Elena Vyalbe: “Ustyugov’s suspension was a stab in the back”

The President of the Russian Ski Federation and the head coach of the national team Elena Vyalbe summed up this season’s results of the Russian skiers, and answered the questions of the ROC Information Service. Three-time Olympic champion and 14-time world champion will celebrate her anniversary on April, 20. And in the coming weekend a traditional competition called the Vyalbe Ski Track will be held in her hometown of Magadan.

– In one of the interviews you gave the men’s team a ‘four plus’ score for the present season. Why not five? The result of the Olympic Games, where skiers won eight medals, surpassed all expectations.

– If we talk only about the Olympics, then, of course, our team earned five, and talking about the season in general, it’s a four. I did not mention the plus. The season is not only the Olympic Games and not only those who performed in Pyeongchang. Not everyone was perfect.

– How many points will you give to the women’s team?

– Three, with great reserve. And it was thanks to the Olympic Games, for which I give them a four.

– When we had problems, when several skiers were banned from the Games, you said that even one bronze medal would be a good result.

– Yes. And I counted only on the men’s relay. Do not forget that Alexander Bolshunov and Alexey Chervotkin, two of our leaders from among those admitted, got sick. By the way, their diseases, one way or another, had a negative effect. Alexey could not recover fully.

– While Bolshunov almost insisted that he should go to Korea from the recovery get-together in Austria, earlier than it was planned. Did he feel that he was ready for a great deal?

– Everything initially went against our scenario. Because of the diseases Bolshunov and Chervotkin missed the Youth World Championship, where they were supposed to perform. Then it was planned that they would come to Pyeongchang to participate in the men’s relay, held on February 18, that is, eight days after the start of the skiing competitions. But Bolshunov began to convince his coach, Yury Viktorovich Borodavko, that he was ready for the sprint. I think, that first of all, he was inspired by Denis Spitsov’s 4-th place in the Skiathlon. When Borodavko called, I said that I was not there, not near the athlete: ‘You can see it better. If the required amount of work is done, then let him go. After all, Bolshunov is a good distance-runner, as well as a sprinter’.

Probably,  he is stronger than Chervotkin. And they had different diseases as well. Chervotkin had bronchitis with sinusitis, and Bolshunov was diagnosed with pneumonia. Well, this might have been an erroneous diagnosis. Both were on antibiotics, that was important. When I was told that they will not do without them I started to panic. What a misfortune! Some are banned, others are sick. None of it was in our favor.

– Maybe Chervotkin should have ran the 15 km freestyle before the relay, in order to warm up? Or he wasn’t ready for that at all?

– It is up to the coach to decide, and I have no right to dictate on these issues. The athletes were preparing to arrive by a certain date, they descended from the mountains, they were forced to adapt to the eight-hour time difference. In such a situation, one bad training can spoil everything, not to mention a competitive race. I want to emphasize that in the relay Chervotkin did everything he could. He did not let down the team, and we can not criticize him, although he began to blame himself. I think, Alexey has performed worthily. We just know that if he was fully prepared, he could have done better.

– How were the participants for each particular race determined at the Games?

– For the first time we faced a situation when there was only one coach in the team – Marcus Kramer. We had to work remotely. Every coach sent me a message with his vision. But the final decision was up to me, because I have two votes, not one. As for the participants of the relay, both male and female, there were no questions. While if all the guys were admitted, we would have been puzzled. In our situation there was no one to choose from. It was only necessary to arrange the athletes in stages correctly. I think we succeeded.

– Did you have the final say in this arrangement?

– Well, you know, there were no disagreements. In the women’s relay we took into account that Anna Nechayeva was a ‘skater’ (specialist skating style), which is rather a weak, not a strong point. At the first stage, it is important to be among the leaders. The accent  is now usually made on the second and third stages, where it is possible to escape. So, in fact, there was no alternative.

I only disagreed with Borodavko’s previously voiced opinion on the men’s sprint team composition. Yury believed that Chervotkin must be Bolshunov’s pair. Up to the end he tried to prove that it was dangerous to put Spitsov, because he  never ran this discipline, not even at the Russian competitions. But I answered, that with all due respect to Alexey, I could not put him. Borodavko did not oppose.

– In short, you played the role of the coordination center, the headquarters?

– You could say so.

– During the recent national championship in Syktyvkar, we talked to Bolshunov and recalled the Olympic 50 km race…

– Oh! He’s sick and tired of the questions about her.

– So, he said that a few kilometers before the finish line he did not change skis, because he did not receive the information that they were prepared for the changing weather conditions. Was it due to the lack of people on the track?

– There was enough people for that. Servicers and masseurs, as usual, stood every hundred meters. They cried to Bolshunov, more than once, that the skis were readjusted. Maybe he just didn’t hear it. Although I understood his tactical decision: Sasha expected to escape from the Finn. If they fought at  the finish, then, of course, Bolshunov would have won. He’s a Sprinter after all. But honestly, I think that Niskanen would not have let him do so and would not have given away the victory. For four years he was preparing for the 50 kilometers race.

– Bolshunov also said that he ran the marathon for the third time in his life…

– So what? Spitsov actually ran it for the first time. On the other hand, in the 50 km race it all becomes clear after about 47-48-km.

There are pluses in youth and lack of experience as well. Athletes were not psychologically loaded. They didn’t feel any pressure. Let’s take Sergey Ustyugov,  he was obliged to everybody from the beginning of the season. Although in fact athletes owe nothing to anyone. Everyone understands why they came to the Olympic Games. Russians, Norwegians, Finns and others are purposefully preparing for them, unlike the athletes from Africa, who come just to participate, since that’s prestigious. Or take Vanessa Mae, who decided to participate in the giant slalom for Thailand. It is good for popularization of sports. But to each his own.

Previously, skiers revealed at about 30 years. De Solt won the world championship for the first time when he was 36, and at the age of 43 he became the Olympic champion. I saw him on the track for two decades. He is a unique person. But now skiers become younger. Northug, Ustyugov, Klebo, they all are early starters. So our guys are in the trend.

– Do you share the opinion of some experts that, by and large, only Ustyugov (out of all those suspended from the Olympics) could prove himself in Pyeongchang, although even his past season was not as successful as the previous one? While Legkov, for example, could hardly show good results.

– Sasha wasn’t ready for the Olympic Games. He faced all kinds of suspensions  longer than others. In the end, he got the gold medal for the Sochi, and he heaved a sigh of relief. But Sasha is a very emotional person and by that time he had eaten himself from the inside.

And we, of course, laid hopes on Ustyugov. Before we found out, that he would not go to Pyeongchang, and I said that one bronze medal would be a great result, I expected that in the men’s relay and team sprint we would really fight for gold, despite the fact that Bessmertnykh, Vylegzhanin, Legkov and Belov were suspended from the Games. Ustyugov was planned for the team sprint together with Bolshunov. But we received a stab in the back.

However, Ustyugov is only 26 years old. Four years ago in Sochi he was almost as young as Bolshunov is now. If not that stupid fall in the sprint final, he could have taken the gold. Then cheered him up: ‘Sergey, the entire life is ahead.’ But, anyway, Ustyugov definitely needs to go through another Olympic cycle. And if all goes well, he can participate in the 2026 Olympic Games  can hold out. He has enough health.

– Did you discover any new names at the Championship of Russia?

– Fortunately, there were no new people. I’m always afraid when someone we don’t know at all win the race or climb the podium.

– Because doping is possible?

– No. During  the time that I work as the head of the Federation, our skiers have been test so many times! This time representatives of the RUSADA and the WADA came to Syktyvkar. And earlier, when the RUSADA was closed, I myself wrote letters to the International Ski Federation asking them to send doping officers to the Championship of Russia.

The problem is that if a person does not have stability, but he fulfilled all the criteria, then we must take him into the team. While if someone wins five races at one championship or always steps onto the pedestal, it is a pleasant surprise.

On the one hand, we are thinking about how to reduce the number of athletes who are taken to the training camp, on the other, if you leave a skier who is out of juniors, but is still not strong enough for the adult team, there is a great risk of losing him. Such athletes need a strong group. Meanwhile, now there are few regions, literally two or three, that can maintain an excellent team, creating all conditions for it. We cannot compare today’s situation with the one that existed 20 years ago. Then in the summer we could not practice on the snow. Two or three times a year we went to the mountains. Now we never leave them. However Klæbo, for example, never goes to the mountains.

– Bronze medalist of the Olympic Games in the relay Anastasia Sedova returned to the group of her father, Honored coach of Russia Nikolai Sedov. As explained by the athlete, because of dissatisfaction with the results.

– Formally she made a small step forward. Previously she was 15th at the World Cup, now she is in the top ten. But, to tell the truth, such results do not suit me at all. In my opinion, Nastya lacks internal discipline. Such athletes need a tough coach.

– Is her father a suitable candidate?

– Nikolay Evgenevich is rather tough.

– In this regard, can he be compared with Alexander Grushin, your long-term mentor in the USSR national team?

– Grushin, unlike, say, Victor Alexandrovich Ivanov, was not a tyrant. He got his way by  trick, which I could not understand. Many years passed, and I still don’t get how Alexander Alexeyevich did that! I remember that before the trainings we often expressed dissatisfaction with his tasks. Each of us (the women’s team consisted of 8 people) declared it aloud. Grushin patiently waited for us to speak. ‘You said it all? Now let’s work!’. And imagine, we did what he said, not what we wanted. After all, in Soviet times athletes’ self-discipline was much stronger than now. My parents raised me with a word and with a belt. Now the belt is forgotten, which is a pity.

– Who of the coaches is a real despot, from your point of view?

– Nikolay Petrovich Lopukhov. That’s who it could give a kick, and wake-up at night. Fortunately, he trained me for a couple of months. Among the current coaching staff of the Russian national team, the most severe specialist, apart from me, is Borodavko. If an athlete switches off, I send him to Yury Viktorovich ‘for reabilitation’.

– ‘Women need a strap’. Are these your words?

– My. I believe that women athletes should work with tyrant coaches. A woman can withstand any load, but you should not cut them some slack. Compromises are possible when working with the men’s team, but not with women.

– In Pyeongchang, you arranged tea with sweets outside the Olympic village for women for skiers time after time. Was it a psychological maneuver?

– The coach must constantly see the eyes of the athlete. I didn’t have access to the Olympic village. It is not enough to hug the girls after the race and say a few kind words. Therefore, we met, had tea with cakes and talked. Moreover, he started the conversation in private. Coaches and servicemen came later.

– Yulia Belorukova and Natalia Nepryaeva noted, that these gatherings were a kind of outlet for them. And the cakes you bought were tasty.

– What other food could I offer them in Korea? The soup, cooked by the service team? We all ate it regularly, including me!

– Anastasia Sedova leaves Marcus Kramer, and Artem Maltsev on the contrary will join the group of the German coach next season.

 – I know Artem for a long time. I was in the national team with his mother, Svetlana Karachevskaya. Artem was in the Junior team, then at some point he left. Maltsev is a talented skier and can reach great heights. But as soon as I see Artem on the track, I  want to change all of his techniques! As for his joining the Kramer’s group, this was the will of the athlete himself and his personal coach Nikolai Sedov. I myself considered that Maltsev should continue preparing with Nikolay Evgenyevich. But if they decided so, okay, let him try to work with Marcus.

– About a month ago in an interview with our information service Marcus Kramer said that he was ready to extend the contract for additional four years, it only remains to agree on the latest details.

– We do not yet know whether the Russian Olympic Committee will continue to assist the federations in paying the foreign coaches and specialists for their work. The extension of the contract with Marcus Kramer depends on that, and not only with him, but but also with our service group. Unfortunately, we do not have the means to do so.

– You risk nothing, offering a 4-year contract?

– You can’t invite a coach for a year or two. It’s too little time to evaluate his work. If someone thinks otherwise, point to the situation in our biathlon, where coaches change almost every year, but the results do not get better. The athlete should get used to the requirements of a specialist. For example, in the first year after the Olympics, the load is usually about the same as in the Olympic season. And then it increases, and the human body should get used to the new training process. If we appoint and remove the coaches every year, it will create big problems for athletes.

– Despite this, you offered the Cross-Country Skiing Federation of Russia executive committee to eliminate the sprinter group and to part with its  coach Yuri Kaminsky and to demote Danil Akimov, who has been heading the women’s team for three years, and now will become Oleg Perevozchikov’s assistant in a distant team.

– Normally it is hard for me to break up with people. Especially if they perform their duties faithfully. But let’s get all this straightened out.

Appointing Danil Borisovich Akimov to the post of the women’s team senior coach three years ago, we hoped for positive changes. Unfortunately, they didn’t occur. We can debate on the level of athletes, but it is the coach who is responsible for the result. Danil Borisovich is a well-mannered and intelligent person, and I have already said that women should not be given favors. Akimov did not have enough toughness but that doesn’t mean he’s a bad coach. We offered him another job, which is probably more suitable for him and his character.

As for the sprinter group. I believe that it has outlived itself four years ago. Of course, Yuri Kaminsky does not agree with this, and at some point his methods bore fruit. But when I became the head of the Federation, I once told him: “Why are you imposing strict boundaries on young guys?”. Sasha Panzhinsky was 19 years old when he got into the national team, Nikita Kryukov was 21. Both were pure ‘classics’. Nikita later mastered the skating style, and Sasha remained a narrow specialist. Because of it he had to miss the Sochi Games. In Pyeongchang, Panzhinsky had to compete with the young guys, and in this fight he took tenth place. For someone normal result, but not for the silver medalist of the 2010 Games. I’m truly sorry for him. Due to his narrow specialization, he has actually lost eight years!

 – 29-year-old Panzhinskiy, unlike Alexander Legkov, has not announced the completion of his career.

– Let him perform, we have nothing against it?! The question is at what level. Sasha intends to qualify for the World Cup in the team sprint next year. In my opinion, this is utopia. Now there are stronger guys. And life dictates new requirements. Nowadays team sprint is performed either by two universals, or at least one ‘distance runner’, as it was in Sochi, where the team sprint was performed by Vylegzhanin and Kryukov. This approach is fully justified. In 2014, the guys won the silver, although if it was not for Nikita’s fall, they could take gold. In Pyeongchang universals Spicov and Bolshunov also became second, losing only to the Norwegians.

– Let’s talk about the Vyalbe Ski Track project, which annually gathers hundreds of skiing fans in your native Magadan.

– This year the competitions will be held on April 14-15 for the 29th time. The Vyalbe Ski Track format is very similar to the Ski Track of Russia. But  in Magadan since recently the races are divided into two days. The youngest participants (kindergarten kids) compete on Saturday. And on Sunday, all other categories, including veterans 80+. The number of participants is different each time, and the record was set a few years ago, when more than 1,000 people came to the the Vyalbe Ski Track.

– Who helps you organize such large-scale competition?

– The administration of the Magadan region and the sponsors. Even though this is an amateur competition, there are enough organizational issues. You need free buses to transport people to the venue (25 km from Magadan) and back. In order to make everyone feel comfortable, food points are arranged, where you can drink tea and eat a bun for free. Prizes to winners and prize-winners also cost money.

– Will you go to the Vyalbe Ski Track this year?

– Unfortunately, I can’t, due to the upcoming anniversary. I have lack of time.

– How are you going to celebrate your anniversary?

– There will be two celebrations. At the Russian Olympic Committee and with my family.

– Are foreign guests expected?

– Representatives of sports firms-partners of the Cross-Country Skiing Federation of Russia will come. I’m waiting for Isabel Knaut (German physiotherapist, who worked in the Russian national Cross-Country Skiing team until October 2016). The whole Vyalbe family will come from Estonia.

– What do your children (France 21 years old, Polina 16 years old and Varvara 4 years old) think about skiing?

– They like to watch it on TV. They can ski, but none of them showed any professional interest in this sport. Polina practices show-jumping, I took Varya to tennis. I never insisted that the children follow in my footsteps. I want them to be healthy and happy, this is the most important thing. Polina recently said that she will go to the Pedagogical College. Quite well. The teacher is a good profession. The only one in our family who could become an athlete, is my grandson. He  likes to watch football very much. Especially when goals are scored.

– Your second husband is a businessman?

– Business is not about us. We are rather modest functionaries. Although my mother worked as head of stock in the Soviet times. So our family was never short of products. I remember that when I was a child I ate the Alenka chocolate, which in Magadan was in deficit.

– Your house is located in the Istra district, Moscow region. You  don’t like big cities?

– In large cities there too many people, and I get tired of it at work.

– Do not you mind the time spent on the road from home to the office, situated on Luzhnetskaya Naberejnaya?

– For the sake of home comfort I can withstand a three-hour car ride.

– What kind of summer sport do you like most?

– Athletics and tennis. But it is difficult to watch some competitions. They show only football and hockey on TV.