The greatest Russian figure skater that never was (Part I)

In the wild spectacle of elite sports, stars ascend quickly, shine brightly and fall down in an instance if they are not able to win big during the narrow window when their physical abilities are at their peak. Media and fans, hungry for thrill and eternally seeking new favorites to replace yesterday’s heroes, usually do not put much thought into this endless cycle. It is either a story of continuous undefeated success that sticks in the minds of the viewers, or a tale of defeating impossible odds to raise to the top. It is no wonder why these stories of overcoming adversity receive high coverage during the Olympics, with the emergence of the concept of athletes making miraculous comebacks to fulfill their “Olympic dream”.

And figure skating, like all sports, is a straightforward, simple and extremely cruel game: the most capable rise to the top, the less talented or misfortunate ones are easily replaceable both by their federations and in the eyes of the audience. Unfortunately, little attention do we pay to the fact that for every Yuna Kim, Yuzuru Hanyu or Evgeni Plushenko who garner and inspire countless dedicated fans with their astonishing abilities and competitive drive to beat all odds, there are thousands of equally amazing figure skaters who come painfully short of achieving their immense potential. A few of them live in the collective memory of the community as a cautionary tale for the dangers of the sport; the overwhelming majority end up a mere sporting statistic.

Ilia Klimkin is arguably one of the most talented figure skaters to ever come out of Russia – and probably one of the biggest wasted talents from there, and that says a lot for a country that prides itself on being one of the leading powers in the sport. He was almost up there with Evgeni Plushenko and Alexei Yagudin in terms of raw talent and artistry, but unlike the other two, he lives in the minds of figure skating aficionados today as a collection of a few faint fragmented memories. Yet, I am still to find a story which more beautifully illustrates the hypocrisy, unfairness and ultimate meaninglessness of elite sports on all sides, like the career of this largely forgotten skater does .

Having the somewhat bad luck of being born and competing for a country that had in possession the world number 1 and 2 in men’s figure skating during the formative years of his career, Ilia Klimkin ultimately became a victim of a greed-fuelled sporting machine which eventually failed itself –  a system where prestige, reputation and number of medals won were the priority over actual developing of talent and helping athletes in need. A complex mixture of competitive difficulties, personal tragedy and injuries deformed his once promising career from a rocky journey to the final flight to a pain-filled oblivion, to unfortunate invisibility in the end.

Prologue
Russia achieved the absolute zenith of its men’s singles skating in the 90s and 00s when a series of young and very talented skaters came one after another, taking the world by storm and ultimately flourishing in front of everybody’s eyes at the Olympic Games. From Viktor Petrenko’s win for Unified Team in 1992 (Petrenko was actually Ukranian), to the unexpected gold medals of the young Alexei Urmanov and Ilia Kulik in 1994 and 1998, respectively, to one of the most iconic rivalries the figure skating world had ever witnessed between Plushenko and Yagudin – it seemed like nothing could break the Russian domination in the sport.

Going back earlier, the Soviet Union had already established itself as a power in pairs skating and ice dance in the 60s and 70s. Possessing a natural affinity for both sports and balletic arts as evidenced by their highly developed ballet theatre at the time and the abundance of talent, figure skating was unsurprisingly one of the multiple battlefields where the Soviet Union aimed to gain the edge during the Cold War.

With strong governmental support, huge financial investments and a centralized system, competitive sports was to be used as a propaganda tool showcasing the superiority of the country to the world. Successful athletes were idolized like national heroes and showered with luxuries that regular Soviet citizens could only dream of. And the results of the sporting regime stand to this day – statistically, the Soviet Union is still ranked second in the all time table of total Olympic medals won (1,204 medals, 473 of which gold).

The fall of the Union in 1991 did not lead to a fall on the athletic field – with many coaches and officials remaining involved in Russia (and many others leaving abroad), the strong cult and dedication towards sporting glory remained intact from Soviet times.

Figure skating was no exception from the multiple sports comprising the machine. The Soviet training methods became worldwide known: built on iron discipline and state of the art technique further developed and utilized by soviet coaches, it allowed the country to start producing a plethora of skating champions for a period which would last from the 60s until the mid 00s.

An unusual talent left somewhere along the way

 Ilia Klimkin performing during the short program at the 2004 World Figure Skating Championship.

Being born a talented athlete who wants to follow their passion for a living in the middle of this maehlstrom where gold medals are held up as the holy grail comes with perks and drawbacks. The stronger the competition is, the harder one has to work to gain recognition and the less space for mistake there is. Ilia Klimkin had to struggle with this problem for long – blessed with immense potential he had all the qualities for success, but had difficulty breaking out of Russia for years.

From his very first appearance at a senior international competition he pushed the sport forward athletically in the 90s precursor of the quad revolution when he managed to land two different quadruple jumps in one program – and that was at Nebelhorn Trophy 1999 nonetheless, not a big glamorous championship like the Worlds! His jumps were inconsistent but when successful, they were spectacular – unexpected, with enormous height and coverage, technically sound and landed swiftly.

He possessed mesmerizing spins (at his peak he was probably just as good as Stephane Lambiel), a cat-like agility and unique set of moves and transitions which kept the audience’s attention from start to finish. His very intricate and out-of-the-box choreography brought meaning to every program, turning it from a mundane sporting performance to an actual dramatic story unfolding on ice. Despite not being the speediest of skaters, the soft and light-footed flow of his movement sometimes created an illusion of him floating across the ice in a sylph-like way.

Ilia Klimkin performing during the exhibition gala at the 2004 European Championship.

His skating was characterized by a sense of avantguard lyricism and innate expressiveness. All his programs up to 2004 showcase a versatile style which blends influences from both classical ballet and modern dance – he could be mysterious and extravagant in one program, tragic and elegant at the same time in another, or even comedic while portraying a puppet a la Nijinski. No matter how the jumps were going, the emotional engagement invested in his programs programs and the ability to capture every note of the music with his body gave viewers a breath of fresh air, and could easily allow one to overlook the flaws.

It could be argued that Klimkin was ahead of his time, not being able to capitalize on the IJS system during his competitive career; years later, the Code of Points would transform figure skating by not only rewarding more risky, athletically challenging performances nowadays, but also prompting skaters to perform much more complex programs, rich in movement and choreography.

Ilia Klimkin performing during the short program at the 2004 World Figure Skating Championship.

Slowly climbing up to the podium at Russian nationals, his skating was getting better and better each year, with his competitive nerves being the only obstacle in the way. Facing the pressure of representing the same nation as Olympic champions Evgeni Plushenko and Alexei Yagudin, he would often have trouble with inconsistent performances both at national and international events in the late 90s and early 00s. It wasn’t until 2003 that he could secure a permanent spot on Russia’s European and World’s team.

Both Plushenko and Yagudin had catapulted themselves to stardom from a young age – while still teenagers, they both medalled at their first appearances at Worlds and only reaped more victories from there. Each excelling in his own way and full of charisma, they were entangled in a bitter rivalry, a rivalry so fierce that it isolated them in a league of their own far above the rest of the competitors, allowing them to overshadow the entire men’s field from 1999 up until Yagudin’s unexpected retirement in 2002.

Ilia Klimkin performing, ca. 2004

I had the luck to watch Ilia for the first time in 2004 when I was 11, witnessing what could have been his late-blooming rise to stardom. With Alexei Yagudin and fan-favorite Alexander Abt out of the way for good, it was his turn to enjoy success after being in the shadows for so long. I remember watching him give a fantastic performance at the European Championship that year, being so mesmerized by his unorthodox choreography and presence on the ice that it felt as if my eyes were glued to the TV screen.

I also remember excitingly anticipating 2004 Worlds and being so happy to see him once he was on the ice for the short program, only to have my high hopes completely shattered 2.30 minutes later after his very flawed performance. What stood out, however, was how hauntingly beautiful the rest of his program was despite the bad jump mistakes. I remember how I waited impatiently to watch him in the free skate because I really wished for him to have the chance to redeem himself and be happy after looking so devastated in the short – alas, my anticipation never materialized, neither did the hopes to see him again next season.

My interest in figure skating faded away with time – I still followed everything that was shown on TV but the passion was no longer there. In retrospective, I was not even sure back then why he was away, neither did I seek the reasons. And looking back in the past now, neither did figure skating fans – all that was known was that he got injured along the way, had surgery, was going to be away for a while, and that was it. It seems to have been the same with Russian fans – few of them knew or cared about the reasons behind his hiatus. None of it was important – there are multiple skaters who could replace a sidelined one every minute, fans never run out of new favorites to follow; hence, Klimkin had quickly faded into oblivion.

Early days

By his own words, Ilia Klimkin did not volunteer to be in figure skating – influenced by the trends at that time and inspired by the huge popularity of the sport in the Soviet Union, his grandmother first took him to the rink when he was four, hoping that the sport will improve his health. Soon coaches noticed his talent, and he has claimed to have been among the very few skaters chosen to continue in a tryout class of 800 candidates. He had several coaches by the time he turned 11, among which Olympic silver medalist in ice dance Irina Moiseeva, Evgenia Zelikova and Eduard Pliner.

Despite his potential, the little boy did not have the desire to pursue figure skating, dreaming of playing soccer instead. It was only the insistence and strong pressure on the side of his father that kept him in the sport during the early years.

A very promising and nationally ranked skater by the age of 11, he first joined the training group of Igor Rusakov in 1991 after his coach Eduard Pliner departed to the USA. Rusakov would remain his long time coach until his death from leukemia in 2003.

Igor Rusakov, having started himself as a figure skater with very limited success, later found his calling in life in coaching and choreography. With a tremendous passion for ballet and theatre, he cited ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, choreographer Maurice Bejart, and canadian skater Gary Beacom as being some of his greatest artistic influences. Just like them, he gradually built a name for himself during the years as being one of the most innovative creators in his chosen field. The great attention to choreographic detail, unusual music choices and the individuality of style displayed in each program distinguished his skaters at competitions, with Klimkin turning into his most notable student and prime muse.

Igor Rusakov at a competition in Switzerland, date unknown.

At first building a trusting relationship was not easy – the coach was neither impressed with Ilia’s skating, nor by his wild attitude problems, and vowed to rebuild his technique and artistic style from scratch. Several months had to pass until he and the child found understanding between each other. What followed were years of hard work dedicated not only to building a solid jump technique but also a very unique artistic sensibility, which in turn led to hundreds more hours spent in dance classes and stretching. Rusakov was described as priding himself on his ability to ‘’turn a piece of wood into something you can proudly show internationally“ with the big competitions being the final goal in sight.

The long years of hard work eventually paid off, and by the age of 16, Ilia landed his first quadruple jump, a toeloop one. It wasn’t until this time that he started to truly enjoy figure skating and see it as something more than a burden he was forced into.

Ilia Klimkin and Igor Rusakov, ca. 2003. Photo credit: Alexander Wilf.

Klimkin would describe Rusakov as being very strict during practices but also an incredibly dedicated coach who truly understood and cared for his students. He would spend the entirety of his waking time at the Young Pioneers Stadium skating rink in Moscow, always teaching and seeking further inspiration for new programs, or even doing manual tasks like sharpening blades or driving the zamboni. Rusakov has further been said to have been very involved in the life of his students as a parent figure, and going far and beyond the call of duty to support them in achieving their dreams by providing all moral and financial support he could.

Junior career (1997-1999)

Ilia made his first appearance at Russian Nationals in 1996 but only managed to finish 12th. The competition was won by Ilia Kulik who for the majority of his eligible sporting career was coached by the famous Viktor Kudriavtsev – a man who would later coach Klimkin following the death of his coach. After leaving Kudriavtsev, Kulik would become the second consecutive Russian olympic champion in 1998 with the help of famed coach Tatiana Tarasova.

The next season marked Klimkin’s debut at the international junior scene. Despite not having made any impact internationally up to that point, he was sent to the World Junior Championship in 1997 where he finished 4th. A complete unknown from Russia at this point, he left a lasting impression on skating fans. With his unconventional skating style and moves, he captivated audiences, and a bright future was predicted for the young skater, with fans anticipating his progression. The hopes were fulfilled in 1998 when he became Junior World Champion, and the excitement and speculation on how far he can go in his senior debut next season grew stronger.

After his win at the World Junior Championships, Klimkin experienced disappointment at his second Russian Nationals. He was not considered a favorite for a spot on the worlds team in 1999 – the three spots were almost guaranteed for Plushenko, Yagudin and Alexei Urmanov. Despite the lack of strong pressure, he had great trouble with his performances in both stages of the 1999 Nationals, finishing only 10th. He concluded the 1998-1999 season on a higher note with a second place finish at the Junior Grand Prix Final.

In a devastating turn of events, the success of the coaching team in that season was accompanied by tragedy – Igor Rusakov was first diagnosed with leukemia in 1998, aged only 39. With the financial help of the Russian Figure Skating Federation, he underwent a bone marrow transplant surgery in 1999, which would prolong his life with several years. What followed were years of uncertainty –  a strong desire to survive combined with denial of the severity of the condition marked the last years of his life. During that time, he had to fight two battles – one at the skating rink and one for his life in the hospital. He would experience long periods in treatment away from his students, sometimes lasting as long as 3-4 months.

Tragedy befell Ilia again in 1999 when his father was killed in a domestic accident. After the harrowing misfortune, he and Igor became inseparable, with the coach taking the role of a surrogate father for him and becoming one of the closest persons in Ilia’s life. Understanding that the involvement in figure skating was one of the few things that gave Rusakov happiness and hope during this very difficult time, Klimkin chose to stay by his side and declined any offers to switch coaches, despite the strong insistence to do so from the Russian skating federation on a few occasions.

Senior Debut and Early Career – Quick Splash and Long Wait in the Shadows (1999-2003)

Klimkin made skating history from the very first time he stepped on the senior international scene. At his first competition, which was B tournament Nebelhorn Trophy in 1999, he became the first skater in history to land two different types of quadruple jumps in one program – a toeloop and salchow. The record was broken a month later when american Timothy Goebel (2002 Olympic bronze medalist and two time world silver medalist) landed three quadruple jumps in his long program at Skate America. Klimkin would be one of the few men singles skaters in the world during the early 00s to attempt the quadruple salchow in his programs but a series of injuries in 2003 would force him to exclude the jump entirely.

At NHK Trophy 1999.

Unfortunately, his remarkable and unexpectedly successful debut would also start a frustrating series of inconsistencies which would would plague him for the majority of his career.For instance, in his first grand prix event, he finished only 8th but won the bronze medal at NHK Trophy a week later, finishing behind Plushenko and Goebel. Further disappointment chased him in 2000, when he could neither qualify for the Euro-World team, nor defend his World Junior title (where he finished 4th). The complicated training situation and the frequent absences of his coach made it even more challenging for him to find focus in training and deliver competitively. In 2004, he admitted:

“I knew that I was capable of defeating all my opponents even further. But I lacked the mental strength. I would either make a mistake in the short, or the long program. The long absences of my coach while he was in the hospital strongly influenced me as well. After all, it felt like he was a very close part of our family. He believed until the end that he will survive.”

His rollercoaster-like career continued next season. After experiencing a very successful grand prix season, he barely missed making the world team, finishing 4th at russian nationals behind Plushenko, Yagudin and Alexander Abt.


Ilia Klimkin performing the “Prelude to Afternoon of a Faun” free skate at NHK Trophy.

At the grand prix final in 2001, he skated a disastrous short program which prevented him from medalling, but came back strong with two beautiful free skates inspired by Nijinsky ballets. Prelude to Afternoon of a Faun, mystic and dreamlike, was set to the music from the eponymous piece by Claude Debussy.

With beautiful, high flying jumps, unusual spins and very complex choreography with nodes to Nijinsky, he manages to capture the enchanting atmosphere of the ballet like few skaters could ever do. Just like in all of his free programs, Klimkin also adds his own unique twist in this performance by including his trademark moves – firstly, a clockwise-counter clockwise camel spin combination at 1:44 followed by a miraculous salchow leap out of it, that to my knowledge, no one else in figure skating has attempted to this day. Secondly, he also popularized the cantilever by including it in his competitive performances (it was originally invented by  Werner Groebli aka Mr Frick as a show trick). The eye-catching move is also known today as “Klimkin eagle” in Japan.

His second program Petrushka, a tragicomic piece where he portrays a puppet coming to life as a tribute to the late great ballet dancer, is no less captivating to watch. The upbeat program is so well choreographed and manages to hold interest to the extent that the jumps come more as an integrated extra in the performance .

After being the 4th Russian man for second year in a row (he officially finished 3rd at russian nationals in 2002 after the withdrawal of Alexei Yagudin), Klimkin was getting more discouraged with his limited international opportunities and a presumed hostility and lack of support on the side of his skating federation. With no end in sight to being stuck in Russia, he even considered on more than one occasion to end his competitive career.

In a surprising twist of events, a sudden opportunity appeared – a few days before the start of the 2002 European championship, it was Plushenko’s turn to withdraw, and Ilia flew to Lausanne with little preparation and the very distant hope of even making the Olympic team if he managed to defeat Alexander Abt there.

Ilia Klimkin performing during the free skate at the 2002 European Championship.

Skating well in the qualifying round and short program had put him in a favorable fourth place position entering the free skate from where he could even challenge for a medal. Unfortunately, a herniated spinal disc sustained by crushing on the boards during an unsuccessful jump landing before the long program did not allow him to get there. After multiple jump mistakes he dropped to 6th place overall, with participation at the Olympics completely out of the question.

The recovery period was lengthier than expected, forcing him to miss what could have been his first World Championship in Nagano in 2002 – Evgeni Plushenko had skipped the event once more, opening the door for Ilia to participate in Japan (where he was beloved by skating fans) and gain experience, had it not been for the spinal injury.

More injury problems plagued him in the summer of 2002 after he accidentally cut his calf with a blade. Despite having to spend some time off the ice and struggling competitively early in the season, he managed to recover in time and come back strong by winning the title at NHK Trophy 2002 in an amazing upset. Skating almost cleanly in the free, he delivered an entrancing performance to defeat local favorite and reigning world bronze medalist Takeshi Honda.

With the surprising win, things were once again looking very bright for Klimkin, after the long wait in the shadows – Alexei Yagudin had unexpectedly retired in late 2002 as a result of congenital hip disorder. A place was now guaranteed for Ilia on all fronts – Europeans, Grand Prix Final and Worlds, and he was considered a major medal contender overnight.

Compulsory to include: Ilia doing the cantilever, aka “Klimkin Eagle”, 2002 NHK Trophy. Scan credit: Fuck Yeah Alexei Yagudin

Unfortunately, with new doors open ahead of him  his career journey took a wobbly turn once again: in the absence of Plushenko and Yagudin, he lost the russian national title to Alexander Abt, he barely missed a medal at 2003 Euros due to a few silly jump mistakes in his otherwise strong free skate, and a second place finish at the Grand Prix final came more as a consolation prize after his opponents made more mistakes than him.

At the end of the 2002/2003 season he had still managed to achieve his ultimate goal – to finally skate at his first World Championship. However, Klimkin did not have a strong showing there.

Due to deteriorating health, Igor Rusakov was not able to take long flights and could not accompany his student to his first world championship. Just like with every one of his debuts so far, Klimin had a very slow start, managing a 9th place finish more by a matter of sheer luck.


Ilia Klimkin at practice during the 2003 World Figure Skating Championship. Photo Credit © to Andrea “Hoo” Chempinski.

After a less-than perfect skate in the qualifying round, he had an even more unfortunate showing in the short, dropping to 11th place. The debut was made even the more difficult by the loud disapproving reaction of the crowd and the criticism he had to endure in the press at the time. The long program was no less easy to go through for Ilia – as evident in the video below, his performance is like a rollercoaster – the wonderfully fascinating program consists of moments of pure technical and choreographic brilliance that leaves you yearning for more, intervened with total disaster in the next second.

By having the luck of his opponents that night making more mistakes than him, Klimkin still managed to get back into the top 10. In her column in “Sport Express” Elena Vaytsekhovskaya, famous russian journalist long considered the gold standard of sports reporting in her native country, was incredibly harsh on the athlete, calling his performance “Absolutely horrible – like a nightmare come true”.

The inconsistent results and the media scrutiny were the last worries on Klimkin’s mind at the end of the long season, though. At this time, coach Igor Rusakov was in hospital, fighting for his life.

With his health quickly deteriorating over the spring of 2003, he finally passed away on July 23rd 2003 after a long battle with leukemia. He was aged only 44 at the time.

Severely underappreciated and a true artistic visionary far ahead of his time, he was gone too soon from this world. Before passing away, he would leave Ilia with a large collection of skating program music he had carefully compiled through the years, and ask him to continue training with his close friend Viktor Kudriavtsev. He would send him there in the hopes that Kudriavtsev could not only improve his technique but also bring order and discipline to the training process, which would finally allow his student to flourish and achieve results which better match his very high abilities.

(to be continued…)

Further Reading:

Interviews:

E. Vaytsekhovskaya, Sport Express (Feb 2004):
http://www.velena.ru/translations/IKL_2004.html

F. Temichev, Figurnoe Katanie Magazine (vol. 11, no.1, 2004):
https://web.archive.org/web/20041124174123/http://www.interq.or.jp:80/mars/siozaki/klimkin/soccer.html (in Japanese)

On I. Rusakov:

Oksana Tonkacheva, Figurnoe Katanie Magazine (Jul-Sep 2003 issue):
https://web.archive.org/web/20040819111601/http://www.interq.or.jp:80/mars/siozaki/klimkin/memory.html (in Japanese)

Interview with Trud Newspaper (Feb 17, 2004):
http://www.trud.ru/article/17-02-2004/68029_ilja_klimkin_ja_ispolnil_zavet_trenera.html (in Russian)

Ilia Klimkin, Mosfigurist Magazine (issue No. 11, 2008):
http://mosfigurist.ru/?p=897 (in Russian)

Ice Show Magazine (2011):
https://ice-show.ru/docs/file/pdf_led/05-06_2011_rusakov.pdf (link is dead, sadly)

Olga Ermolina, RFSF (2017):
https://www.fsrussia.ru/intervyu/2860-igor-rusakov-chtoby-pomnili.html (in Russian)

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2 Replies to “The greatest Russian figure skater that never was (Part I)”

  1. What a poignant story! I admit I have never seen Klimkin. I would say I look forward to the continuation but I fear it will be even sadder than the first part. You show the tragic side of the sport as we fans half-see see in those who approach glory and fame but never finally reach it to nerves, injury, lack of money, etc. And you’re right, we forget, or don’t exactly forget but move on to the next exciting young star. There’s always another one. I am in a post-Worlds brain fog right now but will watch the vids this week. Thanks for your post.

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