Denis Ten made history as the first figure skater from Kazakhstan to win medals at the Olympic Games (2014) and the ISU World Figure Skating Championships (2013 and 2015).
Q: Interviewer Tatjana Flade for the ISU, D: Denis Ten
Q: Just shortly after we did the original interview in August, you suffered a bad injury to your right ankle. Where are you now?
D: I am undergoing rehab in the medical center United (in Seoul, Korea) that is specialized in sports injuries. Among my ‘colleagues’ here are mostly soccer players, but in the hospital athletes from other sports are treated as well, including figure skating. At first, So Youn Park, who suffered a stress fracture last December, was my sister-in-arms.
Korea is not a foreign place for me. I feel very comfortable in this country, starting with the fact that when I go on the street I easily blend in with the crowd and ending with boundless curiosity relating to my historical home country (Ten is of Korean descent, T.F.).
My trip to Korea was connected to the Olympic Games 2018. A show within the program PyeongChang 2018 was scheduled in Goyang and I was honored to be invited for this event. Do you imagine how symbolic that is? To start the season with a trip to the Olympic country before the Games. Exactly at this show I wanted to debut my free program, to show for the first time my Olympic program, a composition especially for me, on home ice. However, as it sometimes happened, not everything went according to plan. I was able to show up for the show only on crutches. We nevertheless decided that I should appear, as a speaker at least, as not only Korean fans, but also some fans especially had come from Japan and China and I felt not comfortable to ignore their faithfulness. Words cannot describe how I felt about this situation overall. It was like a satiric element – coming to Korea in a fighting mood only to end up as an injured soldier. By the way, I went out on stage for the first time without crutches. This gave me confidence not to delay rehab, but continue training, however, not using the injured leg.
Q: What had happened?
D: The incident itself happened off the ice. When I got injured, and it was a terrible fall, it seemed to me that the end of the world has come. I remember when I visited different doctors in various hospitals and one after the other told me grim diagnosis and I thought, ‘great timing, why did that happen in this season’?
I fought injuries before that. Actually, the domino started already back in January 2017. I remember this very well, because as usually at this time I had gotten into a great shape. But then too much piled up – the hip, the back, the ankles and my calendar was thrown off a bit. By the end of that summer (2016) there was an accumulation of physical surprises. It was not the best time for these presents.
However, thinking further you realize that there is never an ideal timing for unfortunate events. Things happen. And you only can take this real fact and move on. At times, life reminds me of the weather, when a sunny day turns into a thunderstorm and when the thunderstorm passes, a rainbow shines through. This doesn’t mean that tomorrow there can’t be snow, though.
Apparently this is my fate, to be at the helm not in clear weather but mostly during storms.
Q: How do you manage to keep your optimism?
D: To keep my spirits up, I remembered that I always wanted to stay in Korea for a long time in order to delve deeper into this place. Obviously, the current reason for my break is far from what I wanted to keep me here, but nevertheless, as I joked with the doctors, ‘my dreams apparently have the habit of coming true’. Next time I will try to dream outlining my plans clearer.
Q: How is your recovery going and what are your next plans?
D: By now my ankle has become significantly stronger following intense rehab. I cannot jump using the right leg, but I can already do careful landings. Already in childhood I educated myself to a low pain level, therefore I am not afraid of pain and I can overcome discomfort that can lead to injuries.
Some time will pass to return the former precision of movement of the foot and to rebuild the muscle mass. We are working on that. But the most important thing is that there is progress. I want to compete at Rostelecom Cup. It has already become a bad tradition for me to skip the first Grand Prix of each season. Originally, I wanted to compete more often in this season and I still don’t let go this idea.
Maybe I will return this week to Los Angeles (to Frank Carroll). And then my plans will become clearer. But I am not ready to give up or to lose heart.
Q: Now we return to the original interview. Looking back at the past season, you had some ups like the silver medal at the Grand Prix in France and the victory at the Universiade, but also some downs due to injury problems. How do you feel about that past year?
D: It was not an easy season, but at the same time it was useful. Last season, I had the opportunity to work with new experts and to gain new knowledge and experience. There were some unforgettable moments like the Universiade at home (in Kazakhstan) and the French Grand Prix (in Paris), but as well some rather gloomy events that were not successful by far.
I regret to disappoint the fans and people who just come to watch figure skating, maybe for the first time, and I am not able to show the level of skating that I want to present. However, on the other hand in order to get better you need to learn and to overcome mistakes. All this is part of any sports career and any life.
In the past season, I was on the search. I was searching for my new self and for fresh motivation in the sport. It was a kind of experimental year, but in reality it gave me a lot. I tried different training plans and drew conclusions what works better for me.
Q: What have you done following the World Championships?
D: Working on mistakes is something that continues on a regular basis. Self analysis is a rather detailed topic, primary following a poor competition when it is especially important to reenact the negative experience and to take the necessary steps to extract the lesson. I have quite mixed feelings about the past World Championship. I still remember how I left the ice after the free skating. A lot didn’t work for me that day. But on the way to the dressing room I was told that IOC president Thomas Bach wanted to see me. We had a very motivating meeting. In addition to remembering the Olympic bid of Almaty 2022 the president, as an excellent athlete, shared valuable lessons. I was very touched and inspired, but at the same time I was mad at myself, that I ended the season on a low note. That gave me strength. Already two weeks later I left for summer training camps to improve my overall fitness and the chronic injuries that bothered me throughout the year.
Q: How is the preparation for the season going? What has changed?
D: During this off-season I practically did a trip around the world. As part of different training programs I was in Russia, Italy, Canada and the USA. Then I went to Asia to perform in ice shows in Japan and Korea. Last year I had the opportunity to try a different style of skating for me and a fresh approach in training. However, for the Olympic season I will have a kind of quintessence of all the knowledge that I have gathered throughout my career. I will return to Los Angeles for further training, but clearly I am not the same as I was before.
Q: This is an Olympic season. What is your approach towards it?
D: These Olympic Games will be special for me. First of all, they are happening in Korea. I have a special bond to this country, spiritual as well as concerning results. In Korea I won my very first international award and most interestingly, it was not connected to sports. It was the silver medal at the Choir Olympics 2002 that were held in Busan. In this country I also experienced some of my brightest moments in the sport - my first fans after the ISU (Junior) Grand Prix Final in 2008 and my career-best score so far at the Four Continents Championships in 2015. In the city of Wonju is the grave of my great-great-grandfather, the famous Korean general, and some of my relatives live in the country as well.
The past two years by far didn’t go as I would have liked. Due to injuries and some other distracting nuances, I was not able to get to the level I always strive for. The focus was mainly on solving problems and not on realizing myself as a performer, as an athlete. This led to a period of stagnation. But I don’t want to become the hostage of injuries and other difficulties. The Olympic Games are a special event, in a double way for me, considering the status and the location of this competition. Therefore I hope to overcome myself, to show outstanding skating and to leave a legacy.
Q: What can you tell us about your new programs?
D: Throughout my whole career fate led me to the best experts in the world. These were Tatiana Tarasova, Frank Carroll, Nikolai Morozov, Stéphane (Lambiel), Shae-Lynn (Bourne), Lori (Nichol). With Lori I have been working for five years and in this time we developed not only a professional bond, but also a spiritual bond. I have a special relationship with her, as with Mr. Carroll.
Nevertheless, this summer I had the opportunity to work with the young (choreographer) Benoit Richaud, who competed when we both were juniors and also with David Wilson, whose creative work I have been following for many years.
The programs this year have a special character. I would like to unite my best strengths in them. The free program has become a peculiar symbol for me and towards the short program I have a reverent feeling. The idea was born out of amusing situations, but the most valuable for me is that the music is performed by a Kazakh artist. I feel a very strong connection to the musician and to the piece of music. This adds a certain pressure, but on the other hand I understand that it happens rarely that you manage to find something so precious. At this time, I prefer not to say too much about the program, it needs a lot of detailed work, but I hope when I show this program for the first time to the audience that I will be able to share the emotions that I am feeling myself.
Q: What are your plans? Which competitions outside the Grand Prix do you want to attend?
D: I was very happy to get the opportunity to perform at two Grand Prix events after the poor result at the World Championship. At the time, the feeling for competition had become a bit stale – this feeling of something special, something deep, like it was earlier. Before, Worlds and other big competitions had become a kind of inner symbol for me. Going out on to the ice, I became someone else and this helped a lot. But afterwards, because of injuries and other factors, the ‘clockwork’ was a bit off. I would like to come back to that ability. It is not lost and shows up in other areas, but I want to focus my attention on figure skating. It is likely that I will compete more often this season than I used to.
Q: In the past season, there was a kind of “explosion” of quads, skaters started to include four or five quads into their programs. What do you think about this development?
D: It seems to me that we live in an extraordinary time, because we became part of this spectacular phenomenon: the colossal technical progress in the sport. Figure skating never was like that before and today it is obvious that the sport chose its vector for years to come. Standards have come up, not only in the technique, but even in the physiology. Once there was the period of the battle of Alexei Yagudin and Evgeni Plushenko that pushed a galaxy of athletes forward. There was the period of artistic personalities that gave us the unforgettable programs of Stéphane Lambiel, Daisuke Takahashi, Jeff Buttle and others – each athlete influenced the generation that competed after them. Today there is a new tendency that creates an absolutely new contrast. And this again will not go by without leaving a trace. To me this is great. It is great for the community of our sport that comes into contact with a new chapter in the transformation of a whole era of figure skating.
Q: How are your studies going?
D: It is a process. I am pursuing an MBA degree for petrol industry at the Kazakh-British Technical University. As of today, I have completed practically all basic subjects on business administration and I still have to do the specialized classes and my internship. I am studying at a slower pace than the other students because of the sport, but I really like the process of learning something new. I have subscribed to several online education programs. I often take additional online classes when I have time. For example, this year I was very lucky and during the off season the Stanford University organized a free class “Principles of Economics”. This is a rather basic class, but I enjoyed taking part in it. It ends in the fall, just before my studies at university start again and I felt it was an excellent opportunity to stay in touch with the process at university during my time outside practices.
Q: What else is new?
D: All athletes have injuries. But even bad things have a side where you can find something positive. Except for thinking over a lot of things in order to keep yourself somehow busy, in these periods I managed to find myself in very different spheres. Photography, writing, detailed project-planning for future projects and the last two distractions were music and animation. In all these areas I was able to achieve some result.
For some time, music became such a fascinating journey that I even was asked to try myself as a musician. I do not play an instrument to perfection, but it is easy for me to create songs of very different genres. Once, one of my friends who is a major music producer in Kazakhstan, asked me to send him some demo-versions of my songs. Some things I even completed, but there is just not enough time for that. As for animation, I am preparing a project together with a talented artist from Kazakhstan. The first part of one of these projects will be available in the Japanese messenger LINE and everything else will see the daylight a bit later.
Q: What are your plans after the Olympic season?
D: To be honest, I have not yet thought about what will happen after the Olympics. Moreover, I want to focus on this season so much that I don’t allow myself to think about anything else than figure skating. Obviously, the hobbies I just have talked about are out of question – I will have a creative pause in order to dedicate myself only to the sport.
This year two movies with my participation will be released. One is a short movie. It was filmed by a talented group of cineastes from the USA within a project for the Olympic Channel. The second one is a full-length film, an independent project. Maybe through these movies the spectators will get to know me a bit closer.
Just recently in one of the interviews for the movie I was looking with some kind of new wisdom at the fact that my life as an athlete can’t be endless. Obviously, I thought about that before, and not only once, but the feeling of gratefulness, gratefulness towards the sport, the experience, the fans that always have been with me – all this was always a kind of parallel line. I am sure that many athletes that have finished their career will agree to this thought.
Today, analyzing my options, I don’t know for how long I’m going to skate. There is a high probability that after Pyeongchang I will remain in the sport, but at the same time you cannot discard the thought that the ‘day X’ will come and I have to take the decision that each professional athlete has to take.
Looking back, independently of what happens in the future, I realize that I had a great career, where everything happened – highs and lows, medals and disappointments, nice memories and not so nice ones, unique events, meetings and many magical things. And the career was not built on one single achievement or a certain medal, but on a chronology of all events as a whole. Thinking about that, the sport has a completely different meaning. Somewhere I realize that I was a really lucky person with a quite fulfilled sports life.
Q: Where do you see yourself in five years?
D: There is this joke in the world of finance, where the economy is described as a science that each year gives different answers to the same question. I am in an identical situation in this case. It is a hard question. Each year new things enter the spectrum of my preferences in life that I would like to do full-time. The modern world is changing very fast. The model of life in the 21st century is very volatile, progressive. The word ‘stability’ does not have the same meaning as before and the new generation of people consists of very trendy, mobile personalities. Year by year I have different thoughts of creative as well as of specialized character. But probably time will tell what I really will do after my future in the sport. One thing I know for sure – I will not be at a loose end.
Q: Thank you very much and all the best for the season!