so excited, she kept repeating: “Tatiana, you are going to the Olympics!”

On her way to Albertville, the first competition was the European Championship, the first major competition of her career. After a strong short program, she found herself in the final flight for the free skate, surrounded by Surya Bonaly, Marina Kielmann, and Patricia Neske. A series of jump mistakes, unfortunately, left her at 14th place overall.

She more than redeemed herself at her next competition though, which was none other than the Olympic Games. After two very respectable (and arguably undermarked) performances, she ended 16th overall. Tatiana still reflects with excitement and visible happiness on her Olympic participation:

“Skating at the Olympics was an unbelievable experience. I was pretty happy with both my programs – in fact, in the short, I skated after Nancy Kerrigan, but there was barely any pressure. I was just happy to go on the ice and do my thing. All the time, I was so focused, never freaking myself out by saying “Oh my, it is the Olympic Games, what am I going to do?”

“By the way, the Russian Federation, they refused to send my coach Elena Scheglova to Albertville, and they cited financial reasons for that. So that is why you see me accompanied by Alexei Mishin in the Kiss and Cry. I suppose they might have thought the Russian ladies wouldn’t do so well… Anyway, this did not prevent me from trying to give my best since I was used to just shutting all distractions off and focusing on my performance. And the time after the competition was fantastic as well – I met so many athletes from different sports, we hung out together in the village, we saw the other events, we flew back together home. For example, Russia’s win at hockey was unforgettable, I remember being there and cheering with the rest of our team.”

In comparison to the Olympics, the World Championship was very relaxing, admits Tatiana. “This time, the federation agreed to send my coach with me. It was a fun competition.” She outperformed her teammate Julia Vorobieva (who didn’t make the free skate cut) with a 13th place finish, a good way to conclude a successful season full of promise.

Despite performing undeniably well during the season and exhibiting a lot of promise and potential, Tatiana’s way was cut inexplicably short. A 3rd place finish at the Russian Nationals prevented her from advancing to the major competitions in 1993 and building up any further momentum.

Following Maria Butyrskaya’s poor performance at the 1993 World Championship (Butyrskaya finished only 29th, failing to even reach the short program), Russia was not able to gain a spot for the 1994 Olympic Games. A 4th place finish, behind Olga Markova, Mariya Butyrskaya, and Irina Slutskaya, at the 1994 Russian Nationals, made her question her competitive future. “At the 1994 Nationals, I skated a good short program, and also skated really well in the long. Even one judge came up to me and said: “Tatiana, I think you should have definitely been 1st or 2nd”. I do not know why I finished at that place back then, but thinking about it, the competitive landscape was changing, priorities were shifting, and maybe the federation preferred to pay more attention to young upcoming skaters like Irina Slutskaya.” The dubious judging decision cast some doubt on her mind, leaving her left out: “It felt as if the judges were giving me a signal which led to negative reinforcement – like they were saying that I was good but maybe I should consider retiring to free the path for other skaters. Maybe I misinterpreted it but this can often lead a skater to think whether they should retire, whether they are still relevant…” Even though she possessed excellent athletic qualities, interesting programs and felt immune to common skating problems like competitive nerves and injuries, she was denied the chance to develop as a skater and shine internationally after a very brief stint on the scene in 1992.

With the growing uncertainty and economic turmoil in Russia, she concluded that persevering in the sport which paid little attention and support was meaningless. Instead, she chose to pursue another artistic path in life. “I was approached by a “Disney on Ice” scout. They were traveling worldwide and looking for a potential cast for their upcoming show “Beauty and the Beast,” she remembers. “So I thought about it, I weighed the advantages and disadvantages of skating competitively and moving to shows, spoke to my coach and family. Back then the financial situation was difficult, and I finally decided it might be most beneficial to take the offer and leave competitive skating.”

It would be a decision she never regretted. “It was another stage of my career and it was absolutely amazing. The pay was excellent, the company treated me great,  I traveled around the world and visited so many countries in two years – Columbia, USA, Australia, New Zealand, China, among others…Most of the principles on tour were Russian so I never felt alone. I still tried my best to retain my competitive shape, I made sure to do triple jumps during my spectacle routine. But you should always approach shows with the mind that the audience is there to have fun, and you are there to bring a magical experience, so there is no need to worry too much about jumps or technical elements.”

Tatiana skating in Disney on Ice – Beauty and the Beast. Photo credit: Tatiana Rachkova

After touring as a principal with Disney on Ice for several years, a seamless transition into coaching followed. As her show skating career came to an end, Tatiana settled in the USA, and to this day works as a figure skating coach in Ohio. “Figure skating is my life, I have come to a realization that I owe so much to the sport, I dedicated my life to it and I cannot imagine myself doing anything else,” she admits as we speak; she credits the sport with bringing her where she is today “I am who I am today thanks to figure skating”. As for which parts of her coaching profession bring her the greatest fulfillment, she answers without hesitation:

“It is greatly rewarding to know that I could be part of someone’s development and help them grow as a person. There are so many students whom I have started teaching since they were little children – it is wonderful to see them take small steps on the ice, and gradually learn, grow, develop and take different paths in life. Years later, I have had the chance to meet some of my former students again, and they are all so thankful to me for everything I had taught them – this is a true success for me. I am aware that not everyone can make it to the Olympics, so I want to make sure I can influence all my students for the better; I want to make sure that no matter the professional path they undertake, they have a good time while they are here, and grow to be good-natured, happy adults. ”

Author’s note: I would like to extend my Special Thanks to Ms. Tatiana Rachkova herself, for taking the time to chat about her career and providing the photographs featured in this article.

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