Yuri Ovchinnikov – A genius born in the wrong era

On paper, Yuri Ovchinnikov’s career doesn’t look too bad but he is barely remembered today. Being one of the emerging talents from the Soviet Union in singles skating during the late 60s and 70s, he won a bronze medal at the European championship in 1975, and made the top 10 of the world four times, often getting overshadowed results-wise by other soviet skaters including Sergei Chetverukhin (1972 Olympic silver medalist), Sergei Volkov (1975 world champion) and Vladimir Kovalev (1976 Olympic silver medalist and two-time world champion).

What sports records omit from the picture was that Yuri was far ahead of his time, being born in an era when his talents were just not rewarded the same way they would have been at a later time – with his infinite passion and energy on the ice, innovative choreography, musicality and lyrical expressiveness, and huge jumps which left spectators gasping in awe, he was considered a “king of the free skate”.

Unfortunately, Ovchinnikov joins the ranks of divine artists on ice such as Janet Lynn and Toller Cranston, who were unlucky to have been born and competed during a time when compulsory figure in skating were valued highly. And while the ability to draw figures on ice is pivotal for good skating skills and balance, the figures competition was widely considered time-consuming and expensive to arrange by officials, and boring and incomprehensible by casual viewers.

In the beginning…

Yuri Ovchinnikov was born on June 3rd 1950 in Leningrad, USSR (aka Saint Petersburg). From a young age he was passionate about theatre and arts without expressing a strong interest for sports. Due to frequently suffering from cold during childhood, his parents decided to enroll him in skating classes in order to improve his health when he was six years old. Very soon, the cold disappeared for little Yuri and despite some frustrations of being the only boy in a class full of girls, he soon found out that figure skating was his true passion in life.

Yuri’s first coach was legendary soviet coach Igor Moskvin who single-handedly taught him everything about the sport and helped create his unique skating style. Later in his career he switched to another renowned soviet coach – Alexei Mishin. Being one of Mishin’s first successful students, Ovchinnikov credits him with taking him to new heights as a skater, both technically and creatively.

Yuri Ovchinnikov and Alexei Mishin, 1970s.

From early on, Ovchinnikov disliked the compulsory figures which made up a significant percentage of the overall competitive score until 1973 – he considered them boring, unnecessary and requiring too much concentration and effort to learn. Yuri preferred the free skate part of the competition better since he felt he had the freedom to experiment with choreography and movement.

He was widely known for his ability to feel and blend with the music, the passion exuded by his skating and the way his competitive programs blurred the line between sport and spectacle, transforming into small theatrical plays by themselves. Audiences were drawn into his skating and Yuri had admitted that the praise of the viewers meant much more to him than medals and placements – in an interview with Boss Mag from 2012, he remarks:

“I considered it most rewarding when friends would approach me and say:: «I watched you skate and got goosebumps!» It happens when you start skating – the whole arena is silent. During the jumps, even the triple ones, no one is clapping, everyone is silent— you have a feeling that you are holding their entire attention. The program is over – one or two or three seconds of silence follow – and then the whole arena explodes in applause. For me this was pure ecstasy!”

Competitive career

Yuri Ovchinnikov in 1969.

Yuri made his debut at the Soviet National Championship in 1968, finishing 5th. The following year, he repeated his placement, but this time, he also made his first national team and was sent to skate to the 1969 European championship (where he finished 9th) and the 1969 World Championship (he was 11th). At the time of his international debut, the Soviet Union was a world power in the pairs discipline – the Protopopovs had won the previous two Olympics and Irina Rodnina and her first partner Alexei Ulanov were taking the first steps in what was going to be 11 years of absolute domination. However, the USSR did not have any strong representatives among the singles disciplines – this was about to change, however, at least for the men.

(A tragic fact that has to be noted is that there seem to exist almost no videos on the Internet of Yuri’s competitive programs, save for 2 videos I found! I will try to summarize his career here and present a few clips of his skating, but if someone is aware of more videos online, please contact me so that I can add them!)

Ovchinnikov was one of the first notable talents of the USSR in men’s singles skating to emerge in the late 60s, together with Sergei Volkov and Sergei Chetverukhin; for the first half of his eligible career, he was mostly overshadowed by these two at National and International competitions, especially in compulsory figures where Volkov and Chetverukhin excelled.

At his second appearance at the World Championship in 1971 Yuri had a respectable showing finishing 7th. The following year in 1972 he went to his first Olympic Games in Sapporo but finished only 12th overall due to poor showing in the compulsory figures (however, he did manage a sixth place in the free skate).

With coach Igor Moskvin at the 1972 Olympics.

The following season brought him more momentum as he closed the top 6 at both the European and the World Championship. He also experienced his first competitive success at the 1973 Worlds by finishing third in the free skate behind teammate Sergei Chetverukhin and Ondrej Nepela of Czechoslovakia (1972 Olympic Gold Medalist).

Russian blogger Larissa Marinicheva who runs “The endless track of the skates” and was lucky enough to follow Yuri’s career in real time as it happened, recounts his exceptional jumping and interpretative skills on ice with admiration:

“Yuri did not jump… he flew. In terms of amplitude his jumps did not cover the most distance but he always left the impression of hanging in the air, as we say, like a “balloon” – just being suspended high there (…) Yuri distinguished himself, maybe, as the biggest talent in terms of expressiveness. Sometimes this was excessive.and made it difficult for him to achieve high results.”

Following the value reduction of compulsory figures in 1972 and the introduction of the short program at competitions, men’s singles figure skating reached a new peak in artistry in the middle 70s with the emergence of legends like Toller Cranston and John Curry. Cranston, notable for his innovative style and majestic lines and carriage, personified a new wave of skating which marked the transition from classical to a more contemporary and avant garde style. Curry, on the other hand, was categorized by Ovchinnikov as a traditional ballet dancer on ice.

Possessing a unique combination of athleticism as evident by his explosive jumps and the wide arsenal for his time (Ovchinnikov was one of the very few skaters able to perform 4 types of triples – toe loop, salchow, flip and loop) as well as outstanding expressiveness and unprecedented artistry, Yuri was one of the unsung heroes in the dawn of that golden era of skating.

Yuri in 1975.

In 1975 Ovchinnikov recorded the strongest season of his career, becoming the Soviet National champion, winning the bronze medal at the European championship and once again ending 6th at the World Championship. What was notable is that he actually won the short program at that championships (with a few 6.0 marks for presentation) but unfortunately ironically dropped to 6th place in the free skate (with his countrymates Sergei Volkov and Vladimir Kovalev finishing 1st-2nd overall).

With the unpredictable results in the different stages of the men’s competition and the large difference between the placements of the winners at 1975 Worlds (Terry Kubicka of USA who won the free skate, was only 7th overall, for instance), Yuri recalls that following the end of the event, ISU judges and officials gathered together and asked him, together with Toller Cranston, John Curry and a few other skaters to perform their free programs in front of them, focusing not on the jumps and technical elements but on the artistic impression. As a result, he believes, the 1975 World championship was a turning point in figure skating as it allowed officials to see the importance of the presentation marks, as well as their independence from the technical marks.


Ovchinnikov represented the USSR one more time at the Olympic Games in Innsbruck in 1976 where he finished eighth. He also managed to finish close to the podium at European championships between 1976 – 1978 without medalling. A seventh place finish at the 1977 World Championship marked his last appearance at Worlds.

In 1978 he decided to retire from competitive skating, sadly without having won anything more than a bronze medal at the European championship.

Post-competitive career

Following his retirement from competitive skating, Yuri was involved in a number of activities including coaching, skating professionally and even appearing in a movie.

In 1980, he became a mentor to Igor Bobrin (1981 European champion and World bronze medalist). Due to his friendship with ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov who defected from the Soviet Union in 1974, Yuri was not allowed to leave the USSR for some time and hence, couldn’t accompany Bobrin at international competitions; Sergei Volkov was travelling with his student instead.

Igor Bobrin was a heir of Ovchinnikov’s artistic legacy and carried it further to the podium – all his competitive programs were renowned for their unconventional detailed choreography, and Igor made a name of himself internationally as being one of the most original, musical and expressive skaters of his time.

Ovchinnikov with his student Igor Bobrin, 1981.

In 1980, Ovchinnikov also dabbled into acting with an appearance in the comedy musical “Fantasy on a love theme”, starring as the romantic interest of the main heroine. Unfortunately, I have not had the chance to see the film so I cannot provide a proper review on the movie and Yuri’s acting (for the ones interested and speaking Russian, the whole movie is available on Youtube). Below is a short, somewhat surreal extract from the movie masterfully showcasing Yuri’s absolutely mesmerizing skating :

Additionally, in 1983 Yuri also became involved in Tatiana Tarasova’s ice theatre show “All Stars” where he was active as a director, choreographer and solo performer. He performed internationally in shows until 1991, also touring with Olympic ice dance champions Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean for a number of years.


Yuri Ovchinnikov with members of the “All Stars” ice show, 1986.

Following his professional skating career, he relocated with his family to San Diego, USA where he worked as a coach for almost 20 years. Ovchinnikov returned to Russia in 2010 and became an advisor to the Russian Olympic Committee. Occasionally, he also hosts skating lessons and master classes at the GUM skating rink on Moscow’s Red Square.

Final Words

Yuri Ovchinnikov pictured at the GUM rink in Moscow, ca. 2017

Yuri Ovchinnikov was a true artist – with amazing ability to feel and interpret the music and his elegant yet unusually expressive and passionate style, he blended the lines between competitive sport and theatre spectacle on ice. His unique combination of artistry and athleticism as evident in his gravity defying jumps made him a truly special athlete. Being born at the wrong time, he faced strong competition from fellow soviet skaters who were unbeatable in compulsory figures but lacked the fire and presentation skills to deliver an outstanding free skate – and this was what audiences were truly looking for when watching figure skating.

Despite never having won the big medals, Yuri deserves his place in skating history – he was an unsung hero emerging together with a new wave of skaters in the 70s who transformed the sport and shifted the focus from the formulaic school figures to a real spectacle where athleticism and art come together, thus paving the way for future generations to come.

Sources:

Yuri Ovchinnikov – Wikipedia article (in Englishand Russian)

Nataliya Bagarovskaya – Yuri Ovchinnikov: A figure skater among multiple great soviet athletes (FB) – http://fb.ru/article/316892/yuriy-ovchinnikov—figurist-iz-pleyadyi-velikih-sovetskih-sportsmenov

The Endless Track of the Skates Blog by Larissa Marinicheva- Yuri Ovchinnikov: https://www.sports.ru/tribuna/blogs/lamarin777/789255.html

A very detailed interview Y. Ovchinnikov gave to Boss Mag in 2012 plus bonus – short biography: http://www.bossmag.ru/archiv/2012/boss-06-2012-g/yuriy-ovchinnikov-zhit-interesnoy-zhiznyu.html

Yuri Ovchinnikov at the GUM Skating Rink – https://gumrussia.com/news/332625/14.01.2017/

Another article about Yuri’s experience at the GUM by Radio Mayak – http://radiomayak.ru/news/article/id/592853/

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